Nether Regions 04.12.11: Karen Carpenter Double Feature
Posted by Chad Webb on 04.12.2011
This week we cover two films about the late singer Karen Carpenter from the 1980's. The first is a famous short film made with Barbie dolls (by Todd Haynes), and the other is a run-of-the-mill made-for-TV movie. Click for my analysis…
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY
Featuring ehe Voices of: Merrill Graves, Michael Edwards, and Melissa Brown Directed By: Todd Haynes Written By: Cynthia Schneider and Todd Haynes Running Time: 43 minutes Release Date: 1987 Missing Since: Never Released Existing Formats: None Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
On February 4th, 1983, singer Karen Carpenter died of heart failure/cardiac arrest. This was eventually attributed to the fact that she suffered from anorexia nervosa, which as this short film points out, is a very complicated eating disorder. Karen's death brought anorexia into the public eye, and from then on, more celebrities came forward about their own eating disorders. Four years after her tragic passing, Todd Haynes made a little film about her struggle with this serious mental illness; only it wasn't your basic biopic. Haynes elected to depict Carpenter's life and struggle using Barbie dolls. It was a minor hit, but sparked immediate controversy. Regardless of how it sounds, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is a scary and powerful piece of work.
Karen confronted by Richard and her mother.
Superstar begins with a live-action sequence showcasing Karen's mother Agnes finding her dead in the closet. The dolls then enter via flashback to 1966 where the parents learn that Karen has talent and can sing in her brother Richard's group. Shortly thereafter, Karen and Richard are signed by Herb Albert with A&M Records. Karen's eating disorder really kicks into gear after she reads an article that refers to her as "chubby." Eventually she tries to get treatment for it and reinvigorate her career. Haynes displays Carpenter's anorexia growing worse by shaving away layers of the doll's face and arms. In addition, all of the necessary settings, like the Carpenters' home in Downey, Karen's apartment in Century City, recording studios, and so on are all scaled to fit the dolls.
What gives Haynes' film most of its strength is the documentary-style approach during the intervals between doll segments. He outlines the time period in which Karen lived and explains how that could have contributed to her behavior. The definition of anorexia nervosa, exactly what the sufferer does to their body, and the flaws in the treatment are all detailed through text on screen. The problem is, reading this text can be mighty difficult since it is in black and sometimes blends with the background.
No one would argue that Haynes' film is completely accurate, but the manner in which he reveals the events, being sympathetic towards Karen and undoubtedly the opposite with her parents and brother Richard, seems increasingly plausible compared to the made-for-TV adaptation or the statements made by the real Richard. Karen's mother and father are shown as domineering and unloving, while Richard is seen as a narcissistic bully who is overly critical of his sister. One of the best moments has Richard walking into the dressing room and yelling at his sleepy sister as he finds the Ex-Lax pills. He accuses her of ruining their careers and leaves as she starts crying. Another argument has Karen insinuating that Richard was a homosexual. This obviously irritated the real Richard Carpenter who is married with many children. Two other stand-out scenes should be mentioned. One has the Herb Albert character intercut with shots of the Holocaust and a body being thrown into a pit. Another has Karen's father spanking her in the form of a dream. Both scenes have deliberate intentions.
The family surrounds Karen right after her treatment.
Merrill Graves and Michael Edwards give terrific voice performances as Karen and Richard. The entire cast shifts between grounded and exaggerated delivery, but it is effective. Music is an important act of Superstar as well. Haynes integrated many songs from the period into the film, including several by the Carpenters, plus others by Gilbert O'Sullivan and Elton John. These selections certainly augment the substance, but there are also bursts of a score that inject a psychological thriller atmosphere. It was the use of the Carpenters' music that prevented this film from ever seeing the light of day. Richard Carpenter sued Haynes for copyright infringement because he had not obtained permission to use the songs. He won, but the film can still be found by those who really want to see it, so did he really win? The controversy also contributed to its status as a cult classic.
Superstar is a bizarre film, but also quite brilliant in many ways and absolutely impossible to shake from your mind. I promise that you will never be able to listen to a Carpenters song with the same feelings again. Haynes made this while attending Bard College, and it's amazing how intriguing and profound it is. He incorporates parody, quasi-documentary footage, drama, biopic, and dark humor into one crazy, but unforgettable, effort.
