Five Easy Pieces
It comes out all at once, in a rush, like a word you’ve never seen before that’s just snuck up on you, a neological surprise in an E.E. Cummings line: “Palmapodaca.”
Now run that back. Jack Nicholson and Karen Black are in the front seat; the pair of strung-out broads they’ve just rescued from a minor car wreck on the side of a road somewhere (one of them is Toni Basil, the other isn’t) are in the rear—four uneasy people from Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (70). The fourth is Helena Kallianiotes, a wiry tempest of charred-black tresses and curdled attitude, and when Nicholson asks for her name, out comes that rush-word: “palma-podahkah.” Palm Apodaca. She has some concerns, Palm does, and is rather high-strung. “Don’t call me ‘honey,’ Mac!” she snaps at Black. (“Don’t call me ‘Mac,’ honey!” Black snaps back.) “Crap! It’s all crap!”says Palm—the human condition, that is, and “filth” in particular. “Dirt isn’t bad,” she cautions. “It’s filth. Filth is bad. That’s what starts maggots and riots.” Like that time you set a witch’s hair on fire, Kallianiotes’s presence in Five Easy Pieces is impossible to forget. Rafelson even gives her an extra-diegetic moment of direct address to the camera, her own punch line, a stinger: “I don’t even want to talk about it.” The Sixties end at the moment Nicholson lets Basil and Kallianiotes out of his car.
Kansas City Bomber
The lines of her face as ragged as torn cardboard, Kallianiotes may not be the illustration next to any dictionary’s definition of “colorful off-Hollywood career,” though that’s her sitting next to Art Garfunkel on the cover of the singer’s 1975 solo LP, Breakaway. The IMDb says she was born in Los Angeles in 1938, but other Internet accounts have Kallianiotes coming to Hollywood in the mid-Sixties, after a life as a biker in Boston. By ’68 she was a belly dancer at a Greek restaurant called The Intersection in North Hollywood, where she had her Schwab’s moment and was hired to undulate in a harem with the Monkees for Rafelson’s film debut, Head (68). Around that time, Kallianiotes started living in Jack Nicholson’s guesthouse (serving semi-officially as the star’s “property manager”), where she infamously encountered Roman Polanski and his 13-year-old “date” one March afternoon in 1977. She was married for some time to former Father Knows Best child star turned late Sixties celluloid outlaw Billy Gray (“City Life” in Floyd Mutrux’s needle masterpiece Dusty and Sweets McGee). Her biggest and most celebrated role came as Raquel Welch’s nemesis in the roller-derby potboiler Kansas City Bomber (72), where she snarled and hissed and cat-fought her way to a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her performance even moved Roger Greenspun of The New York Times to rhapsodize about her in tones that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on a mid-Seventies Bowie album: “But the film’s one incredible performance comes from Helena Kallianiotes, as Jackie Burdette. Slouching sullenly in doorways, staring moodily into space, cadging booze from a bottle hidden in a skating boot, she goes to the dogs with an inappropriate passion rich enough to suggest an over-the-hill Sarah Bernhardt being traded off to the minors by the Comédie Française.”
Her acting career, always consistent in caliber, was forever all over the map: here a bit on the fringes of the Barbara Hershey hippie-titillation The Baby Maker (70), there a cartoon turn (as Mata Hari, no less) in William Castle’s ultra-dismal “comedy” Shanks (74) starring mime artist Marcel Marceau. She had occasional mainstream moments—across from Paul Newman in The Drowning Pool (75), then reprising her roller-derby queen on TV for a two-part episode of CHiPs in ’79—but hewed mainly to the margins, karate-kicking in Rafelson’s Stay Hungry (76), emoting as a “Visionary Woman” across from Zalman King’s Jesus in the Golan-Globus production of The Passover Plot (76), and, no less visionarily, appearing as herself in Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara (78). That might have been it, but it wasn’t. She had one last great role, as Gene Hackman’s whore with a heartbreak of gold in Nicolas Roeg’s late masterpiece, Eureka (83): “We were a crock of gold between us. His cock, and my crack.” A little TV followed, but not much. Dennis Hopper’s cameo-studded Jodie Foster catastrophe Backtrack (aka Catchfire, 90), a bungled Married to the Mob variation with Kallianiotes playing wife to mob boss Joe Pesci, rang down the curtain on her filmography. She’s still out there somewhere—Helena, get in touch!