Monday, October 07, 2013

Karen and Nina

About a year ago, Karen reunited with her biological daughter.  The last time she saw her before that was the day she was born.

You see, many years ago during her first year at Northwestern, still a teenager, Karen gave up a girl for adoption.  She called her Nina.  Her father was a young Drama student, Robert Benedetti, with whom she remained friends till the day she died.

Illinois had, until recently, very strict closed adoption laws.  It made it virtually impossible for biological mother and child to connect.  What made it even more difficult for Karen was that in the 80s two different people approached her through her agent saying that they were her real daughter.

But the dates didn't match.

That made me her a little gun shy about trying to find her daughter.  Her brother Peter and I both tried going through the Illinois authorities, but it was not fruitful. 

Then on August 7th, 2012, I checked Karen's FB fan site and found the following message:

"Hi Karen, Illinois has recently allowed adoptees like me to access their original birth certificates. I just received mine today. I was born on March 4, 1959 at Cook County Hospital, and the name listed for my mother is Karen Blanche Black. Would this happen to be you?"

The dates matched.  And this is what Karen wrote back:

"I am. Been a long time. I hated leaving you behind, turbulent waves of sorrow. thank you for making this possible Diane. Your father is still a good friend, a genius, a professor, a television producer. you will love him. we will all love each other. I'm kinda stunned."

Since then Karen and Diane reconnected, she stayed at our house a number of times, even managed to paint together.  She help care for Karen when she could, helping us when she visited when the cancer started taking its toll.    The talked emailed and texted many time, staying close until the end.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stephen Eckelberry's Eulogy of Karen on her Memorial, September 17th, 2013

I recently found 1996 Chicago Tribune press clipping of an interview Karen did - one of those where you have short answers to questions - favorite childhood memory, my heros, etc.  The last question was "three words that best describe me."  Karen's answer:  Light, present, non-derivative.  I couldn't have said it better myself.
On the subject of light, she was essentially, to her core, a happy person.  She could work really hard and often did.  But she loved having fun.  She would put as much energy into having fun as she would into her work. Her parties where legendary - people still come up to me and say what a great birthday party we had in 1989.  She loved seeing friends and going on picnics - and playing party games - especially games that involved performing - like one she invented "Are You Pleased?"  Of course the answer was always 'no'.  "What would it take to please you?"  - "sing me a song that expresses how you feel about flowers" ' "Stand on your head" or "do you an improv that you are a barking dog trying to get a steak off the table."

Let's talk about present - what she means by that is being present - and to me that was the biggest lesson I learned from Karen - Be there - engage life! There's an exercise in Scientology where you have to sit in front of another person and do nothing - just be there comfortably without fidgeting.  It's a lot harder than you think.  When you first do the exercise you typically do it a couple of hours a day for a few days.  Karen loved that exercise so much that when she first did it in the early sixties she did it for a whole year.  'I think you are done Karen'  "No, I love this!"  She was present right until the very end.  She was actively engaging life until the very end, which astounded the doctors, they never saw anything like it - most in that stage just nod out on morphine.  She was in major pain, and yet took less pain killers than most housewives - she wanted to be there!  A few hours before she died she had me doing her leg exercises, she wanted to get strong so that she could walk again. 
I learned more about living watching her die than watching anyone else live.
She had been writing her autobiography with Linda Kandel, finished the last interview the night before - but she remembered one sentence she wanted to add.  -  by this point she could barely breath, and I couldn't understand what she was saying, but she dictated to me over the course of 15 minutes, a whole paragraph, one word at a time.  Here is what she had me transcribe - now mind you, this is not some deep philosophical statement, it was just a sentence that she wanted inserted in to the section about her love life - or rather her unrequited passion as a young woman:
"But these beautiful deep and bright red wooden apples that I gazed upon where the very ones that kept me from going across the slender hallway and into the television room and having sex with Charlie's brother Tommy, just as I stared at the bannister along the hallway at the room in which classes where held in daylight at Perdue U. which kept me from rolling on the cement walkway with Jim Stevens at midnight." 
That was her last creative act, 2 hours before she died.

