Over the course of a long and prolific career that saw her appear in nearly 200 films, Karen Black left her most lasting mark on Hollywood portraying women on the brink: hysterical characters teetering at the edge of dissolution or madness -- or both -- who chase desperately after their dreams, often stuck in dysfunctional relationships with hideous men.
After a long battle with ampullary cancer, Black died Thursday at age 74. Here are five films that helped cement her legacy:
“Five Easy Pieces” – In the acclaimed 1970 drama for which Black will be most singularly remembered, she portrays Rayette Dipesto, the borderline suicidal waitress girlfriend (with dreams of country music stardom) who is pregnant with Jack Nicholson’s piano-prodigy-turned-oilfield-wildcatter character’s child. Black was nominated for a supporting actress Academy Award and won the same category at the Golden Globes.
“The Day of the Locust” – In director John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Nathaniel West’s scorching 1939 novel of Los Angeles existential torpor, Black portrays Faye Greener, a wannabe-starlet-come-arch-sexual-manipulator in ‘30s Hollywood.
“Easy Rider” – Black’s role in director Bob Rafelson’s 1969 road-movie exploration of American counterculture is small but unforgettable. She portrays a New Orleans prostitute who imbibes LSD in a graveyard with the film’s motorcycle-riding protagonists, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, in the lead-up to “Easy Rider’s” bloody climax.
“Nashville” – Playing Connie White, the glamorous country-singing diva out to undercut her singing rival in Robert Altman’s episodic ensemble drama, Black nabbed a Grammy for writing the songs “Memphis” and “Rollin' Stone,” which she can be seen singing in the 1975 film.
“The Great Gatsby” – Portraying another tragic literary heroine, in this 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzergald’s Jazz Age classic, Black embodies Myrtle Wilson, the borderline-hysterical mistress to Jay Gatsby’s nemesis, Tom Buchannan, a role for which Black won another supporting actress Golden Globe.
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