Karen Black—an actress who became one of the faces of the “New Hollywood” with performances in 1970s classics like Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, and Nashville—has died. The announcement was made by Black’s husband on his Facebook page, who shared the news only a day after writing on his blog that the cancer Black had been battling for more than two years had caused her condition to deteriorate rapidly in recent weeks. Black died at the age of 74.
Black’s movie debut came in 1959 with The Prime Time, though her career didn’t really get rolling until the late 1960s, when she appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re A Big Boy Now (1966) and began to rack up guest spots on such TV series as The F.B.I., The Invaders, Mannix, and Adam-12. She finally broke through in the same movies that made Jack Nicholson a star: Easy Rider (1969), in which she dropped acid and made out in a graveyard with Dennis Hopper, and Five Easy Pieces (1970), in which she played Nicholson’s sweetly embarrassing white-trash girlfriend, Rayette. That performance won her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe.
In the early '70s, Black was a counterculture sex symbol and sought-after female lead. After appearing in Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said (1971), Black played the girlfriend of a junkie (George Segal) in Born To Win (1971), the girlfriend of a struggling, drug-dealing musician (Kris Kristofferson) in Cisco Pike (1971), and the girlfriend of Philip Roth’s carnal antihero in the 1972 film version of Portnoy’s Complaint (1972). There was something enticingly tawdry about her screen image, and while that was part of her appeal, it may have also prevented her from being considered for more “prestigious” roles. So despite her growing critical reputation, Black continued to appear in exploitation pictures such as the Bonnie & Clyde rip-off Little Laura And Big John (1973), co-starring Fabian, and the horror movie The Pyx (1973), which contained the seeds of her developing sideline as a scream queen.
She won another Golden Globe for playing Tom Buchanan’s tacky mistress in the 1974 movie of The Great Gatsby, and starred with Charlton Heston in the disaster hit Airport 1975. She also played a small role in the comedy Law And Disorder, directed by Ivan Passer, who also made Born To Win. In 1975, she starred in John Schlesinger’s film of Nathaniel West’s The Day Of The Locust and played a country singer in Robert Altman’s Nashville, in which she performed two of her own original compositions.
She was as close to A-list movie stardom as she would ever get, but the 1975 role that really exemplified where her career was going may have been the TV movie Trilogy Of Terror, in which she starred in three suspense vignettes, climaxing with an adaptation of the Richard Matheson story “Prey,” in which she raced around her apartment, battling a razor-toothed, spear-carrying doll to the death.
In 1976, Black played a femme fatale in Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie, Family Plot, and starred in the haunted-house movie Burnt Offerings. After that, she appeared more in more in low-budget films, such as 1979's In Praise Of Older Women, and lower-budget schlock, such as the Italian Jaws rip-off Killer Fish. But she gave one of her most acclaimed performances as a mystery woman who turns out to be a post-op transsexual in Altman’s Come Back To The 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), and had a showcase role devised for her by the writer-director Henry Jaglom in Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? (1983).
Increasingly, Black’s movie roles became mainly distinguishable for their varying degrees of weirdness. Most notably, she played the heroine in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake of Invaders From Mars; appeared in the Crispin Glover vehicle Rubin And Ed (1991); starred in the cult vampire film Children Of The Night (1991); played the matriarch of a family of psychos in Rob Zombie’s directing debut, House Of 1000 Corpses (2003); and reunited with Henry Jaglom for his poignantly titled 2006 film Hollywood Dreams. In 2007, she starred in the Los Angeles opening of a play she had written, Missouri Waltz. The best brief summary of her film career, with all its ups and downs, may remain the name of the band that formed in 1990 and christened itself in her honor: The Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black.