Okay, the last one - non-derivative:  Karen though about things in her own way, had her own conclusions and ideas about everything. Everything about her was completely original. 
She made up her own language, I tried to figure out what it was - seemed like a combination of Celtic and Swedish - it was usually when she was happy and wanted to express her affection and delight about something - so it would come out in various ways:
"Oh Sorsee sordid crinda!"  Just nonsense words that I guess had a certain satisfying quality when expressing them.

And she was completely original when it came to acting.  It really wasn't method, though she did that too, it was just a combination of an insane amount of prep and then a complete in-the moment expression. She would prep by researching her role - do a Texan accent - what part of Texas?  Pan handle?  Southeastern?  Dallas?  She would call people who knew people and then find someone that was from Southeast Texas - "I don't have accent anymore really" -  then Karen would proceed to write out using her own phonetic notation how each vowel was pronounced. She would memorize like crazy! 
When I first went with her she told me her rule:  Be able to say your lines flawlessly 10 times.  So she would have me run lines with her, and if she made one screw up, she would reset the counter to zero, and do it again, until she had it 10 times perfect. Then, when she was on set, she was free to be completely in the moment and there for the other actor.
Her work was an astounding combination of iron-willed discipline and freedom - complete control and complete lack of control at the same time.  It's a trick that few people are capable of doing.

Last thing I want to talk about is help.  Karen helped a lot of people - in her own way.  She never though she really helped anyone, she felt guilty that she was too hedonistic to go out and feed the homeless or raise money for earthquake victims - and yet she helped everyone she met.  She had an ability to become best friends with everyone she met, usually in less than five minutes.  She saw them for who they were deep inside and validated them for what they did. She gave you - you.  She certainly did it for me.  I was introverted when I first met her, reading books voraciously, but not going into the world - she made it okay to engage life, and led by example, which was a kind of joyous charge at existence.

Many wonderful thoughts and kind words and thoughts have made their way to us since Karen's passing.  I'll leave you with one, from my friend Noel Sterrett:

"Several years ago I was in the middle of writing a script, and I asked Karen to let me know what she thought of the story. In it, the female lead inadvertently  saves the life of a rock star she is stalking. As a result, her dream comes true and he falls for her, and...

Karen stopped me right there: 'NO NO NO, that's backwards. You don't love who saves you, you love who you save'."

Well, on that note, Karen must have loved a lot of people, because she helped everyone that had the fortune to cross her path.

Thank you.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Karen wrote many poems, in fact several poems made their way into the California Quarterly, a fact for which she was very proud.  "I'm a published poet!" she said when she got her copy in the mail.  Here is a poem I found that seem appropriate at this time - Karen, by the way, loved trees.  Stephen.


In a little month the men will come
and screw unscrew the screeching trees
uncorked, unable, not to grow again
Replaced by many many things that we call houses
we stupid angular masses that move only to the rhythm of success and failure
to build that which likens to us:
square houses , drab in colour, never fetching to the eye
square homes milky gray and khaki
vomit peach and sometimes a hope of blue
eight of them on the place where my trees have been.
I went , of course, for a talk,
a last goodbye.
There is one, oh there is one that I must mention.
I know it cradles, circles , embraces the old homestead
with a crafty needle- birch - eye!
For how else could it assiduously escape the roofing enclosure!
It bends back just now, moves over the rafters when it may!
And in so doing, paying little attention to the winding snakey direction of its own limbs,
it comes up more fragile, formed with attenuated grace,
in fact more of an explosion of bark and tiny greens than all the rest.
Ah well, that’s the nature of giving, isn’t it?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of that which gives.
And then: a Christmas tree! Two stories tall, sporting the pointed reflective leaf,
lacking only berries. All hail! The last Christmas!
But there are rattan trees
proffering only sprouts of fading green
one bony trunk and then another and another
pointing to the sky,
simple, like simple children pointing effortlessly with tiny bodies at the sky

