The New Hollywood movement was primarily a male, auteur-led phenomenon.
But the contribution of performers as adventurous and vital as Karen Black, who has died aged 74 from complications from cancer, should not be overlooked. Black was electrified as well as electrifying: her tornado of hair, her fearless physicality and those indelible feline eyes combined to create a woozy and unapologetic sexual energy. She looked offbeat, and she knew how to use that. "I couldn't have been an actress in the 1930s," she said, reflecting on her role as a movie extra in The Day of the Locust (1975). "My face moves around too much."
It was in the late 1960s and 70s that she became one of the great character actors of US cinema in a series of performances in key New Hollywood works. Partly it was that she exhibited qualities outside the skill set of a conventional female lead – she could play volatile and nerve-jangled, or maligned and wounded, without ever approaching caricature, and suddenly these talents came to be much in demand from countercultural film-makers. "Could actors such as Ellen Burstyn, Karen Black, Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall, with their neediness, blankness, oddity, have become leading players in any other decade?" asked Adam Mars-Jones recently in the Guardian. But if her skew-whiff style and appearance were well-suited to a cinema not guilty of undervaluing the marginal, then the humanity she brought to those characters would surely have been recognised in any era or art form.
Her career overlapped with several key figures of New Hollywood: she made her screen debut in Francis Ford Coppola's own first film, You're a Big Boy Now (1966), and collaborated more than once with Jack Nicholson, who cast Black in his 1971 directorial debut, Drive, He Said, after co-starring with her in Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). She was also a favourite of Robert Altman, who directed her in Nashville (1975), for which she and many of the cast wrote and performed their own songs, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982). Playing herself in Altman's The Player (1992), she was one of many such celebrity guest stars in that overpopulated satire to be left on the cutting-room floor.)
These parts were strikingly different from one another, but they had in common Black's knack for conveying her characters' rich and troubled inner lives, their cramped or thwarted dreams. The consummate example could be found in her Oscar-nominated performance as Rayette, the Tammy Wynette-loving girlfriend to Nicholson's discontented antihero Bobby Dupea, in Five Easy Pieces. There was a comical but achingly sad intellectual gap between the two. Bobby resented her. Crucially, the audience never did. "I dig [Rayette], she's not dumb, she's just not into thinking," said Black in 1970. "I didn't have to know anybody like her to play her. I mean, I'm like her, in ways. Rayette enjoys things as she sees them, she doesn't have to add significances. She can just love the dog, love the cat. See? There are many things she does not know, but that's cool; she doesn't intrude on anybody else's trip. And she's going to survive."
She was born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois, daughter of Norman and Elsie Ziegler, the latter a children's novelist. She studied at Northwestern University in Illinois from the age of 15, then moved to New York at 17 and took odd jobs and off-Broadway roles. In 1960 she married Charles Black. She was nominated for best actress in the Drama Critics' Circle awards for playing the lead in The Play Room (1965); Coppola, who was in the audience, cast her in You're a Big Boy Now. From there, she met Henry Jaglom and Dennis Hopper, both of whom were, like Coppola, part of the coterie of up-and-coming film-makers and actors benefiting from the patronage of Roger Corman. Hopper cast her in Easy Rider as a prostitute who has a bad acid trip in a New Orleans cemetery; Jaglom, who was brought in to help edit the film, insisted that improvised scenes of Black which had been cut should be put back in. Jaglom would continue to help her career as late as 1983 when he gave her the lead in his underrated romantic comedy Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?
She attracted attention for those groundbreaking films with Hopper and Nicholson, and for numerous other fascinating oddities including Cisco Pike (1972), with Kris Kristofferson as a musician turned dealer; a 1972 adaptation of Philip Roth's comic novel Portnoy's Complaint; and a foolhardy film version of Ionesco's absurdist Rhinoceros (1974), with Zero Mostel. But she was not averse to the mainstream. She played the doomed Myrtle in the Coppola-scripted adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1974); she was the flight attendant who must land a plane single-handed in the efficient but much-parodied disaster movie Airport 1975 (1974); and she played a kidnapper in Alfred Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot (1976). She also became a darling of the horror genre after taking on three roles in the television anthology Trilogy of Terror (1975) and starring in movies such as Burnt Offerings (1976), Invaders from Mars (1986) and House of 1,000 Corpses (2003).
Pickings became steadily slimmer in the 1980s, though her dynamic turn as a post-operative male-to-female transsexual in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was singled out by Pauline Kael of the New Yorker as Black's finest work. Kael highlighted her "spectacular tawdry world-weariness" and commended her for "keep[ing] the mawkishness from splashing all over the set. I think this isn't just the best performance she has given on screen – it's a different kind of acting from what she usually does. It's subdued, controlled, quiet – but not parched." Black worked continuously until becoming ill in 2009. She had a small role in George Sluizer's Dark Blood, best known now as the film River Phoenix was making when he died in 1993. Illness prevented her from attending the world premiere of a salvaged cut of the film last year in the Netherlands.
Black is survived by her fourth husband, Stephen Eckelberry, whom she married in 1987; and by a son, Hunter, and two daughters, Celine and Diane. Hunter is her son by her third husband, LM Kit Carson, who wrote Paris, Texas, which was filmed with Hunter, then nine years old, playing the main character's son, also named Hunter.
• Karen Black, actor, born 1 July 1939; died 8 August 2013
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