Back In Action

`Indiana Jones' fans thrill to the return of Karen Allen - fondly recalled for her mean punches, sweet smiles and overturned shotglasses

May 18, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Karen Allen created a female action hero who functions as a fantasy figure for both sexes.

As the owner-operator of a Himalayan saloon and the daughter of Indiana Jones' mentor, Marion Ravenwood does it all. She knows how to land a kiss or a solid right to the hero's chin. She boasts good aim with a gun or a quip. And she proves seductive enough to rouse Indy's rival to dress her in a slinky white dress and declare, "The girl goes with me!"

No wonder when the news broke that she'd return in the fourth movie in the series that Raiders started, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it roused more affectionate buzz than anything else about Indy's return. Women want to be Marion. Men want to be with her.

"I don't know if I ever thought of it that way," says Allen, 56, good-naturedly. "I just related to her and liked her and thought [creators Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan] had written a really, really wonderful female character. And though I may not have admitted at the time, when I did Raiders of the Lost Ark, I really did feel like a fish out of water."

Action-adventure extravaganzas were then a new thing to Allen, but audiences knew immediately that Spielberg and Lucas had picked the right woman to share the screen with Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones. Few actors have packed as many generation-defining roles into a few short years as Karen Allen did in the late 1970s.

Whether as Peter Riegert's common-sense girlfriend in John Landis' National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) or the personification of a new counterculture in Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers (1979), Allen embodied erotic self-possession. Her deceptive ease contrasted with the intensity of Debra Winger and the urgent drama and neurotic humor of the slightly older Diane Keaton.

But Allen, too, conveyed complexities beneath the surface of her characters. Real emotion poured out of her big brown eyes and lent sparkle to her wide-open smiles.

Raiders of the Ark turned out to be her only giant hit. But blockbuster stardom never was her goal. Allen says, "When they cast me to do the original film, they said to me right from the very beginning, ... `Your character is only going to be in the first one.' And I said, `Great, that's fine with me.' It was only my fourth film; at the time, I was a little nervous about signing up to be someone in three films."

She went on to emit an amorous glow as the younger Other Woman in Alan Parker's ultimate divorce drama, Shoot the Moon (1982). She touched the hearts of sci-fi fans in John Carpenter's surprisingly tender Starman (1984). And, for much of the next decade, she chose theater work or intriguing small films, such as Paul Newman's The Glass Menagerie (1987) and Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill (1993). After the birth of her son Nicholas in 1990 (she was married to his father, actor Kale Brown, from 1988 to 1997), she divided her time between New York and the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where she now lives full time.

She still performed on TV shows such as Law & Order or in East Coast films like The Perfect Storm (2000) and In the Bedroom (2001). But she also, for a time, ran a yoga school in a converted barn. And she fulfilled a lifelong dream when she founded Karen Allen Fiber Arts. Now based in Great Barrington, it markets her own cashmere sweaters and accessories and includes a design studio and a store (which also carries imports and goods from other local crafts people). The Berkshire Entrepreneur Network named her Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007.

Though she dropped out of the mainstream for most of the new millennium, whenever you see her in small roles in fringe movies, like Neve Campbell's character's mother in James Toback's 2004 When Will I Be Loved, she lights up the screen. She also still knocks out her directors: "The fulfillment of a 25-year-old dream," Toback exclaimed over the phone, on his way to showing his latest film, Tyson, in Cannes, France.

Kaufman, who co-wrote the original story of Raiders of the Lost Ark, says he cast her in The Wanderers because, in her look and manner, she summed up her times.

"She was the tough-talking bohemian, or beatnik, who could have guided the neighborhood-boy hero into another life - she was his hope, his beacon, his green light on another shore," Kaufman said. "She had a uniquely beautiful look and a kind of insouciant, strong-willed, knowledgeable feeling about herself - which again, I suppose, is why [Lucas and Spielberg] wanted her for Raiders."

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