Last week, one of cinema’s most loved actresses Karen Black passed away aged 74, leaving behind her an influential and imaginative trail of over 100 films that helped to redefine the cinema during the 1960s and 70s. With her signature tumbling curls, ski-slope nose, crossed eyes and strong, often crazed female roles, she had a bombshell sex appeal partnered with a dark air of unhinged vulnerability. Black’s roles included a prostitute in Easy Rider who dropped acid with David Hopper, Jack Nicholson’s ill-treated girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces and multiple chilling roles in the televised anthology Trilogy of Terror. Entangled in morbid love stories and feisty rebels, her complex and often troubled characters were alluring and loveable and incredibly imaginative for the time, paving the way for a new era of Hollywood.
"Black had a bombshell sex appeal partnered with a dark air of unhinged vulnerability"
Black became a pin up for counterculture cinema of the 1970s and a champion for independent films. “I love playing strong women, even if they’re nuts,” she said. Labelled a “beautiful freak” by the New York Times in 1970, her style had an effortless, bohemian charm representative of the era: glittering mini-dresses and fishnet tights, beatnik hats or her iconic low-buttoned waitress uniform in Five Easy Pieces. She had a seductive, roguish air and a unique beauty created by a blend of German and Norwegian blood that helped redefine sexuality onscreen, led by her enviable pout and cattish eyes. A seductress, a personality and a one-off, she had a distinctive attitude that remained strong until the end. “I dislike when people try to pigeonhole me,” she remarked, “when all I want is to do good work.”
Text by Mhairi Graham