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FLASH FRIDAY: Remembering Karen Black - Stage, Screen & Songs

Appearing in a string of unique, zeitgeist-capturing movies of the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the legacy of stage and screen performer Karen Black is as idiosyncratic and compelling as the actress, singer and songwriter herself. We remember her today in her passing.

Rolling Stone

Acting as a triple understudy in the 1961 Broadway production of the comedy TAKE HER, SHE'S MINE, prior to that, young actress Karen Black was perhaps first seen by audiences in the film THE PRIME TIME in 1959. Her follow-up stage piece and film performance would not arrive for another five years, though - yet, they were significant entities; a lead role in the Mary Drayton drama THE PLAYROOM as well as a supporting turn in young Francis Ford Coppola's YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW, in 1965-6. Black frequented the stage during this period - credits include HAPPILY NEVER AFTER and KEEP IT IN THE FAMILY on Broadway - as well as racked up numerous television guest spots during the latter half of the 1960s, with featured roles on ADAM-12, MANNIX, THE BIG VALLEY and more.

Yet, Black's true breakthrough film as a real star was still on the horizon - or, if we're including EASY RIDER (as we really should), both breakthrough films.

Without a doubt, FIVE EASY PIECES is one of a handful of highly original movies that signaled the quickly changing times afoot in Hollywood at the time it was released - as is EASY RIDER, as a matter of fact - and Black's combustible chemistry with Jack Nicholson, in addition to her performance as a whole and how it functions within the film, is a pinnacle of her screen work. And, to boot, for FIVE EASY PIECES Black received her first Academy Award nomination. She worked on a number of notable movies after that, with committed, assured performances in A GUNFIGHT, PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT and Tom O'Horgan's film adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's RHINOCEROS, co-starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, to name but a few.

Then came THE GREAT GATSBY, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow - which was not the success many assumed it would be, despite infrequent film producer David Merrick's best efforts - whereas disaster film AIRPORT 1975 was a huge hit. That same year Black committed to the small screen one of her most celebrated performances, too - in TRILOGY OF TERROR. Black would star in a seemingly endless string of horror films for the final decades of her career, beginning in full force in the 1980s, but it all began with the Richard Matheson scares in that TV thriller and chiller, arguably reaching its apotheosis with her unforgettable turn in Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. Of course, BURNT OFFERINGS and Alfred Hitchcock's final film, FAMILY PLOT, solidified her horror rep, as well. Plus, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST was another mid-70s hit to add to her ever-expanding resume that same year as the TV success, while perhaps the foremost role of her at this point enviably accomplished spate was next.

Robert Altman's NASHVILLE is a masterpiece - one of the very finest American films ever made. A unique tapestry of a movie musical with nearly thirty main characters and many more supporting speaking and singing parts, it is massive - just like the USA itself. And, that's no coincidence. With the actors composing their own songs, the somewhat little-seen singer-songwriter side of Karen Black could at last be presented to the world in a big, big way - and, hoo boy, was it! Connie White is an iconic character and Black made magic of the part, composing three stupendous tunes that not only ideally fit her country queen persona but also revealed the fragile, ever-cracking woman inside of her - as well as a whole heck of a lot more. Compounding all that, could they be any catchier? I dare say: no way.

On a historical note, the Grand Ole Opry sequence in NASHVILLE - featuring many of Black's best musical moments in the film - was captured on August 8 and 9, 1974, upon which Altman specifically remarks in the commentary for the film on the DVD - the day of Richard Nixon's resignation, incidentally.

Indeed, Black's "Rolling Stone" tumbles and crashes and careens through every word of this epitaph - and it narrates her own life in an eloquent and all-too befitting manner, as well. After all, Karen Black was not one to sit still - one need look no further than her gob-smacking list of credits to see she was a working actress with the emphasis on working like few others; nearly 200 TV and film credits, as a matter of fact. Including her stage work in the total tally - lest we forget her Broadway return (and its subsequent film reprise) in Altman's COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN in 1982, nor her work as a replacement cast member in THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES Off-Broadway at the turn of the millennium - it is clear to see that Black never, ever stopped. As a matter of fact, she has three movies set for release this year.

After a tumultuous and torturous battle with cancer, thespian and troubadour Karen Black passed away at the age of 74 on Thursday, so let us honor a versatile and hard-working lady of stage and screen who always acted with distinct commitment and added eloquent nuance to each and every one of her nearly countless roles throughout her wide-ranging and totally anomalous career.

Princess On The Steeple

So, in honor of Karen Black, today we remember her legacy onstage and onscreen by looking at some clips that highlight her fifty-year career.

First up, see an impossibly young Karen Black in Francis Ford Coppola's YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW in 1966.

Next, witness Black's sexy supporting role in the iconic EASY RIDER.

Now, the one and only FIVE EASY PIECES shows Black at the very beginning of her career hot streak in the 1970s.

Following that, take a look at Black in the big screen take on Philip Roth's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT.

Teaming up with top comedy chiefs Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, here is the trailer for RHINOCEROS.

AIRPORT 1975 was one of the biggest hits of the year - see a sample of it here, with Black in a household-name-making role - and really making a major mark in it.

TRILOGY OF TERROR gave Black a trio of tour de force opportunities and she made each one count.

Then, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST was another hit for Black that same year.

Robert Altman's NASHVILLE was next - Black's crowning achievement as an actress onscreen. Connie White - what a character!

Alfred Hitchcock's final film, FAMILY PLOT, gave Black a particularly juicy part to play.

That same year, Black scared up another horror hit with BURNT OFFERINGS.

View Robert Altman's stage-to-screen adaptation of 1982 Broadway/Hollywood project COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN in full below.

Rob Zombie's terrifying HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES introduced Karen Black to a whole new generation - and how!

Without further ado, enjoy Karen Black's spectacular self-composed "Rolling Stone" from NASHVILLE.

As a special bonus, here is Black's "Memphis", also featured on the NASHVILLE soundtrack.

With one more look, here is Black in 2012 exquisitely contributing a speech from Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR at a charity benefit.

Karen Black brought an unmistakable energy and attention to detail to all of her finest performances onstage and onscreen, with a few of her iconic portrayals sure to be remembered by cineastes for centuries to come. Let us fondly remember Karen Black now that her lovely and legendary visage has been dimmed to us forever.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)