Looking at Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
“Have you seen Superstar?” I asked my friend one day, sitting in front of their television. They gave me an incredulous look. “Is that the one with the dolls?”
Those who’ve heard of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story only through its legend may regard the film, one of the very first by founding father of New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes, as an almost prankish bit of mischief. Haynes completed the film in ten days as a graduate student at Bard College. Its soundtrack consisted of hits from the Carpenters’ catalogue used without permission, a decision which so enraged Richard Carpenter that he later attacked the film with a copyright lawsuit and won. And, it must be established, the film was cast entirely with Barbie (and Ken) dolls.
The 43-minute film begins with an expositional title card telling us that it is February 4th, 1983. And then a live-action, point-of-view shot — a dramatization, the burnt-in titles at the bottom of the screen make certain to inform you — of a woman walking through a quaint California home. She is looking for her daughter, Karen Carpenter. The walls, the carpet, and nearly all of the furniture are, like the Carpenters themselves, so white it nearly makes one a bit queasy. There is a stillness in the air, save for a quietly unnerving hiss. Its origin isn’t revealed to us. Perhaps someone left the sink running. But as this woman steps through the house, hoping to recruit Karen for a day of shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, the room is steadily sapped of any chance of pleasantry. “Karen?” Her voice lowers here in a slightly chiding and uncertain tone as she knocks on Karen’s bedroom door, pushing it open to reveal an unkempt interior. As an eerie, twinkling score begins to build, she opens a walk-in closet to discover her daughter’s body slumped lifeless across the floor. “Harry! Harry!” She screams for her husband. The music now loudly punctures the scene like a siren. We get lost in the dark. And then it all goes quiet.
This harrowing prologue is then followed by another live-action shot, establishing the bright, white exterior of the Carpenter household. A man’s voice, in an authoritative and hilariously dry affectation, booms through the California heavens to inquire: “What happened? Why, at the age of thirty-two, was this smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California who led a raucous nation smoothly into the Seventies found dead in her parents’ home?” A tracking shot traces the streets of a California suburb. We begin to hear the patient opening notes of a familiar tune. “Let’s go back. Back to Southern California where Karen and Richard grew up. Back to the home in Downey where their parents still live today.” As barely legible opening credits come onto the screen, Karen Carpenter belts out the opening lines of the classic song from which the film took its name.
From here on, for the majority of the film, Haynes opens up his toy chest. Technically, it could be argued that the actual houses we see in the opening credits, on these sunny streets stitched with palm trees, are nothing more than large-scale realizations of dollhouses, manufactured projections, stages on which families act out their American dreams. But this visual distinction between “live-action” footage and the scenes played out using dolls is an important one. In using live actors to witness Karen’s death, Haynes reminds us that a real human being died on February 4th. Not a pop star, not the malleable figurine that was contorted through the expectations of others, but a woman who fought a deeply devastating struggle. Karen Carpenter suffered a painful, secretive battle with several internal and external pressures. Primarily: the superficial culture of fame, her affliction with anorexia, and a seeming lack of sympathy from within her family. At least, Haynes’ film unequivocally argues that those forces are what ultimately led to her tragic death. Superstar was controversial not just because of the provocative ways in which Haynes chose to frame his story, but also because he told the story with a decidedly pointed perspective. Whether the domestic tension built in the film is based in truth or is really just an editorial decision invented for the sake of inciting drama is a question that may not be able to be answered. What is inarguable and essential to understanding his film, however, is this: Haynes’ guiding force in telling Karen’s story is love. For all its undeniable humor and underlying camp, Superstar is clearly not meant in jest. It is, at its most basic and most poignant, a queer kid playing with dolls.
