July 1, 1939 – Karen Black:
I love playing strong women, even if they’re nuts.
Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) is a film adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s 1976 play, directed by Robert Altman who also directed the Broadway version. What a cast! It stars Sandy Dennis, Cher, Kathy Bates and Black.
It takes place inside a small Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in a small Texas town, where an all-female fan club for actor James Dean reunites in 1975. Through a series of flashbacks, the six members also reveal secrets dating back to 1955.
Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was the first of several feature adaptations of plays by Altman in the 1980s, after the director’s departure from Hollywood, including 1983’s Streamers, Fool for Love in 1985 and Beyond Therapy (1987). It was well received by critics, an attempt to explore the way women are forced to suppress their emotions and personalities in order to be accepted by the male-dominated society around them. It is especially interesting is the connection it makes between the oppression of women and patriarchy’s dread of sexual deviation and gender ambiguity. Joe, played by gay actor Mark Patton, is the only male character to appear in the film, and only in flashback. He is clearly and sympathetically presented as feminine and the film implies that he has become transgender.
Strange and lovely, and always up to a challenge, Black became a cult figure and a Gay Icon. She was the greatest cross-eyed movie star who ever lived, forgive me Norma Shearer. She would never have made it in today’s Hollywood, and she wouldn’t have made it in the 1950s either. Her success says a lot about imagination of the period in which her career began.
She was less spooky than Shelley Duvall, not as kooky as Diane Keaton and not as groovy as Faye Dunaway. In the 1970s Black became the face of a new era. She played a prostitute in Easy Rider (1969), Dennis Hopper‘s landmark film, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Jack Nicholson‘s girlfriend ”Rayette” in Five Easy Pieces (1970). It wasn’t just her looks that were different, it was the roles she played: murderers, waitresses, thieves, and her credits for the first half of the 1970s were a sort of portrait of those times. She starred in Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said (1971) and old pro Alfred Hitchcock‘s Family Plot (1976); she worked with Francis Ford Coppola and John Schlesinger and Robert Redford; she was the best thing in Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), just to throw a little Philip Roth into the mix; and Tom O’Horgan‘s 1975 screen version of Rhinocéros by Eugène Ionesco, plus she wrote all the songs for Connie White, her character in Altman’s masterpiece Nashville (1975).
When the counterculture hit the screen in the early 1970s, Black was its guiding female spirit. The New York Times wrote that she was ”something of a freak, a beautiful freak”, high praise in 1970s parlance.
1970s Hollywood was primarily a male, auteur-led phenomenon. But the contribution of performers as adventurous and vital as Black, should never be overlooked. Black was electrified as well as electrifying: her tornado of hair, her fearless physicality and those feline eyes combined to create a woozy and unapologetic sexuality. She looked offbeat, and she knew how to use that. Black, reflecting on her role as a movie extra in the underappreciated The Day Of The Locust (1975), wrote:
I couldn’t have been an actress in the 1930s. My face moves around too much.
It was in the late 1960s and 1970s that she became one of the great character actors in films in a series of performances in key New Hollywood projects. She posessed qualities outside the skill set of the conventional female lead. She could play volatile and nerve-jangled, maligned and wounded, all without ever approaching caricature, and suddenly these talents came to be much in demand from countercultural filmmakers. She wasn’t alone, she was in the company of Ellen Burstyn, Sissy Spacek and Duvall, with their neediness, blankness and oddity. She was wrong about her own place, the humanity she brought to her characters would have been noticed in any era, in any art form. Her career overlapped with the major figures of the New Hollywood: she made her screen debut in Coppola’ first film, You’re a Big Boy Now (1966).
Her roles were strikingly different from one another, but they had in common Black’s knack for conveying her characters’ rich and troubled inner-life and their thwarted dreams. You can see it in her Oscar-nominated performance as the Tammy Wynette-loving girlfriend to Nicholson’s discontented antihero in Five Easy Pieces. There is a comical, yet achingly sad gap between the two. Nicholson’s character resented her, but the audience never did.
She was born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois. Her mother was a children’s book writer. She studied at Northwestern University starting at 15-years old, and she moved to New York city at 17 and took odd jobs and off-Broadway roles.
She was nominated for a Drama Critics’ Circle Award 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 Hopper, who, like Coppola, was part of that group of up-and-coming filmmakers and actors who started careers working for the likes of Roger Corman. Hopper cast her in Easy Rider as a hooker who has a bad acid trip in a New Orleans cemetery; Henry Jaglom, who edited the film, insisted that improvised scenes with Black which had been cut, be put back in. Jaglom would continue to help her career as late as 1983 when he gave her the lead in his underrated romantic comedy Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?
She attracted attention for those groundbreaking films with Hopper and Nicholson, and for numerous other fascinating oddities including Cisco Pike (1972), with Kris Kristofferson as a musician turned dealer. But she was not averse to working in mainstream movies. She played the doomed Myrtle in the Coppola-scripted adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1974), playing Myrtle Wilson, the crass, pathetic and doomed girl of Tom Buchanan (Bruce Dern). She was the flight attendant who must land a plane single-handedly as the star of campy disaster flick Airport 1975 (1974). Will there ever be a better, campier line of dialogue from a film then:
The stewardess is flying the plane!
And she was! It’s just one reason I love 1970s films so much, plus it has the great Gloria Swanson, Linda Blair and Myrna Loy!
What a career! She played a kidnapper in Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976); she was a darling of horror films, taking on three roles in the television anthology Trilogy Of Terror (1975) and starring in Burnt Offerings (1976), Invaders From Mars (1986) and House Of 1,000 Corpses (2003).
But her dynamo performance as a post-operative male-to-female transgender person in Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean may be her best work. Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker:
… her spectacular tawdry world-weariness, keeps 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. It’s subdued, controlled, quiet, but not parched.
Black worked constantly until becoming ill in 2009. She had a role in George Sluizer‘s Dark Blood, now known as the film River Phoenix was making when he died in 1993, a talented director that I worked with in The Vanishing (1993).
Black was taken by that damn cancer in 2013 at 74-years-old. Aside from her work on stage and film, Black became known for her candid, if sometimes loopy, 1970s-style responses to interview questions, such as this for the New York Times:
Certainly, Rayette can just be. I dig her, she’s not dumb, she’s just not into thinking. 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? There are many things she does not know, but that’s cool; she doesn’t intrude on anybody else’s trip. And she’s going to survive. Do you understand me?