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."
In Raiders, Allen is, in Kaufman's words, "free as the wind." Unlike every other "Indiana Jones girl," Allen's Marion stands for something. We first see her in Raiders of the Lost Ark drinking a burly Nepalese mountain-man into oblivion at her own saloon in the Himalayas. When Indiana Jones enters this cavernous frontier bar, Marion reconnects with her former lover immediately, with world-weary jabber ("always knew someday you'd come walkin' back through my door") and then a sock to the jaw.
But Allen's Marion never becomes just another tough-talking dame. She adores Indy, though he did her wrong 10 years before. As the film goes on, she synthesizes every archetype of female adventurer, from tomboy to screwball heroine to exciting yet comforting lover. Kate Capshaw proved to be a hoot as the cabaret singer in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Alison Doody had a sexy moment or two as a glamorous art historian in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but only Marion came off as Indy's equal.
Listen to Allen talk, and you sense that her own freewheeling instincts and theatrical seasoning - including experience she gained growing up and working in and around Maryland - went into making Marion the Indy heroine of choice.
Her father was an FBI agent, so the family moved around frequently until she was 10, then settled in New Carrollton. Allen finished elementary school there and attended Charles Carroll Junior High School and DuVal High School. After graduation, she studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, hiked through Latin America and took courses at the University of Maryland (though she didn't enroll full time in the college).
"I was a strange student: I always just wanted to study the things I wanted to study; I didn't really care whether I was going to graduate or not. So I wasn't a great role model for anyone going to college, I guess. I think I took a psychology course there and a creative writing course there, and I think I took them in the evening."
She did enroll at George Washington University when she joined a stage company in Washington. The stage hooked her, not the classroom. Allen says Raiders represented an acting stretch, but she had already performed body and soul, because the theater people who intrigued her descended from Jerzy Grotowski's Polish Theater Laboratory and Peter Brook's acting troupes, and intended to exploit every filament of an actor's physicality, imagination, empathy and spirit.
Although few roles that she has created on film have cut close to her own character, her years in the avant-garde served her well in The Wanderers and as the Vietnam-era Radcliffe student in A Small Circle of Friends (1980) - the part that Spielberg and Lucas say caught their attention. And her fearlessness as a performer made her appear right at home with Raiders' kinetic exuberance.
The characters have aged 21 years in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, set in 1957. But see Raiders again before the new movie, and you may be surprised at how mature Indy is right from the start - a refreshing contrast to most recent action-adventure movies. (Studios, take note: Iron Man, also a smash, also has a 40-something hero.) In Raiders, even Marion is old enough to have nursed a broken heart over Indy for a decade.
"I was in my late 20s when I did that," says Allen. "Marion's not described as being of a certain age, and I think when Steven cast me, he felt I was the right age for the character. And I think it's interesting that she isn't older. She's young, and it makes her much more vulnerable. Even though she's tough on the outside - she's there, by herself, in Nepal, running a bar - I think it's a good choice for the character not to be 40."
With her son attending college, acting has begun to engage Allen again. Though she can't give away what brings Marion Ravenwood back into The Crystal Skull, she found making this film easier and more fun to act in than Raiders.
"I think you're really meant to experience the passage of time, and I know that's what Harrison really wanted to do. He let his hair really go white. Both of us just let ourselves be the way we actually are. Everybody was very relaxed and just having a wonderful time; everybody was at ease. Steven was just like a little kid. He was so happy that we were making this film."