With two Golden Globe wins and both Oscar and Grammy noms, it’s comforting to know that Karen Black keeps plugging away — just like everybody else.
A gorgeous star with a haunting pair of uneven eyes, Black made an astonishing impact in the early ’70s with films like "Five Easy Pieces," "Easy Rider," "The Great Gatsby" and "Day of the Locust." However, as that decade came to a close, she settled into the role of being a wife and mom, and the high-profile offers petered out.
With more than 130 films under her belt, she’s maintained a reputation for being a hard worker who probably dove into too many indie films without checking to see if the water was too shallow.
“For a while, I would just take a lot of bad movies. I don’t remember why. I guess I didn’t pay much attention to career building,” Black says on a phone interview from her Austin hotel room. “But now, I feel that everything has to be better than it used to.”
Black was recently in the Lone Star State working on "America Brown," a family drama set in West Texas. The film focuses on how the obsession of football can harm families. Black threw herself into intense preparation and can now nail a twangy accent like she was from Tuna, Tex.
While singling out a particular role from her illustrious career, most gay men probably point to her remarkable turn as a transsexual who returns to her dust-bowl roots near Big Bend in "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean."
“And I hope to never do it again. Because it was terribly difficult. My character was disappointed with her change. I cried a lot while making that because it was so painful,” she explains.
Black immersed herself in that role and was coached by a post-op transsexual who monitored her behavior: sitting, crossing her legs and smoking cigarettes.
“At a cast party, she was there — dancing with an extraordinarily wealthy producer. She was wearing this diaphanous thing thrown over her shoulder, and it would fall. And her incredibly lovely left breast would be exposed. And everyone would laugh and she would giggle coyly,” Black remembers of her trainer. “That night, she went home with the gentleman, and he never knew the difference.”
Gay men are often fascinated by tragic goddesses swirling in chaos and self-destruction (Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor). But don’t add Karen Black’s name to that list.
Black insists that she doesn’t fly into demanding fits of rage and that she’s a very down-to-earth woman. In fact, there’s a gory rock band called The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, and Karen has attended their gigs and even introduced the band at groovy Manhattan venues .
“I think that my life has had a lot of ups and downs. I’ve had the opposite of a diva career — of a ‘God knows what she’s going to do next?’ But I’ve been kicked around. I’ve had my fair share of pain,” she explains. “I feel that a lot of gay men have had their fare share of troubles and pain as well. I think gay men recognize when they see a person who has struggled. I think they know it’s hard to do what I do. That it’s sometimes difficult to be what you are.”
You can catch the 57-year-old in the recent video release of "The House of 1,000 Corpses" and an armload of films already in production.
So is there any chance of Black slowing down or retiring?
“Maybe on my deathbed,” she says.