Easy Rider ac­tress went from A-lister to cult idol

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Hil­lel Italie

KAREN Black, the pro­lific ac­tress who ap­peared in more than 100 movies and was fea­tured in such coun­ter­cul­ture favourites as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Nashville, has died in Los An­ge­les.

Black’s hus­band, Stephen Eck­el­berry, says the ac­tress died Thurs­day from com­pli­ca­tions from can­cer. She was 74.

Known for her full lips and thick, wavy hair that seemed to change colour from film to film, Black of­ten por­trayed women who were quirky, trou­bled or threat­ened. Her break­through was as a pros­ti­tute who takes LSD with Dennis Hop­per and Peter Fonda in 1969’s Easy Rider, the hip­pie clas­sic that helped get her the role of Rayette Dipesto, a waitress who dates — and is mis­treated by — an up­per-class dropout played by Jack Ni­chol­son in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces.

Cited by the New York Times as a “pa­thet­i­cally ap­peal­ing vul­gar­ian,” Black’s per­for­mance won her an Os­car nom­i­na­tion and Golden Globe Award. She would re­call play­ing Rayette re­ally was act­ing: The well-read, cere­bral Black, raised in a com­fort­able Chicago sub­urb, had lit­tle in com­mon with her rel­a­tively sim­ple-minded char­ac­ter.

“If you look through the eyes of Rayette, it looks nice, re­ally beau­ti­ful, light, not heavy, not se­ri­ous. A very af­fec­tion­ate woman who would look upon things with love, and long­ing,” Black told Venice Mag­a­zine in 2007. “A com­pletely un­crit­i­cal per­son, and in that sense, a beau­ti­ful per­son. When (di­rec- tor) Bob Rafel­son called me to his of­fice to dis­cuss the part he said, ‘Karen, I’m wor­ried you can’t play this role be­cause you’re too smart.’ I said, ‘Bob, when you call ac­tion, I will stop think­ing, be­cause that’s how Rayette is.’”

In 1971, Black starred with Ni­chol­son again in Drive, He Said, which Ni­chol­son also di­rected. Over the next few years, she worked with such top ac­tors and di­rec­tors as Richard Ben­jamin ( Port­noy’s Com­plaint), Robert Red­ford and Mia Far­row ( The Great Gatsby) and Charlton He­ston ( Air­port 1975). She was nom­i­nated for a Grammy Award af­ter writ­ing and per­form­ing songs for Nashville, in which she played a coun­try singer in Robert Alt­man’s 1975 en­sem­ble epic. Black also starred as a jewel thief in Al­fred Hitch­cock’s last movie, Fam­ily Plot, re­leased in 1976.

“We used to read each other po­ems and lim­er­icks and he tried to catch me on my vo­cab­u­lary,” she later said of Hitch­cock. “He once said, ‘You seem very per­spi­ca­cious to­day, Miss Black.’ I said, ‘Oh, you mean keenly per­cep- tive?’ ‘Yes.’ So I got him this huge, goldem­bossed dic­tionary that said Dic­tionHarry, at the end of the shoot.”

The ac­tress would claim her ca­reer as an A-list ac­tress was ru­ined by The Day of the Lo­cust, a trou­bled 1975 pro­duc­tion of the Nathanael West novel that brought her a Golden Globe nom­i­na­tion but left Black strug­gling to find qual­ity roles. By the end of the ’70s, she was ap­pear­ing in tele­vi­sion and in low-bud­get pro­duc­tions. Black re­ceived strong re­views in 1982 as a trans­sex­ual in Alt­man’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, but de­spite work­ing con­stantly over the next 30 years, she was more a cult idol than a ma­jor Hol­ly­wood star. Her cred­its in­cluded guest ap­pear­ances on such TV se­ries as Law & Or­der and Party of Five and enough hor­ror movies, notably Tril­ogy of Ter­ror, that a punk band named it­self the Volup­tuous Hor­ror of Karen Black.


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