I saw Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story for my first time in a rather unique context. I was in the city and had heard that a certain microcinema, of which I am a friend and frequent volunteer — one which will remain nameless, so as not to risk reigniting the wrath of a seventy- two year-old Richard Carpenter — was planning a secretive screening. The programmers would only let on that the event would have to do with Todd Haynes. The film turned out to be his graduate thesis. Apparently, as the story goes, Richard Carpenter’s lawsuit dramatically called for any and all copies of the film to be destroyed. This, as one might expect, inadvertently added to the punk mythicism of Haynes’ objet d’art. A copy is said to exist at MoMA — which the museum has promised to never screen. But thanks to the ever-dependably memetic nature of video and the internet, certain bootlegs have managed to live on. And so the film endured throughout the decades, existing furtively as a tragically fuzzed-out and endlessly duplicated phenomenon — arthouse cinema’s Bigfoot. The screening, we were told, held a twist. It would be the premiere of a new high-definition restoration. (The privilege of this event is not lost on me. My first encounter with Superstar, a film both notoriously obscure and notoriously obscured, would happen in a newfound crystal-clarity. Without exaggeration, nobody who had ever seen the film before this point had ever seen it like this.)
I sat down inside the theater, still awkwardly immersed in the heavy warmth of an edible taken an hour or so before during a cab ride. I had seen several of Todd Haynes’ films before tonight, and in each one I had found a glint of recognition, something pointing toward myself. But upon this influx of Carpenters songs and tableaus of toys bathed in Sirkian light, my body began to change. My hands grew smaller. My legs shrank, bringing me closer to the floor. The screen changed, too. It also shrank — diminishing immensely until it had been squashed into a square just a bit larger than my head. Its light became harsher. The room, already small to begin with, grew cramped and cluttered. Everybody around me slowly faded away. Where was I? And then it hit me. I’m in a dollhouse. Wait. No…not a dollhouse — my house. I’m in my basement.
I’m six years old, sitting in front of the gargantuan family PC with my sister. We’re waiting for our Barbie as Princess Bride CD-ROM to boot up. A pink loading screen nearly blinds us. It is emblazoned with the words: BARBIE SOFTWARE FOR GIRLS. I do not question the gendered presentation of this technology — I know that I am certainly not a girl, but I seem to be able to manage the controls of the game just fine. There must be some exception built into the software. Barbie looks different here than she does in Superstar — somehow even thinner than when she was playing an ailing Karen Carpenter. Her hair is a horrendous highlighter-yellow. It looks as if she’s had some work done. Here she stars as a princess “in a far- away land on the other side of the world’s biggest rainbow,” awaiting the return of her prince-to- be, Ken, from a vague, long, voyage overseas to some other far-away land. What does she do while she waits? Plan the perfect dream wedding, of course. And who does she enlist to help plan this once-in-a-lifetime event? Her dependable woodland critter friends — and two children sitting in a basement in the suburbs of Long Island, of course. We bake the wedding cake, building layers upon layers of the most regal confection. We design her dress — it is pink and purple and sparkly.
At some point comes the moment that has burrowed itself in the absolute depths of my soul. Princess Barbie, overcome with longing for her distant fiancé, serenades the critters in the palace gardens she wanders every day. She’s no Karen Carpenter, but the performance stirs something in me. I play it over and over, my heart pulsing with a melancholic heat. This is where a distinctly sentimental sensibility implants itself in me forever. This is the inception of my queerness. Something ineffable to my six year-old self reveals itself through Princess Barbie’s song. I won’t understand this moment for many years. In the face of a two-dimensional paean to the heterosexual institution of marriage, I am moved beyond words. Tears sting at my eyes. Everything is a pink and purple and sparkly blur. I blink, and hot tears roll down my face. When my vision returns to me, I look around to discover that I am still seated in a microcinema, surrounded by tall men wearing horn-rimmed glasses and sipping from cans of Modelo.
