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‘Five Easy Pieces’ Star Karen Black Dead at 74

Karen Black
Liaison/Getty Images

Karen Black, one of the most important actresses of the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”-era of American cinema has passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Her film career started cooking in 1966 when she worked with Francis Ford Coppola in his early film ‘You’re a Big Boy Now,’ and it seems her association with the outsiders who were banging at the gates of Hollywood led to a role in ‘Easy Rider’ in 1969. That film was ground zero for what would become one of the greatest periods in American cinema.

She followed it with her turn in 1970’s ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ which is (close to inarguably) her best role. There she played Rayette Dipesto, who was living with Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea. He was a smart guy who struggled against his upbringing and family, while she tried to be the loving partner. She just wanted to get married, bowl and have kids, whereas Bobby is filled with so much disappointment and hate that he can’t settle. The role led to her sole Oscar nomination.

And though Black was there for some of the best of 70’s cinema, like Robert Altman’s masterpiece ‘Nashville,’ she also appeared in a number films that didn’t work, including the 1974 adaptation of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and the 1975 adaptation of ‘The Day of the Locust.’ But there were other good roles: She appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film ‘Family Plot’ in 1976, and she’s also fondly remembered for the chapter in the anthology TV movie ‘Trilogy of Terror,’ where she had to battle a Zuni doll.

Hollywood, for better or worse, is often kinder to male performers than females, and so Black’s career mostly fell into steady but unremarkable work, with a bright spot in 1982 when she appeared in Robert Altman’s ‘Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.’ Otherwise, most of her work was in forgettable movies (horror fans may have a soft spot for her turns in Tobe Hooper’s ‘Invaders from Mars’ remake and ‘It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive’). This is probably why it felt like a resurrection when Rob Zombie cast her in his first horror film ‘House of 1000 Corpses.’

But though Hollywood may have never found a solid place for her, not everyone can be said to inspire the name of a band, as she did for the punk group The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Black is survived by her son, and adopted daughter.

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