'People were opting for the real in the Seventies. People wanted to see the human heart and soul right in front of them.' -Karen Black
In an era of interchangeable pinups with blownup lips and botoxed faces, Karen Black's analysis of what made she such a remarkable actress at her very busy peak is telling. In fact, she may give too much credit to the filmmakers, and not enough to herself, because she was often the best thing in imperfectly judged projections, always giving her characters something that we, the audience, could recognise. There was nothing symmetric or regular about her features, but to look into those wandering eyes, especially when they were focused beyond the screen, on you, was to feel all the thrill and danger of real life and real love. On the dark side of a world celebrating newfound freedoms, she was the poster child for real people's vulnerability.
Karen Black projected real. She was smart, but she could play dumb, or better, play 'real people' a category of character which Hollywood traditionally has ignored, or at best bent to its own perceptions ('tales of ordinary working people portrayed by rich Hollywood stars,' as the Firesign Theatre had it). She's best remembered for a number of roles in which she is an under-educated working-class woman whose innate knowledge makes her smarter than the men who use her. Think of Rayette in Five Easy Pieces, the perfect foil to Jack Nicholson's self-indulgent pianist, trying to find a 'real' life: she had played the hooker in Easy Rider, and Nicholson would cast her in his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, where as a bored faculty wife that intelligence came to the fore. She would also reprise Rayette in Cisco Pike, helping Kris Kristofferson's film debut, in a film where everyone else seems to be reprising older roles too.
So it was strange that none of the many obituaries mentioned her role as Bett in The Outfit, John Flynn's 1973 adaptation of a Richard Stark novel. She's Rayette again, but she's paired with Robert Duvall's thief Macklin, weariing a beret before Gatsby, and the relationship is real within the limited bounds of their world. There is a truly touching phone call home at the center of the movie's last act, in which she reveals Bett's depths and sets up the denoument. One of my top-10 crime films, it's cast perfectly from top to bottom, but even in such company Black stands out.
And think of the many films in which she stood out among casts of underperforming bigger stars, or in lackadaisical material: Portnoy's Complaint, Capricorn One (again with Dern), Hitchock's Family Plot,even in Nashville, where her country singer seems far more real than, say, Ronee Blakely's, and Blakely was a singer. She also tries hard but cannot save Altman's post-Nashville Come Back To The Five And Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
Some of the obits referred to her in her later career as a 'scream queen', but she barely fits the modern definition, of B movie actresses who exist to be victimised while nearly naked. She might be typed in a tradition of What Happened To Baby Jane, or perhaps like Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele, stronger actresses who relished off-beat roles. In that I was reminded of Karen Steele, a 50s actress who came into films as a statuesque beauty queen, but often projected too much strength and intelligence to be cast comfortably in big pictures. But watch see her in Ride Lonesome, and think what Karen Black could have done with a similar role. It's too glib to say she might have succeeded in an early era in Hollywood, in Bette Davis parts (that Bett in The Outfit isn't totally coincidental), but she was lucky in a sense to enter the business at a point where there were roles for her, and unlucky that the business changed so rapidly just when she should have been being offered roles playing women who were more in control. Roles outside horror films. Karen Black was a great actress, who should have been a star, and her death, by reminding us of so many 'how it was' and 'what might have beens' is made even sadder.