From Friday, Oct. 18 through Thursday, Oct. 24, BAMcinématek will present “Karen Black,” an eight-film retrospective of the late actress The New York Times once described as “something of a freak, a beautiful freak.” Adept at offbeat portrayals of eccentric, often tumultuous characters, Black embodied the adventurous, defiantly nonconformist spirit of 1970s New Hollywood. This series pays tribute to Black, who passed away in August.
Opening the series on Friday, Oct. 18 and Saturday, Oct. 19 are two canonical road trip movies that made Black (and her co-star Jack Nicholson) a rising American icon: Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), about an oil rig worker (Nicholson) who travels home to see his ailing father and brings his waitress girlfriend (Black) along for the ride, and Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” (1969), a counterculture fever dream and drug-fueled tour of the American Southwest. “Easy Rider” kicked off the New Hollywood movement and marked the feature film debut of Black, who plays a New Orleans prostitute on a bad acid trip. Her next role, in “Five Easy Pieces,” was a challenge; growing up in an urbane household in the Chicago suburbs, Black said she found it difficult to find a common ground with the indelicate Rayette. But it also became one of Black’s most celebrated performances, garnering her a Golden Globe Award, New York Film Critics' Circle Award, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Karen Black collaborated with fellow New Hollywood pioneer Robert Altman on his decade-defining snapshot of country music, “Nashville” (1975—Oct. 20), which Pauline Kael called “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.” Playing a glammed up country star performing at a presidential concert rally, Black wrote and performed all of her own songs for the film’s soundtrack. Also in the series is Altman’s unsung film adaptation of the Ed Graczyk play “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” (1982—Oct. 23), which he staged on Broadway with almost entirely the same cast. Members of a James Dean fan club (the Disciples of James Dean)—including Sandy Dennis, Cher, Kathy Bates and Karen Black, playing a transsexual—reunite at a Texas Woolworth’s to honor the 20th anniversary of the actor’s death. “Come Back to the Five and Dime” screens in a restored 35mm print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Other series highlights include Bill L. Norton’s “Cisco Pike” (1972—Oct. 24), which stars Kris Kristofferson as a down and out musician who becomes entangled in the drug business alongside his loyal girlfriend (Black); Czechoslovak New Wave trailblazer Ivan Passer’s dark comedy “Born to Win” (1971—Oct. 21); John Flynn’s noirish mafia thriller “The Outfit” (1973—Oct. 22); and Dark Shadowscreator Dan Curtis’ “Burnt Offerings” (1976—Oct. 24), a haunted-house-style thriller that inspired parts of The Shining.
As a special sidebar linking retrospectives of Black and Bruce Dern (beginning Nov. 16), BAMcinématek presents the three films in which they both starred (“Dern + Black”, Oct. 28—Nov. 5). Dern and Black carved out careers as intrepid character actors at the forefront of the American New Wave, with a penchant for risk-taking that paid off in some of the most memorable performances of the era, including in Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, “Drive, He Said” (1971—Oct. 28); Jack Clayton’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” (1974—Nov. 5), featuring Black as Myrtle Wilson and Dern as Tom Buchanan; and Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, “Family Plot” (1976—Oct. 29).