The contribution to the "New Hollywood" movement, primarily a male auteur-led phenomenon, of performers as adventurous and vital as Karen Black, who has died aged 74, cannot be overlooked.
Black was an electrifying presence: her tornado of hair, fearless physicality and indelible feline eyes combined to create a woozy and unapologetic sexual energy. She looked offbeat, and knew how to use that. "I couldn't have been an actress in the 1930s," she said, reflecting on her role as a movie extra in The Day of the Locust (1975). "My face moves around too much."
It was in the late 1960s and 1970s that she became one of the great character actors of US cinema in a series of performances in key New Hollywood works, exhibiting qualities outside the skill set of a conventional female lead – she could play volatile and nerve-jangled or maligned and wounded, without ever approaching caricature. And suddenly these talents came to be much in demand from countercultural film-makers. "Could actors such as Ellen Burstyn, Karen Black, Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall, with their neediness, blankness, oddity, have become leading players in any other decade?" critic Adam Mars-Jones has asked.
Her career overlapped with those of several key figures of New Hollywood: she made her screen debut in Coppola's first film, You're a Big Boy Now (1966), and collaborated more than once with Jack Nicholson, who cast her in his 1971 directorial debut, Drive, He Said, after co-starring with her in Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). She was also a favourite of Robert Altman, who directed her in Nashville (1975), for which she and many of the cast wrote and performed their own songs, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).
These parts were strikingly different from one another, but they had in common Black's knack for conveying her characters' rich and troubled inner lives, their cramped or thwarted dreams. The consummate example could be found in her Oscar-nominated performance as Rayette, the Tammy Wynette-loving girlfriend to Nicholson's discontented antihero Bobby Dupea, in Five Easy Pieces. There was a comical but sad intellectual gap between the two. Bobby resented her but the audience never did.
“I dig [Rayette], she’s not dumb. She’s just not into thinking,” said Black in 1970. “I didn’t have to know anybody like her to play her. I mean, I’m like her, in ways. Rayette enjoys things as she sees them, she doesn’t have to add significances. She can just love the dog, love the cat. See?”
She was born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois. She studied at Northwestern University in Illinois from the age of 15.
She then moved to New York at 17 and took odd jobs and off-Broadway roles. In 1960 she married Charles Black. She was nominated for best actress in the Drama Critics' Circle awards for playing the lead in The Play Room (1965); Coppola, who was in the audience, cast her in You're a Big Boy Now. From there, she met Henry Jaglom and Dennis Hopper, both of whom were, like Coppola, part of the coterie of up-and-coming film-makers and actors benefiting from the patronage of Roger Corman. Hopper cast her in Easy Rider as a prostitute; Jaglom, who was brought in to help edit the film, insisted that improvised scenes of Black which had been cut should be restored.
She attracted attention for those films with Hopper and Nicholson, and for numerous other fascinating oddities. But she was not averse to the mainstream. She played the doomed Myrtle in the Coppola-scripted adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1974); was the flight attendant who must land an aircraft single-handed in the much-parodied disaster movie Airport 1975 (1974); and she played a kidnapper in Alfred Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot (1976).
Pickings became steadily slimmer in the 1980s, though her dynamic turn as a post-operative male-to-female transsexual in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was singled out by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael as her finest work. Kael highlighted her "spectacular tawdry world-weariness" and commended her for "keep[ing] the mawkishness from splashing all over the set. I think this isn't just the best performance she has given on screen – it's a different kind of acting from what she usually does. It's subdued . . . but not parched."
Black worked until becoming ill in 2009. She is survived by her fourth husband, Stephen Eckelberry, by a son, Hunter, and two daughters, Celine and Diane.