Monday, May 4, 2009

An Ode to Karen Black

You knew it was bound to happen. How could a blog be called "Weird Movie Village" not have a post about the weird, wonderful and extremely prolific entertainment phenomenon known as Karen Black? I've seen her in movies, I've seen her on the stage; hell, I even saw her in the grocery store! Let me tell you...

Ms. Black has had a truly incredible career. In the late 1960s and early 70s, she was the toast of the independent film scene. She was in "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," "Day of the Locust" and "Nashville." She's been in almost 200 movies, and when fickle Hollywood turned its back on her, she continued her career in Italy, Canada and wherever else true Blackishness was called upon. She worked for Hitchcock and she worked for Ruggero Deodato. According to the IMDB, she's got six current films completed or in postproduction. And a band named after her...The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Now, I'm going to have some fun with her in this post, but I mean it with the utmost respect and admiration. Karen Black is cult movies personified.

We all know the career highlights: the cross-eyed stewardess landing the plane in "Airport 1975"; she makes the actor's choice of sticking out her tongue while trying to pull the replacement pilot in through the damaged fuselage, but that pales in comparison to the hideous 1970s orange decor inside the cabin. She portrays the terrified apartment dweller fighting off the Zuni Fetish warrior doll in "Trilogy of Terror," a story that traumatized TV movie-watchers for years. In Altman's "Nashville," she played the ambitious Connie White, intent on overthrowing cuckoo lady Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) in her quest to be the number one female country singer in America.

I first saw her in person at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel Cinegrill in the late 1980s, performing an evening of some of her original songs mixed with standards. The show began with her in bed. The lights were supposed to come up, the bed would wheel out onto the stage, she would sit up and begin to sing. Something went wrong technically, though, and she had to lay back down and start all over again. Some cruel audience members came to jeer, but I came to experience the majesty.

Karen (if I may be so familiar) has an unusual singing voice. How can I explain it? How's this: just as she has lived her life, she allows her octaves to go wherever the hell they feel like. Not that she has a bad voice; it's very good. She has adventurous phrasing, that's all. When I asked for her autograph after the show, she was obviously still stinging from the hecklers. She grabbed the pen and program from my hand, snapped, "What's your name?" and signed in super-spirally script, "Best, Karen Black." I don't blame her for her irritation. Those guys were total douches.

About three years ago I was shopping at my neighborhood Pavilions grocery store on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks; I lived across the street. As I walked through the store, I was people-watching and doing that interior monologue you do when you look at someone who's vaguely reminiscent of someone famous. Or maybe I'm the only one who does it. Anyhow, my inner voice said, "Hey! It's Karen Black!" Then I did a double-take and realized that it was indeed my market!

Later, while waiting at the checkout, I became aware of Ms. Black herself heading toward my line. She was coming straight at me! What was she going to say to me? Just when I was fumbling for what I hoped would be an appropriate rejoinder, those famous eyes turned from me to the cashier and she asked, "Where's the aluminum foil?" Damn.

Most recently, I saw her in "The Missouri Waltz," a stage production in Hollywood. It was an Equity-waiver theatre (99 seats or less), so the surroundings were very intimate. Like you walked across the stage to get to the bathroom.

Karen's playwriting debut is a "drama with music" set in the 1970s, about a young woman who returns to her family home, pregnant and unmarried and unsure what to do with the baby. She is guided by her two ghostly aunts (Black and Dana Peterson). Black wrote some good monologues but the second act collapses into a running-in-and-out-of-doors sequence reminiscent of something out of "I Love Lucy." And the songs (not written by her)...well, here's an example. The actress portraying the niece sings large portions of one of her numbers bent over with her ass sticking out at the audience and it actually helps the material.

Ah, Karen can try again and you know she will.

What are my favorite Karen Black films? "Trilogy of Terror," "Nashville" and "Day of the Locust," of course, but her second film with Altman, "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," a screen adaptation of the Ed Gracyzk play, has to rank as number one. Ostensibly, it's about the 20th anniversary reunion of the "Disciples of Dean," a group of former high school friends in a small Texas town, but it 's more complicated than that. Black plays Joanne, a male-to-female transsexual who went under the knife as a result of his/her unrequited love for Mona (Sandy Dennis), who claims to have been impregnated by James Dean during the filming of "Giant" in nearby Marfa and her mentally-impaired son is their love child. But look for this film. It's not on DVD but it's on cable from time to time. The extremely low budget caused Altman to utilize some effects from the stage that actually add to the story rather than doing the reverse. Since the story bounces back and forth between 1955 and 1975, the quaint effects are appropriate.

And what a cast! All from the stage version: Cher (still looking human), Kathy Bates (long before she became "Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates") and the aforementioned Dennis. It only played 52 performances on Broadway, which may account for the spartan budget of this film adaptation. Nevertheless, it's a goldmine of one-liners you can inject into (almost) everyday conversation. For example, if someone suddenly says that they feel like they've been through something all before, turn your head, cross your eyes and ask, "Deja vu?" not in English, not in French, but in some indiscernible accent, maybe from another planet, like Karen did in "Jimmy Dean."

She's the gift that keeps on giving.


dee said...

nice Karen Black Tribute :)

Naima Haviland said...

I love Karen Black! I don't know how I missed "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean" but I like Altman, too, so I'll be trawling for it soon.

I found your blog when looking for a suitable Karen Black Trilogy of Terror image to go with my Tropical Storm Karen Facebook post. We on the Redneck Riviera like to prepare for extreme weather and this was my first task before rounding up potable water and plywood ;-)


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