Todd Haynes remarked in a brief interview on Youtube entitled “Todd Haynes on Wonderstruck, Superstar, and the Identity of Children”: “It is something that when you watch Superstar, for instance, there’s almost a play in a sort of sense of the naive. That one feels like, you know, not only obviously summons the whole memory of playing with dolls and sort of telling our first little stories, domestic stories or stories about oneself through the act of playing with dolls, and interpreting their movements and personifying them — but that also, I think, in a sense, sets up an expectation that there’s something naive going on here, and actually, there’s a lot more beneath the surface in the story of Karen Carpenter. And that was something we all felt when we heard about her anorexia, only knowing that pop music. That there was always something behind the surface of that, of that pop music and that production, that felt manipulative and sentimental, that all of a sudden gave it a new depth because of a struggle that we didn’t know existed beneath the surface. And I think that’s what happens in Superstar, that people think it’s going to be maybe an ironic sort of joke movie about Karen Carpenter, and you’re like, ‘No, this actually dead serious.’ And you find yourself getting involved emotionally in ways you aren’t quite prepared for because of the naive presentation.”
Haynes reveals here that the main idea at play throughout Superstar is that looks can be deceiving. Or at the very least, they try to be. The hollowly amiable A&M executive who listens to the Carpenters’ tape and imagines their brand — “Karen and Richard Carpenter: just a couple kids next door.” — and promises in a spookily sloping warble, “We’re a real family here at A&M. We’ll take real good care of you. All you have to do is put yourself in my hands.” is obviously not a genuinely supportive figure. His plastic palm stretches outwards across the room to Karen, who is vulnerable and frozen. Perhaps she thinks this invitation to a “real” family could bring her into contact with people who will take notice of her, unlike her parents and brother, who are shocked to discover that the beautiful notes floating through their household are coming from Karen. The siblings accept the man’s offer and sign the contract. A scream cuts through the room. Haynes then cuts abruptly to black-and-white historical footage of a gaunt naked corpse being rolled into a grave, signifying, possibly, Karen unwittingly sealing her fate. This image isn’t presented as a moralistic judgment, but rather it is used as a tool to further investigate Karen’s isolation through the lenses of multiple genres — most notably and effectively, body horror.
Some text appears on the screen: “As we investigate the story of Karen Carpenter’s life and death we are presented with an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity. We will see how Karen’s visibility as a popular singer only intensified certain difficulties many women experience in relation to their bodies.” Underneath these words, a clarinet softly comments a refrain. This series of notes gives me chills every time I hear them. They repeat twice and then are translated by Karen Carpenter: “We’ve only just begun to live/White lace and promises…” These two lines jolt me back to Long Island. The innocence — the naiveté — of my younger days, the security in the fantasia of planning Princess Barbie’s dream wedding. I can hide in her song. I don’t have to question why I can seemingly hack through the BARBIE SOFTWARE FOR GIRLS. My parents upstairs don’t have to know that decades later the white lace and promises of their heterosexual sacrament will begin to unravel. Haynes is right. I’m now emotionally involved with his film in ways I could have never expected. Piano keys twinkle and fade out. Bombs fall from the sky.
“The year is 1970,” our stuffy narrator reminds us. “This was the year that put the song on to the charts that made The Carpenters a household word.” That song would be “(They Long To Be) Close to You.” But Karen can’t seem to get through the recording session. She hacks out a cough, ruining the take. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s the matter with me!” she tells Richard. “Just relax. Take a deep breath,” he begins to comfort her. “Look, we’ll just do it until it’s right! You just — do what I tell you, and it’ll be great!” “Well…I just want it to be…perfect,” Karen replies. The word drips to the floor with self-pity. Richard may put up a sympathetic front, but it is clear that his real focus is not his sister. He’s exasperated, and he just wants to finish the take.
Karen is mortified by a newspaper columnist who refers to her as “chubby.” Invited to a big dinner celebrating the success of The Carpenters, she begins taking laxative pills to fight any potential weight gain. When the family sits together at home, watching an appearance the duo makes on television, Karen can only focus on her weight. “Oh, I looked fat.” She sulks. Richard and her parents quickly refute this. Richard uncomfortably goes on to encouragingly refer to his own sister as “the sexy chick at the microphone.” Their mother demands that the siblings continue to live in the Carpenter household even through their new fame, so as to avoid the lifestyle that comes with it.
