—Narrator in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

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Critics dismissed the music by the Carpenter siblings as too sugary-sweet at a time when the Beatles were imploding, hard rock had drowned out the groovy sounds of the ’60s, and disco and punk were just around the corner. But the Carpenters were the biggest-selling group of the 1970s, with 10 singles that would eventually become million-sellers. As such hits as “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Superstar” piled up, Karen was lured away from her drum kit and persuaded to stand at a microphone at center stage while someone else kept the beat. Her reluctance to front the act, a lack of influence in selecting what she would sing, and the strict demands of Richard and their parents have been widely reported as contributing to her feeling she had little control of her life.

The mop-topped Richard and Karen Carpenter were held up as the wholesome alternative to groups fueled by drugs and anti-war protests
The mop-topped Richard and Karen Carpenter were held up as the wholesome alternative to groups fueled by drugs and anti-war protests
Video formats have changed since Superstar, but Hilderbrand notes the issues are the same
Corey Nickols
Video formats have changed since Superstar, but Hilderbrand notes the issues are the same

But her biggest issue concerned her body image. At 5-foot-4 and 145 pounds in her late teens, she went on the low-carb Stillman Diet, slimmed down to 120 pounds and managed to maintain her weight through the mid-1970s. By September 1975, she weighed 91 pounds. At some point (no one is sure when), she had developed a disease few had heard of in those days: anorexia nervosa. She underwent treatment with a New York psychotherapist in early 1982. When she dropped to 80 pounds, she was hospitalized and fed intravenously. She gained 30 pounds in two months, but unbeknownst to anyone, the forced feeding strained a heart that had already been weakened by years of crash dieting.

On Feb. 4, 1983, less than a month before turning 33, Karen suffered heart failure at her parents’ Downey home. She was taken to Downey Community Hospital, where she was pronounced dead 20 minutes later. The coroner cited heartbeat irregularities brought on by chemical imbalances associated with anorexia nervosa as the cause of death. Her passing drew the first major media attention to the disease.

Honest, warts-and-all source material from inside the Carpenter household was barely existent when Haynes, two years out of film school, decided to make what he considered a love letter to an artist he truly admired. Off a script Haynes co-wrote with producer Cynthia Schneider, he slyly cut from fictional family scenes to Barbie/Karen’s performances of Carpenters’ songs, giving them new, unintended meanings. Musical montages included images of Ex-Lax; salads; a bathroom scale; Cambodian bombing missions; Nixon tickling the ivories; the body of a Holocaust victim being tossed into a pit of corpses; and Karen’s beverage of choice, iced tea. (As the opening credit in frilly, white writing notes, Superstar is presented by “Iced Tea Productions.”)

A recurring image throughout Superstar is a bent-over Barbie being spanked on her backside. Many assume the spanker is her father, while some maintain the scenes symbolize a young woman being struck down any time she exerts independence.

*     *     *

KAREN, a Barbie doll with a poofy brown hairdo, stands in the living room while her MOTHER, a doll with a distorted face, fits her daughter for a dress.

KAREN: I will not wear that hip-hugger thing, Mother. It makes me look really fat.

MOTHER: Fat! I swear, ever since that stupid columnist called you hearty or something.

KAREN: He called me chubby.

MOTHER: Whatever. Chubby. You have just been so fanatical about your weight. I mean, that thing really went to your head.

KAREN: Oh, it did not. I just want to start watching what I eat.

MOTHER: Karen, you lost plenty of weight on that Stillman Diet. You look just fine now. All right, now that’s all I want to hear on the subject. You just concentrate on your career.

KAREN: That’s what I am doing. But you’ve got to look good in my career.

RICHARD, a Ken doll with a blown-dry blond ’do, enters the living room from the front door, breathless and excited.

RICHARD: Karen! Karen! You’ll never guess. Jack’s taking us out for a HUGE celebration dinner to honor your success. A smorgasbord at Scandia!

MOTHER: Oh, my!

RICHARD: What do you say to that?

Ominous music kicks up, the camera zooms in quickly on Karen’s blank Barbie face before cutting to a black-and-white image of a full plate of what appears to be fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and the works before dissolving into close-up of a box of Ex-Lax pills.

*     *     *

There is debate about what Superstar’s Karen is referring to when she wonders aloud to Richard what would become of the Carpenters’ all-American image if his “secret” got out. Some believe the openly gay Haynes was outing Richard, although it could have also referred to the pianist’s prescription-medication addiction. A year after Karen died, the real Richard married Mary Rudolph, the sister of the Carpenters’ road manager. They went on to have five children and remain together in Thousand Oaks.

Many speculate that Richard took legal action against Superstar not because of the unauthorized use of the Carpenters’ music (despite what the language in the lawsuit says), but because he was angered over the ugly portrayal of his family and the intimations about his personal life. A year before the Superstar settlement was reached in 1990, CBS aired the made-for-TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story, which boasted having Richard as executive producer and contributor of an original song, “Karen’s Theme.” But when later asked on a fan site if he was pleased with the TV movie, Richard replied, “Heavens no, I was not pleased. It’s not a good film. One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was agreeing to cooperate in the making of it.” He has been fiercely wary of film and documentary projects about the Carpenters ever since.

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