Karen Black: Still sexy after all these years

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on July 26, 2009.

’70s movie icon brings new cabaret show to the Gladstone

Karen Black’s voice still sounds as vibrant as it did when she sang to Jack Nicholson in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces; her soft tremolo as fresh as when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1976. Reclining on a leather sofa in the art gallery at the Gladstone Hotel, she sings a few breathy lines from an old standard and, without hesitation, turns the song into a country-western tune full of twangs and growls.

Black is in Toronto for her new one-woman cabaret show, My Life For a Song, which premieres tonight and continues tomorrow at the Gladstone. Her stories of working with some of the greatest names in Hollywood – she has appeared alongside Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bette Davis and Oliver Reed, and has been directed by Dennis Hopper, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman – will be interspersed with appearances by characters she created for past stage shows, along with musical interludes featuring long-time musical director Tracy Stark on the keyboard.

“It’s an eclectic mixture of music,” Black says. “I might do `Ten Cents a Dance,’ then a delta blues or a country song.”

After both shows, local filmmaker Bruce LaBruce will join her onstage to discuss her career and take questions from the crowd. “She brings a tremendous intensity to her roles,” says LaBruce. Her performance in 1975’s The Day of the Locust is “tragically underrated,” he adds.

After her heartbreaking portrayal of Rayette Dipesto in Five Easy Pieces, which won her a Golden Globe Award as well as an Oscar nomination, Black became one of the most sought-after performers of the ’70s. She appeared in The Great Gatsby – which earned her a second Golden Globe – Cisco Pike, Family Plot and Burnt Offerings.

But anyone familiar with Black’s work knows she loves to sing. She grew up in a musical family – her grandfather was classical musician Arthur Ziegler – and she briefly studied opera before her acting career took off. “Our living room was always filled with music,” she says.

While Jascha Haifetz records would play, she says she would hum along to Julie London and Doris Day. She has been known to sing a tune or two in many roles and recorded the title track to the 1973 Canadian horror film The Pyx, as well as two of her own compositions in Altman’s Nashville.

As an actor, she’s still incredibly busy. She received critical acclaim for her dual roles in Steve Balderston’s Firecracker and appeared as Mother Firefly in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. Among other things, she just completed a pilot for a comedy co-starring Bud Cort.

“I have very few regrets,” she says when discussing her career. Among those few is a script Woody Allen once sent her that she ultimately turned down.

“It was the part of a woman who loved to have sex in public but couldn’t do it privately. That’s great,” she says with a laugh. “What was wrong with me?

“But I did meet him. He told me I looked like Warren Beatty.”

She speaks highly of her son Hunter Carson, her co-star in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake of Invaders From Mars. “He had a great acting career as a child,” she says. “Wim Wenders came to our house because he wanted to cast him in Paris, Texas. Hunter tried to sell him a lemon from the tree in our backyard.” Carson got the part.

As we speak, people come in to introduce themselves, followed by adulation and offers of dinners and tours while she’s in town. But tonight’s show is on her mind – there’s limited rehearsal time, as well as technical aspects that need to be ironed out.

As one of the visitors departs, Black – well known for her impressions – jokingly musters her best Greta Garbo: “I just vant to be alone.”

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