Karen Black honored with two New York retrospectives

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karenblackAlthough her later years were spent out of the Hollywood mainstream, Karen Black was a central figure in the film revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Starting with a small but noticeable role in the 1969 landmark film “Easy Rider,” the actress had an incredible run of movies over the next five or six years that included “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), “The Great Gatsby” (1974) and “Nashville” (1975).

Black’s “flops” from that period are pretty spectacular, too — Jack Nicholson’s fascinating 1971 campus upheaval drama, “Drive, He Said”; John Schlesinger’s amazing apocalyptic epic “The Day of the Locust” (1975); and the barely released but terrific Manhattan lower depths drug tale, “Born to Win” (1971).

Ironically, it was one of Black’s worst reviewed but most financially successful films — “Airport 1975” (1974) — that steered her in the direction of the camp movie queen she is now seen as by many fans of B-movies.

“Airport 1975” was so much a part of the craziness of 1970s Hollywood that a line from the film was used for the title of an excellent coffee table book about the era — “The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane!”

Black, who died in August at the age of 74, is being honored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music Karenblack1with two separate events — a festival of her films starting today and running through Oct. 24 and then a program called “Dern + Black,” from Oct. 28 to Nov. 5, featuring the films she did with another icon of that period, Bruce Dern.

There was more good news on the Karen Black front recently when the Criterion Collection announced that it will be issuing a deluxe DVD (and Blu-Ray) of the great Robert Altman film “Nashville” (below) on Dec. 3.

In the middle of all of her new-styled movies, Black also found the time to play one of the female leads in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, “Family Plot,” which opened in 1976 and will be screened at BAM.

Like so many of her female peers in the 1970s — who included Ellen Burstyn, Jill Clayburgh and Louise Fletcher — Black was already 30 when she became a star. She arrived on the scene after a long apprenticeship in the theater and on TV, so she was ready when “Easy Rider” and then “Five Easy Pieces” (above) landed in her lap.

Mainstream Hollywood no longer produces the sort of pictures that Black excelled in, so it is highly unlikely that someone like her would find favor in major studio films if she came along now. Today’s multiplex movies are designed for much younger audiences, so the actresses in them tend to be pretty twentysomethings (with a few exceptions like Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts, who project much more ingratiating images than Black and the other ’70s women did).

Leonard Maltin put it well in his tribute to Black last summer, “She came along at just the right time, as American cinema was changing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She didn’t have a lacquered Hollywood look or demeanor. She seemed like a real person, and that was exactly what the young filmmakers whose careers were blossoming at the time were looking for. There was an honesty and a vulnerability about her that suited so many of the characters she played.”

For a complete rundown of the BAM screenings, visit www.BAM.org.

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Joe Meyers

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