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Interview with Karen Black

HOLLYWOOD - There is a new Hollywood and an old Hollywood, but always there is the timeless Hollywood that murmurs in the sequestered Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

When the weather is nice, the big outdoor garden is opened up, and then the beautiful people move slowly past the white wicker tables and chairs, aware of the eyes following them; aware of the palm trees and the fresh flowers on the glass-6 tables and the quiet discussions of large sums of money. Karen Black is perfectly at home here. Her entrance is understated, she smiles tentatively, she looks around the garden a little vaguely (without her glasses she can't see a thing), her publicist nods to the maitre d', the center table on the elevated dais is being held for her. Karen Black enters the garden of the Polo Lounge and, just for a moment, all of the discussions pause.

She has made seven movies in two years. They have not all been successes, but none of them has been bad for her career, and they have shown off a great many facets of her acting skill.

She was the stewardess trying to land the crippled jet liner in "Airport 1975" and then she was Mabel, the mistress of Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby"; and then she was Faye Greener, the starstruck extra in "Day of the Locust." And it was only in 1970, at 27, that she made her sensational starring debut as the waitress who simply adored Tammy Wynette in "Five Easy Pieces."

She wears a 1930s outfit of peach and white, and a big, floppy white hat. She is at first very much on her guard, being perhaps even a little cute as a way of waiting to see what the heavy questions might be.

She examines the menu, "I want to get something good for myself," she says "I'm not a health food nut, bit I like to eat health foods." "Be honest," says her publicist. "What you'd like right now is a Nathan's hot dog."

"Of all the things in the world I would never devour," she says, her eyes still on the menu, "the very first is a hot dog.

She determines that today it will be the ham steak with pineapple topping, a small salad and a glass of iced tea. She has her glasses on now and looks around the garden. A tall, white-haired man is just sitting down at a nearby table. He smiles and provides just the hint of a courtly bow.

"That handsome-looking gentleman," she says, "is my agent. His name is Paul Kellogg, and he's ever so good at keeping me working every day. He gets me ever so many roles. Of course, I'm not persnickety like some people. I'm not unwilling to take itty-bitty roles. I have an itty-bitty role in Robert Altman's new film, 'Nashville,' which is going to be a very big picture.

"I don't like to work, but I DO like to act, you see. If I had a lot of time off, I would do nothing but sleep and make my house in order. I'm half asleep all the time, as it is. Now it's becoming part of my personality."

She has an appointment later this afternoon with Edith Head who is designing the costumes for the new Alfred Hitchcock film, "Deceit," in which she will star with Bruce Dern. Dern also is it the garden of the Polo Lounge today, at the next table, the table to the center table.

"I never thought I'd have a chance to work with Mr. Hitchcock," she says. "I wonder how I'll like his sense of humor. I play a kind of a nice girl, not glamorous, looks good, dresses sorta nice, who'd like to be finished with stealing jewels and go back to painting, which is her real hobby, you see. And there is this other couple, and...Bruce and I. I'm the kidnaper, and they're the kidnapees. I sort of just got caught up in the kidnapping. I personally don't believe people get caught up in things, but then," shrugging, "that's what I'm asked to believe."

Her lunch arrives, accompanied by a frenzy of supervision by the maitre d' and the captain, who all but block the waiter and the busboy from reaching distance of the table.

"What was it Confucius said, his advice for lovers?"

She mused, hardly seeming to notice the melee. "Wash your face in the morning and your neck at night, and when you're in love you're never tired. I think that was it."

Are you in love, then? I asked.

"Oh, Christ, yes," she says. "Why isn't my ham as...pretty as it should be? Oh, you've still got to put on the pineapples."

It would appear, although that surely cannot be the case, that the waiter is holding the saucer, the captain is steadying the sauce boat, the maitre d' is spooning out the pineapple sauce...Yes, she says, she is in love. She is in love with a writer named L. M. (Kit) Carson, who is a director, as well. They will be married on the Fourth of July in the forest at dawn.

"I think it's very good taste for artists and writers to be in love," she says. "They're very compatible.

They go well together. There were Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, and Patricia Deal and Roald Dahl, and - I'm terrible with names - Mia Farrow's mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, who was married to a writer whose name MUST have been Farrow...John? John Farrow?"

"I heard that wasn't such a great marriage," thepublicist said.

"Well," said Karen Black, "she always spoke well of her husband to ME."

She'd just come back from Europe, she said, where she did a new film for the Czech director, Ivan Passer, and lived in a little hotel: "The floor was all atilt, and you didn't get enough to eat unless they liked you. I wasn't recognized at all, but then I'm really not very recognizable at all, I suppose.

"But there was this incredible article about how Omar Sharif and I had run off to this castle in Vienna and, really, there were TWELVE of us, you know, and it was hardly romantic at all. Finally, they said I turned him down and I was the only girl who ever had. Why do people think that about Omar Sharif?" She broke off a piece of bread and considered. "I think because it's true," she said.

I said I'd heard that for "Day of the Locust," she'd studied movies by the great sex symbols of the 1930s.

"That's right," she said, "And I'll tell you something. I couldn't have been an actress in the 1930s. My face moves around too much.

Those movies were more like two-dimensional. They were moving paintings. Garbo, for example today, she'd look a little narcissistic. The new movies are more three-dimensional. The audience feels it can move around the actors. I've seen films so three-dimensional that if an actor doesn't believe for an instant - you can see it."

Somebody was suggesting the other day, I said, that the reason the new stars are so believable is because they live among people, instead of isolated in castles and mansions and fantasies.

"Absolutely," said Karen Black. "Movie stars can go anywhere today. And the reason is, you don't see a movie star if you don't expect a star where you are.

Luncheon over, the appointment with Edith Head to be kept, she stood quietly now, waiting for the bill to be paid, and once again, there was a slight pause in all of the conversations in the garden, because the garden of the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel is a place where you do, of course, expect to see movie stars.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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