Karen Black, the legendary actress at the forefront of the 1970s “New Hollywood” movement, died Thursday from complications due to cancer. She was 74 years old. Few actors were more readily identified with the cinematic upheavals of the ‘70s, when a desperate industry tossed the keys to film school kids and idiosyncratic iconoclasts, and actors who’d have been consigned to character roles in the “Golden Age” (Hoffman, Nicholson, Spacek, Pacino, Burstyn) found themselves in starring roles. Black’s offbeat looks and gonzo acting style made her a perfect fit in the era, and you can basically sum up the period by watching her best films. Many of them aren’t available for streaming (damn you, Trilogy of Terror), but most of the major titles are, so here’s some suggestions for a weekend film festival.
The artsy/primitive filmmaking technique hasn’t aged too well (and double that for the commune sequence), but the historical importance of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s low-budget smash can’t be overstated, and the Mardi Gras LSD sequence (which Black features prominently in) retains much of its jangly intensity. Plus, y’know, you can watch Nicholson become a star. (Streaming free on Amazon Prime)
Black and Nicholson re-teamed in 1970 for this powerful, uncompromising drama from director Bob Rafelson. There’s much more to it than the crowd-pleasing “hold it between your knees” scene; Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman dig deep into the dissatisfaction and ennui of youth, and provide no easy answers — and certainly no easy conclusion. (Streaming free on Amazon Prime)
Black co-stars with George Segal, Paula Prentiss, and a very young Robert De Niro in this fast, funny, and appropriately desperate look at heroin addicts in early ‘70s New York City. It’s an evocative portrait of the era, and some off the finest work Segal ever did. (Streaming free on YouTube and Archive.org)
This little-known and long-forgotten 1973 crime thriller has found a small but fervent cult audience via its recent release on the Warner Archive label, and it deserves a larger one. Based on a novel by the great Donald E. Westlake, Robert Duvall is wickedly good as a small-time criminal just out of jail who goes looking for revenge against the mob (or “the outfit”). Black is the love interest — but she was never just “the love interest.” (Available for rental on Amazon Instant Video)
Black co-stars with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (reuniting six years after The Producers) in this film adaptation of Eugene Ionesco’s play. It was part of an ambitious project called the American Film Theatre, a subscription series of filmed plays which ran in 400 cities to series subscribers — the kind of thing that you might see on HBO or direct-to-DVD today, but was actually possible theatrically back in the anything-goes ‘70s. (Streaming free on Amazon Prime)
Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic is deeply problematic — as, it seems, all film versions of Gatsby have been. But Black is not one of those problems; her take on Myrtle Wilson is perhaps a tad contemporary, but you absolutely cannot take your eyes off her. (Streaming on Netflix)
She may be one of a good two dozen players in Robert Altman’s wild, mesmerizing mosaic of country music (and the American experience), but Black was never one to blend into a crowd; her turn as Connie White, the supremely confident yet modestly talented country diva, is one of the picture’s most memorable. (Streaming on YouTube, somehow; more thoughts on the film here)
One of her few top-billed performances came in John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Nathaniel West’s scorching satire of late-‘30s Hollywood. As aspiring actress Faye Greener, she’s a walking, talking tragedy; it’s a strange, captivating piece of work. (Streaming free on Amazon Prime)
Alfred Hitchcock’s final film was not exactly his best work, but it’s an awful lot of fun — and it’s a blast to see Black and her fellow ’70s icon (and three-time co-star) Bruce Dern doing their thing for the Master of Suspense.
Black and Altman again — one of the finest films of his peculiar ‘80s exile into the world of theatrical adaptations, but one of her best performances, period (and so, of course, it’s not available on DVD). Every member of this mostly female ensemble shines, but Black’s turn as Joanne (who was once Joe) may well have been her last opportunity to do a truly great movie. Corporate interests took over the creative end of the movie business in the 1980s, and an actor of her unique cloth was once again banished to B-movies and cameos. She truly was one of a kind, and she not only will be missed — she has been missed. (Streaming on YouTube in ten-minute chunks)