Nitehawk’s The Works series was created to highlight and contextualize significant contributions to cinema. Particular focus is paid to directors, actors, cinematographers, genres, etc. who we believe are due for a closer look. Bringing people, such as Karen Black, to the forefront of our programming is designed to provide new ways of seeing and thinking about not only her body of work but to also reconsider the importance of these films in the present day. Nitehawk isn’t taking the easy and obvious choices here. Instead, we aim to place to introduce new audiences, and re-introduce familiar ones, with a fresh perspective on underrated classics.
Our The Works – Karen Black focuses on six of her films ranging from her major film debut in 1969’s Easy Rider (as a New Orleans prostitute) to Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot (as a jewelry heist vixen donning a blonde wig). The thing about Karen Black is that you know who she is even if you don’t know who she is. She has starred in over two hundred movies along with numerous plays (she was on Broadway before Easy Rider) and artist films. She’s also a singer, songwriter, and playwright. Prolific in both mainstream and independent features, Black has become a cultural icon to countless filmmakers (Rob Zombie, Bruce La Bruce), artists (Aida Ruilova, Kembra Pfahler, Francesco Vezzoli), and songwriters (Cass McCombs). Karen Black received Golden Globes for her performances in Five Easy Pieces (also nominated for an Academy Award), The Great Gatsby, and The Day of the Locust. Other films such as Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (that we’re planning a special screening of as well) and Lynn Hershman’s Conceiving Ada have garnered well-deserved accolades. Her cultural association with horror classics like Burnt Offerings, Trilogy of Terror, and House of 1000 Corpses only begins to show the breadth of her oeuvre.
Nitehawk is honored to be the home of Karen Black’s first retrospective series and hope that by putting these disperate films in dialogue with one another will result in a new awareness of her incredible career.
The film we decided to launch The Works – Karen Black with is already, in itself, a bona fide classic film. Easy Rider, directed by and starring the estimable Dennis Hopper along with Peter Fonda, epitomizes the disillusionment and ill ease with a reshaping of America in the late 1960s. Hippie idealism was on the wane and the reality set in that, in a world immersed in the Vietnam War, America housed some very ugly ideals and truly ugly people.
Easy Rider centers around two men traversing the American landscape (from New Orleans to Los Angeles) on motorcycles in search of freedom amongst the death of subcultural ideology. The counter cultural movement to which they belonged was being challenged by the norm/the “man” and is visualized through Hopper’s depiction of the journey embarked on by Captain America and Billy (Fonda and Hopper). Along the way they encounter other like-minded misfits including Jack Nicholson who proclaims over a campfire that, “They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent…Freedom,” as well as two New Orleans prostitutes played by dance legend Toni Basil and Karen Black.
In one of her very first film roles (the other being Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now in 1966), Karen Black stars as “Karen”, the aforementioned prostitute who takes up with Billy and Capitan American during Marti Gras and ends up in the Big Easy graveyard doing LSD, amongst other naughty needs. In a very masculine-established film, Black’s performance stands out as being one that embraces the desired “freedom” while also being bold, wild, and a little bit crazy. She dances, she howls. Black and Basil’s inclusion somehow makes Easy Rider’s ending all the more tragic and the life of the American Dream all the more real. For although the tagline says that Easy Rider is about “a man who went looking for American…but couldn’t find it”, it seems more dangerous to suggest that perhaps he did.