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R.I.P. Karen Black (1939-2013), New Hollywood Screen Queen of 'Easy Rider,' 'Nashville,' 'Five Easy Pieces' and More

Thompson on Hollywood By Joe Leydon | Thompson on Hollywood August 9, 2013 at 11:28AM

Karen Black was in the right movies at the right time to guarantee herself at least a footnote in film history. But wait: There was more.
Karen Black and Jack Nicholson
Karen Black and Jack Nicholson

Karen Black was in the right movies at the right time to guarantee herself at least a footnote in film history.

Indeed, you could argue that Black – who lost her long battle with cancer Thursday at age 74 -- earned her iconic status as a screen queen of the New Hollywood era just on the basis of three roles: A skittish prostitute who takes a very bad acid trip (along with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) in a New Orleans cemetery in Easy Rider (1969); a coolly glamorous country music star who stokes the paranoia of an unstable rival (Renee Blakely) in Nashville (1975); and, most important, an emotionally clingy waitress who loves not wisely but too well when she falls for a classical pianist turned white-trash rowdy (Jack Nicholson) in Five Easy Pieces (1970).

But wait: There was more.

Black also brought captivating shadings of intelligence and vulnerability to stock-issue “girlfriend” roles opposite George Segal as a hairdresser turned junkie in Born to Win (a flawed but fascinating 1971 drama widely available in DVD editions that emphasize then-unknown co-star Robert DeNiro), and Kris Kristofferson (in his movie starring debut) as a down-on-his-luck musician exploited by a crooked narc (Gene Hackman) in 1972’s Cisco Pike.

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This article is related to: News, Obit, Classics, Karen Black

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.