And the fruit trees are pregnant.
They bulge with the fumes of life,

more highly scented and ambrosiac than a vagina.
And they will die
they will all be cast down by red metal in a month.
No I will continue:
I picked a small orange from one,
It was underneath the white thunderously scented white stars on branches above.
And now,
before its better birth,
the aborted ball in my hand smelled only of perfumed flowers.
It doesn’t know.
No one has told it:
The heavens will be empty soon.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

August 7th update from Stephen, Karen's husband

A lot of people have been asking me what's the latest with Karen, so here it is:
   Last post I did was mid-June, we were in St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. A week later, everything the hospital could do for Karen had been done; bacterial infections & anemia handled, heart & lungs working - everything but the cancer itself.  By the way, props to St John's, a top notch hospital with a great staff of doctor's and nurses.
  Karen's health continued to deteriorate at an alarming pace. She became bed-bound: the spreading cancer having eaten away part of a vertebra and nerves in her lower back. Her left leg stopped functioning.  We could not go to Europe as we had hoped. It would have been almost impossible to travel to the airport.  So we brought alternative treatments to her bedside.  Hardly as effective as doing a full treatment in a clinic, but I firmly believe that these treatments have been keeping her alive.  I can't tell you how many times doctors and nurses have pulled me aside and told me that I better start hospice, as she was about to die.  One doctor told me that he thought that Karen had only 24 hours to live when she arrive at St. Johns June 3rd, and yet here she is alive two months later.
   The kind people at the Motion Picture Television Fund helped place her in a nursing facility, where she is now.  The cancer is still spreading slowly and it takes its toll.
   I have given up predicting what is going to happen to Karen.  In June family members flew in fearing the worse, but Karen is still here.  You look at the scans, they tell you one thing, then you meet Karen, and what you are left with is how amazingly alive she is. Maybe it's her belief system, maybe it's because she was never one to tune out with drugs in her life, but mostly it's her innate character. She can't help but take life head-on and be completely engaged in the moment, always interested, always curious, always present.
   My daughter and I have both stopped working so that we can be by her side and we have hired someone to help as well. Thanks to your generous support through this process we can be there for her all the time.  We are supplementing traditional medicine with all the alternative care we can afford.  This would not have been possible without your generosity.
  As a filmmaker I never remain idle, and have been filming this whole process from the beginning almost three years ago - it has been therapy for both Karen and myself, because after all, if cameras are rolling, it can't be really serious, it's just a movie, right?  I hadn't planned on doing anything with the footage, until a few weeks ago, Karen reached out to her old friend, Elliot Mintz. Elliot is considered a media guru who has offered advice to dozens of famous clients over the years including Karen. They spoke by phone about ways Karen could share her experience with others, in her own words, in her own way. I spoke with him about the many hours of film I had shot and within days, Elliot presented some ideas for us to consider.

Karen & Elliot screen grab
   On June 21st, Karen put on her make-up and her hair (chemo is not kind on hair) and had a heart to hear - a bedside talk with Elliot. They spoke for almost two hours. With my daughter shooting second camera in the tiny room, I filmed the deeply moving and candid conversation. Karen of course is very enthusiastic about finding the right platform for some kind of presentation. 'You can take the girl outta showbiz.....' so, we will see. It's still a little raw for me, I'm not sure. It would be an interesting and moving journey to share with a truly unique and original spirit. We are both grateful to Elliot for his support and guidance (He is representing us pro bono).
   So, that's where things are as we begin August. I wish I had better news to report. But cancer seldom allows for that. Karen and I have received hundreds of messages from you. Your prayers and well wishes help sustain us. We remain eternally grateful for all the love you continue to share.

