I normally don’t follow celebrity nor even acknowledge it as anything of importance but sometimes a celebrity can become something more than an entertainer, taking on a role as cultural icon or archetypal heroine of a particular affiliation, marginalized persons or cause.
We lost such an icon this year when actress and artist Karen Black passed away from a lengthy battle with cancer at 74. I had been following her progress over the last few years as her husband created fundraising accounts online to help Karen with the costs of new treatment alternatives in Europe. When I heard she passed I didn’t realized how deeply her death would affect me, I was devastated and broke down in tears. This was a woman who meant so much to me personally, who left such an influence on me in my formative years.
She had an acting career that spanned over 4 decades in theater, television, mainstream Hollywood blockbuster hits and many independent films, whose work was a very sentimental part of numerous people's lives, in particular us women, thanks to her unusual counter-cultural roles.
When I was growing up, totally impoverished, in the outer Mission of the Saint Mary’s Park neighborhood, in the squalor of a tiny excuse for a house with my bedroom the living room floor, one of the few indulgences my sister and I had was staying up late nights watching many of her cult classics on a tiny black & white TV. Horror in particular was the ultimate escape in our childhood from the miserable conditions we lived in and we identified personally with the villains as misunderstood outcasts - underdogs who fought against boorish normalcy and unjust stereotypes; Karen Black epitomized all of those virtuous traits in her roles.
To me she represented someone who was exceptionally unique with a diverse array of characters she played, a genuine eccentric who was unapologetically nonconformist, sexually brazen, confident and at times intimidating with a beauty so exaggerated it could at times appear almost comedic to some critics. She broke conventional beauty standards with a seriously committed talent as an actress - she left a lasting impact on those who watched her.
She went on to star in countless classics like the infamous Easy Rider, You’re a Big Boy Now, The Great Gatsby, Five Easy Pieces (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), Day of the Locust, Alfred Hitchcock’s last film Family Plot and the progressive risk taking performance as the post-op transsexual in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was also infamous for her countless horror films and made for TV movies like Burnt Offerings, The Pyx and of course the most notable Trilogy of Terror, who can ever forget that Zuni Doll!
As kids we loved Trilogy of Terror so much that we would quote her dialogue as a kind of coded secret language only we could understand that guaranteed uncontrollable fits of laughter. Almost anyone could appreciate her characters - she had a duality about her that embodied both a flawed vulnerability and a fierce lioness in her unorthodox roles. Karen Black’s appearance in films, particularly the low budget horror or schlock, guaranteed the movie would become a cult classic, making her equally both an iconoclast and icon. She was an archetypal bad girl, who reached the pinnacle of her career in the 1970s new Hollywood era, though continued to make what amounted to over 100 films up until her death, a filmography that included work which earned her two Golden Globe awards and a nomination for an Academy Award. It should not be forgotten that she was a very successful stage actress and a notable songwriter. I was so thankful Rob Zombie cast her in his movie House of Thousand Corpses, a film which had many nods, tributes and homages to some of the best horror films created, so she had her rightful place as the mother in the film. The performance art horror rock band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, founded by Kembra Pfahler was a tribute to her and Karen graciously accepted the use of her name by the band as an honor.
On a personal level she was known for her fascinating story telling and obscure knowledge, her clever wit, kind-hearted compassion, exceptional intelligence and a strong sense of self. Everyone who has worked with her speaks with great fondness. Karen will always be a cherished actress and live on as my celluloid shero.
Rest in peace Karen Black, 1939 -2013.###