Looking Back on Karen Black

On Friday night the actress Sean Young paid tribute to her friend Karen Black before a crowd at the Nitehawk Cinema

Karen Black with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (Screencap: YouTube)
Karen Black with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (Screencap: YouTube)

On Friday night the actress Sean Young paid tribute to her friend Karen Black before a crowd at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, which, for the next couple of months, will be featuring Ms. Black’s work.

“Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve always had Karen over,” Ms. Young said, “and we’ve always had this kind of running joke, because she’s kind of wild” — she flailed out her arms — “and crazy and wonderful.”

“And one thing that Karen taught me that I always really valued,” Ms. Young continued, “was that she’s so positive, and she got me out of my pessimism. There were periods in my career where I was like, ‘Karen, I can’t take this anymore, this is just bullshit, you know?’ And she’s like — this was the great phrase that she taught me: she said, ‘Out-create the problem.'”

The emphasis on positivity stuck out. Ms. Black is very sick with cancer and couldn’t attend the screening that night — she recently raised nearly $60,000 through a crowd-funding website so she can get a special kind of surgery in Europe. (She only asked — rather, her husband, who set up the fundraiser, only asked–for $32,000, but the response was huge.)

The movie shown on Friday night was Easy Rider — for which Ms. Black had a relatively small but memorable part as a New Orleans prostitute. (In a notable scene, she does LSD in a graveyard with Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda and another prostitute.) Five Easy Pieces, for which Ms. Black was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1970, is probably the best-known film among the ones being featured. The others include Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock’s last film), Burnt OfferingsAirport 1975 and The Day of the Locust. The retrospective runs until mid-June, and it is worth your time.

Although Ms. Black is sick, she recently took the time to answer a few questions for us via email. Here they are, edited and slightly condensed for clarity.

Did you/do you relate to the countercultural message of Easy Rider?

There are many ways of looking at the ’70s. There are two ideas that are most salient to me right now. One is a kind of freedom of emotion, a camaraderie, love, the embracing of life, generosity, feeling close to your fellow man and all the affinities we can feel for one another. Freedom to be who we are. People are good at heart and it was expressed in those days. And I think that’s great.

What I don’t think is great is drugs. I am very much against drugs, just as much as I am for the person who is in every single one of us. I think drugs obfuscate the space between the person who is and the world around him. I think that the person who is, is precious. And all the great thinking of the world and the good religions strive to make the person more present rather than to obscure his reality.

What was it like acting in Hitchcock’s final film, especially with Bruce Dern at the height of his talent?

Well, Bruce and I were friends. It’s fun to be around him; he played my lover in The Great Gatsby, for which I won a Golden Globe. We were chums. Working with Hitchcock was one of the great events of my life. He’s like a child with an enormous I.Q. I don’t remember ever seeing him without a sparkle in his eye. He had a tremendous sense of humor; he loved making jokes. He loved to play like a child, but at the same time he was so shrewd and so brilliant at what he did and so knowledgable about what he wanted the final outcome to be. He fired the cinema photographer after the first night of shooting. He told me, “I better be less winsome,” and did a mid-Atlantic accent. He fired the fella that played my boyfriend — everything had to be perfect.

But meanwhile, we had a lot of fun. He found out that I had a good vocabulary, so he would try to catch me not knowing the meaning of a word. He would say, for example, “Your work today, Ms. Black, has been most perspicacious,” hoping to catch me up. And I would say, “Oh, Mr. Hitchcock, you mean keenly perceptive.” And he’d get all deflated because he’d lost his own game. We would tell each other fun limericks at the start of a day. Or I would sit on the same chair with him, all cuddly, while he searched through his beautifully tailored jacket for the name of a tailor in London. He wanted to tell me who it was. Meanwhile, someone would come up to him and say, “Mr. Hitchcock, we’re waiting for you.” And he would say, “Oh, I thought I was waiting for you.” We were cozy. He was very nice. It was a great experience.

Who was your favorite actor to work with, and why? Your favorite movie to act in?

I would say it has to be Jack Nicholson. Five Easy Pieces was really my first real movie. There was Easy Rider, but in this, I had the leading lady role. Jack was so validating, he gave me so much support. He used to say, “You’ve got a lot of moves, Blackie.” He’s such a generous human; I don’t think you could train Jack to be manipulative. You could give him a four year training manipulation course and it wouldn’t take. He’s just him. He’s like Ryan Gosling. The reason you feel close to them is very simple: there’s no bullshit there. So you really are close to him. You’re face to face with the real guy. He would actually be tortured until he got a scene right. Until it was as good as he could get it. Jack and I had a profound respect for one another. He’s a great man.

I would say that I have greatly enjoyed working in certain movies. And it’s difficult for me to say that one has been better than another; it doesn’t seem fair to me. I very much enjoyed doing Five Easy Pieces as well as Nashville. I loved doing a movie recently, called The Blue Tooth Virgin, by Russell Brown. I love working with Steve Balderson. I have found a kind of serenity in working with Ivan Passer. And there are other wonderful experiences that I have had. So I am just very thankful for the life I have lived. Looking Back on Karen Black