Monday, July 15, 2013

An interview with Karen Black on acting in The Great Gatsby

Interview: Karen Black
Interviewer: Chloe Boasberg
May 16, 2013

That’s a very good moment for the audience to find out that they know much more about Myrtle than she knows about herself; they know she is a fool, that she is not making any sense, but she thinks she does and thinks people will believe her and her fantasies. Her costume is overdone, it’s orange, there are all kinds of things draping from it. Her big goal is to be part of the social circle - so it's a very wonderfully thought-out costume – but it’s a kind of ridiculous dress.
She didn't like herself.  She attained confidence by grasping at a social level, not simply feeling fine; she wants to be Tom's wife, though this never happens.
I will tell you I did something from the book, I tried to do things directly from the book, from the era: in the book it says that when Myrtle dies, her spirit is so large that it ripped her mouth as it left.
So I asked Jack if I could please have rips created in my mouth, and he said yes.
When he saw me lying there, Scott Wilson (who played George Wilson), the tears actually flew out of his eyes; he was brilliant.
No… Wow! I don't remember a thing! They must have said really good thing because I won the Golden Globe!
Nobody tells you how to act, it’s like hiring a maid, nobody has to tell the maid how to wash the dishes… its what they bring to the job.
Jack Clayton (the director) -  I did the speech when she meets Tom for the first time and he said “do not ever look at it again, don't say it, or repeat it” because he liked it just the way it was, there was that freshness about it that an actor likes to experience. That's as much as he said to me about acting.
Just find out what the characters needs, what the character wants. Once you know the characters goals, and the character's future, then you just do the part, but nobody can do that for you because basically, it’s inside you, it’s like something you own, something you need.  It was done with a light hand, I'll tell you what I mean: I did a movie once with an actress who thought she could think her way into a role, she would work very hard, her voice would tremble, she had the idea that imagination is like an object - it isn't, imagination is like nothing, its like air, it’s light, you don't force it; you work hard to establish the life of character and the reality of character so you no longer have to think, you only produce the result of living your character; you are that character. You don't want to be two people: you and the character.
It just happens. You study, you do whatever it takes to become the character, though it can happen instantly, so you don't force it, but you think about their lives, where they were born, and a lot of times the place will determine what they want or need.  You have all that in you, and the leap is talent.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Amour is a watershed movie:a very important point of transition.  Amour will change the making of films for better or for worse.
Here's why:
In a movie theater, why do you continue to watch the screen?  Well we think we've always known the answer to that one. We've got that one solved. We watch because we want to find out where the story is going.  Our interest has been aroused: will Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert get together?  What will the King of England say to President Roosevelt? Will our hero get his revenge on those who have harmed his loved one? Notice that these are broad subjects.  They carry the viewer along from scene to scene.

In Amour we are not partially suspended wondering what will happen next.  we are fixed in present time, urgently wanting to know, "What is happening now?"
Right now,in front of us (no overview)a man sits on a small sofa reading a paper and his wife lies dead in the other room. Glued to the screen, we watch avidly as a man reads his paper.  The camera doesn't move.  In present time, right now, we ask ourselves, "what is he doing?"  "what is he doing?" "what is he doing lying there reading that paper?"
 Or, we have before us, a man catching a pigeon.  Right now, in present time, we are watching to see if he will catch the pigeon. We know it is happening now, right now and not shot earlier and later and edited together -because the camera doesn't move.

Nothing is done for us. Nothing is pressed forward into our faces.  We must find it in there for ourselves. Our attention and interest are invited in. We are the ones reaching toward the screen. It is not the film maker's notion that he must hand us over the scene after he has made into the collage  he is moderately sure will be understood the way that he has made it to mean.

Because of the elegance of this film, the unmoving camera causing reliance upon human perception and the concentrated  brilliance of the performances, the ending of this movie can be pure metaphor. 

I dont remember ever seeing a movie where the ending is utterly satisfying in every way, and yet it is pure metaphor.  Again, not depending for its meaning upon fact and generalities, it can be as specific as true metaphors always are, and as truthful as they always are.       

Funny how it took the French to show us the new way.  Reminds me of the sixties.