A brief live-action interlude of faux talking-head style interviews shows us what people in the surrounding scene thought of The Carpenters. “There was just something about Karen Carpenter’s voice that you couldn’t dismiss,” remarks a DJ, “I mean, here was this corny teenage girl with bangs,” he says, immediately dismissing her, “singing these songs with that deep, sort of sophisticated voice of hers.” A musician named Michelle Hoyt explains that “their sound was too smooth and manipulative…their image was too clean and sweet.” She shakes her head. “I never trusted them.”
At dinner, Karen is so disappointed by her salad that she barely touches it. The people around her disapprove of what she explains away as “her new diet.” (Karen Carpenter did in fact start dieting at a fairly young age — but the film’s imagery definitely implies the heavy usage of laxatives as a player in her disordered eating.) When Richard later discovers Karen blacked out in a backstage dressing room from taking too much Ex-Lax, he flies into a rage. “What are you trying to do, ruin both our careers?” He stomps around the room. “You’re a mess!” Karen bursts into sobs. After Karen collapses on stage due to exhaustion, her mother is much more insistent on having strict control over her children. Karen brings up that she wants to move out of the house — she’s found a great place outside of Downey. A condo in Century City. But her mother protests. Karen snaps back at her, vying for self-sufficiency. She eventually gets her wish — and it looks as though things are beginning to improve for her. She hosts swanky parties in her new apartment. She gets a new hairdo and spends more time with her famous friends. But these things are not enough to hide the physical toll that has she has put herself through. Her appearance has noticeably changed. In order to get “beneath the surface” of Karen Carpenter, Haynes physically chips away at his doll’s face in order to give her an alarmingly unwell look. Here he takes his indictment of the iconically artificial image of the female body to a literal level, assaulting the very material of which Barbie is made of. This has quite an unnerving effect — highlighting the horrors enacted on the body as a result of Karen’s struggle with her disorder, but also those that come as a direct consequence of the stress of her demanding family. There is an inherent body horror that comes with living publicly in a female-presenting body.
Richard finds more Ex-Lax in Karen’s new condo and once again is overcome with anger. Karen warns that if he tells their parents about it, she’ll tell them about his “private life.” (This comment is likely the other point of contention that invited the rage of the real Richard — a salacious insinuation that he was in the closet.) “You little bitch!” he spits at her. “What’s wrong?” Karen mocks him. “Do the Carpenters have something to hide?” A stunning montage set to a haunting medley of Carpenters songs shows Karen falling deeper into despair. She continues to take more and more Ex-Lax. Her mother demands her presence at an important dinner. It is here that she meets her future husband, Tom Burris. Their marriage will prove to be a disaster, lasting only fourteen months.
In the wake of this turmoil, Karen manages to admit to her family — and to herself — that she is sick. She decides to see a doctor in New York for extensive treatment. When she returns home, her family beams with pride over her progress. But unfortunately it appears that going to New York may not have solved Karen’s problems. She may have stopped taking Ex-Lax, but now she uses ipecac syrup to induce vomiting. Despite this alarming change of tactic, she cheerily informs her doctor over the phone that she’s “better than ever.” The swirling medley returns as we watch a live human hand open a bathroom drawer assorted with bottles of the syrup. The music builds and that flashing siren from the opening scene returns. Karen is overdosing. Haynes flickers between shots of the bottle, vomit spilling from a woman’s mouth, and the pale leg of the corpse in the walk-in closet. For just a brief second, we see the face of the real-life, flesh-and- blood Karen. Her face is illuminated by camera flashes. Her mouth is agape. She looks — almost ghoulish. It hurts to see her like this. We want her to look like Barbie. Her song lingers over the palm trees as we travel along the streets of Downey, California, and watch the pretty houses pass us by. We say goodbye to Karen Carpenter.