Karen Black was that type of actress who could segue effortlessly from uncomplicated Texas gal to shockingly capable flight attendant to country music star to single woman terrorized by a Zuni fetish doll. In other words, she was versatile, adventurous and, to some degree, inscrutable. Critics like Pauline Kael spent most of the '70s explaining why she wasn't a movie star without realizing that her emotional/psychological acuity was on par with her male contemporaries. It's telling that her only Academy Award nomination was for the intellectually shallow Rayette Dipesto in Bob Rafelson's FIVE EASY PIECES. She was striking and immensely sympathetic there. When she gave one of her finest performances as a more-difficult-to-peg trans woman in Robert Altman's WELCOME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN, critics struggled to make sense of her layered work (save for Kael, who finally warmed to Black with this film).
Black, who passed away last Thursday after a two-year battle with cancer, leaves behind a dense filmography, most of which consists of films made outside the studio system. Addressing her prolificacy, she told The Oregonian's Barry Johnson, "My life's purpose is to communicate characters and to help art to continue." Once she entered her forties, this eagerness to work made her something of a fixture in horror and exploitation films; the movies were often lacking, but Black's presence meant there'd be at least one interesting moment to semi-salvage the experience. You'd run across some women-in-prison flick on cable, and there'd be Black throwing herself into the role as if she were in the latest Altman. At this point, you'd ask yourself why wasn't being offered better roles from real filmmakers, then quickly remember that this industry has no idea what to do with older actresses who don't fit the grandmother mold.
For a generation of horror fans, Black's defining role is TRILOGY OF TERROR's Amelia, who spends most of the picture being stalked by a possessed Zuni figurine. It's a ferociously effective short film (to the extent that it renders the other two chapters in Dan Curtis's anthology - both of which star Black as well - largely forgettable), and it wouldn't work in the slightest without Black's unabashed performance. She fully commits to the scenario, which gives us an emotional investment in the Richard Matheson-penned story. Thanks to her belief in the material, many of us have been hounded by that fucking doll in our nightmares for the last thirty-odd years.
From the moment she turned up in Francis Ford Coppola's severely underrated YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW, Black was a enigma. She was unconventionally beautiful, powerfully sexy when she needed to be, yet plenty intelligent when the role called for it. People often got hung up on her peculiar eyes, but that imperfection just deepened the mystery. Black was at her best when given room to get a little weird, which is why almost all of her best work was done in the '70s (and generally with Altman). Aside from the obvious titles, you should check out Bill L. Norton's CISCO PIKE, Jack Nicholson's DRIVE, HE SAID and Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES (in which Black gets to let 'er rip as Mother Firefly). On one hand, you'll end up with a better sense of her potential; on the other, you'll be frustrated that no one ever figured out how to fully exploit it.