Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story



Main Cast: Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards

Director: Todd Haynes

I arrived back in Los Angeles, pulling into the porte-cochere of Casa Maine in the wee hours of the morning.  Normy had not waited up so I tiptoed in the great oaken front doors and headed up the grand staircase, Ferragamo pumps in hand so as not to disturb his slumbers.  Part way up I was met by a decayed baboon like creature who was heading down the stairs wearing what looked like Normy’s second best smoking jacket and an old cloche of mine which I had worn in the Good Evening number in my musical film, Stingin’ and in Pain.  It is bad enough to have to share one’s domicile with simian spirits courtesy of Norma Desmond’s backyard burial ground but I absolutely draw the line at having them wear my clothes.  I did the only thing one could do in such a situation and shied my shoes at it.  Being a ghost, they passed right through the specter and it let out a little gibbering shriek as it disappeared with a little pop.

Olive Baboon PD

Honestly, this is not the face I expected to greet me!

Normy appeared wondering what the fuss was about and we repaired to the kitchen for a late night snack of Triscuits and brie with a nice little Riesling that I found at the back of the Frigidaire.  He informed me that the monkey mayhem had grown worse in my absence with dead chimpanzees and orangutans manifesting themselves in all sorts of inconvenient places.  They frightened off both our new cook and new maid and a particularly terrifying gibbon has taken to dive bombing the mail carrier from one of the upper windows forcing Normy to go down to the local post office to collect our residual checks.  I was appalled.  I have no intention of sharing my dream home with a bunch of unquiet ape spirits.

I immediately telephoned Mr. Michael, my expert in all things dead and undead and told him to present himself first thing in the morning so that we could make battle plans.  He promised to meet me and said he thought he might have a solution or two.  In the meantime, Normy returned to his slumbers, but I was so keyed up, I headed into my magnificent home theater for a film with which to unwind.  As it was the middle of the night and I was getting sleepy, I decided a short film was in order.  I was delighted to find one of less than an hour, which I had never seen despite it being one of the most famous cult films of the last few decades.

I refer, of course, to Todd Haynes’s Superstar:  The Karen Carpenter Story from 1988, the film that put him on the independent film world map and eventually brought him to the attention of Hollywood with such projects as Far From Heaven and the recent television remake of Mildred PierceSuperstar is a difficult film to find as it was the subject of a cease and desist suit brought by Richard Carpenter of The Carpenters making it illegal to sell or distribute the film commercially as the production company never bothered to clear the rights to The Carpenter’s music on which the film depends.

The film is a quasi-documentary biopic of Karen Carpenter, the voice of the musical group The Carpenters, and chronicles her rise to fame with her brother, her self-doubt that manifested itself as anorexia nervosa and her attempts at a comeback before her untimely death, from the metabolic effects of her anorexia and the cardio toxic effects of syrup of ipecac.  What makes the film remarkable and lifts it out of the commonplace is that Karen and Richard Carpenter and the other people in her life are played by a collection of Barbie and Ken dolls, shot on appropriately miniature sets.    The Carpenters, wholesome kids from Downey, California who came along as the country wearied of the excesses of the sixties, rocketed to fame in Nixon’s America on the strength of Richard’s catchy compositions and Karen’s warm and inviting alto.  Their songs including ‘Close to You’, ‘For All We Know’ ‘On Top of the World’ and others became radio staples in the early 70s leading to international fame.

The film is both audacious and amateurish.  The miniature sets are obvious craft store fabrications (but fun) and it’s clear that the dolls are held and moved by hands just below the camera frame leading to some awkwardly composed shots.  There are intercut scenes of newsreel and stock footage setting time and place and some odd sequences which might be dreams or psychic flashbacks including a black and white spanking scene that seems lifted from another film altogether.  But despite these technical drawbacks, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly sympathetic look at an icon from another era.  The treatment of Karen (voiced by Merrill Gruver) is kind and there’s a surprising depth for so short a film to how her pain and illness came to be.  This is accomplished mainly by making her brother Richard (voiced by Michael Edwards) into a perfectionist who puts his career ahead of her welfare and by making their parents (Melissa Brown and Rob LaBelle) into a nasty and controlling pair of fuddy-duddies who refuse to allow their talented and famous children to grow up and enjoy adult lives.  It’s likely that Richard was reacting to his rather unflattering portrayal (plus an intimation of a sexual life at odds with his public image) when he filed suit rather than to the use of his music.

Todd Haynes has built his career on a serious reconsideration of camp sensibility channeling filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk and the great strong women actresses of the forties like Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford into his work.  This early film, despite amateurish moments, shows an innate understanding of the power of film and of imagery to invoke a particular cultural feeling.  Barbie is such a part of American girlhood innocence, the eternal California teenager that she brings up thoughts and feelings that no actress could possibly create.  It’s therefore worth searching out this film, despite the difficulty in finding a copy.  Barbie and Ken are unlikely to have such roles again as there is never likely to be another duo like The Carpenters.  That particular moment in American culture is long past.

Downey streetscapes.  Herb Alpert.  Ominous Ex-Lax.  Bad marriage.  Gratuitous Dionne Warwick.  Multiple top forty hits. Beach walks. 108 pounds. Hospital treatments.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at

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