Final Rating = 9.0/10.0
THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (TV-1989)
Starring: Cynthia Gibb, Mitchell Anderson, and Louise Fletcher Directed By: Joseph Sargent and Richard Carpenter (uncredited) Written By: Barry Morrow Running Time: 105 minutes Release Date: January 1, 1989 Missing Since: 1989 Existing Formats: None Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
The above review involved a lot of history, mainly because the circumstances surrounding that short film are as fascinating as the film itself, but these two films are lumped together because it is important to compare and contrast them. Plus, there are not other accounts of their rise to fame aside from a documentary called Close to You. Not long after Todd Haynes unleashed Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Richard Carpenter acted as Executive Producer on a live-action film that aired on television in 1989. It was called simply The Karen Carpenter Story, although it focuses just as heavily on Richard and the family.
The Carpenter family cast.
This too commences with Karen being found in the Downey home and being carried away. This then travels back in time to 1963 when the Carpenter family moved to that town and goes forward from there, covering the major points. One of the problems with this television movie is that the title is misleading. Karen's story is definitely a priority, but so is the success of the Carpenters and Richard's dependency on Quaaludes. This also soaks up plenty of time touching on most of their big hits.
Joseph Sargent directed The Karen Carpenter Story, and Richard Carpenter is listed as an uncredited director. It's plain as day that Richard had a lot of input since the movie plays it relatively safe as far as why Karen developed anorexia, who could have been responsible, or who made it worse. Therefore, Karen is largely portrayed as a mystery since the movie is not genuinely critical of anyone, and takes no clear-cut stands. The parents are a little overprotective, but shown as generally caring, and the relationship between Karen and Richard was supposedly flawless. Early the filmmakers go out of their way to show that Karen loved eating food, which was unnecessary.
Todd Haynes' Superstar did not hesitate to point some fingers. Whether or not his interpretation was right is not the issue, but at least Haynes had a trajectory. This Karen Carpenter Story simply wants to write the incident off as a tragic event related to an out of control diet. Anorexia nervosa is a psychological illness, but Karen is seen here exercising a lot, while fleeting remarks are made about the Ex-Lax pills. Even though Superstar mentions the "chubby" article, this movie puts almost all the weight on that as the cause of Karen's downfall. This article is said to have never existed. An article may have been written that referred to Richard as "chubby", but no one knows of any such printing about Karen. The reason I bring this out here is because this particular movie uses that as a crutch and never attempts to delve beneath the surface of Karen's mental handicap.
The performances are a mixed bag from start to finish. Most of it is bogged down by the occasionally cringe-inducing dialogue from screenwriter Barry Morrow. Cynthia Gibb is no more than average as Karen. She sings one song, but lip-syncs to the rest, which looks fine in some scenes and horrible in others. Gibb resembles Karen primarily in size, but because it was not a complete immersion, it's hard to take the singing moment seriously. I read unconfirmed reports that Gibb lost weight, but the camera avoids excessive "skinny" shots, so I could not tell. Mitchell Anderson is tolerable as Richard, played as a straight-laced, hard-working young man whose only fault was relying on Quaaludes. You might recognize Karen and Richard's mother Agnes because that is Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) herself, Louise Fletcher. Fletcher and Gibb have one solid exchange late in the movie at Karen's apartment, but by then it's too late.
Cynthia Gibb and Mitchell Anderson pose.
The Karen Carpenter Story received some of the highest viewer ratings of the 1980's, which is not a shock. Unfortunately everything is treated with kid gloves. Aside from the regular cons of a made-for-TV movie, it contains many minor historical inaccuracies and tries to tack on an absurd happy ending. If this was an answer to Haynes' film, it was a mediocre one. Richard Carpenter would say years later that he regretted making, being a part of, and endorsing this movie. By the time the conclusion hits, it is conveyed that Karen was fine when she died, but the damage to her heart from all those years of anorexia ultimately caused the cardiac arrest.
This Karen Carpenter Story does not include Ipecac, which is a syrup substance that induces vomiting. It was said to have been found in Karen's system when she died, but many close to her disputed that claim. This movie seems to just exist, not really for any conceivable reason but to paint the Carpenters in a specific, skewed picture. Haynes' Superstar is chilling and thought-provoking, which is precisely what this sad story should be.
Final Rating = 5.5/10.0
It is doubtful that either of these films will ever be released on DVD, but you can find them on YouTube. I have not posted Haynes' Superstar here because it is commonly taken down and re-posted all the time. Just search for that one if you really want to check it out. But the television Karen Carpenter Story is on that site from several people. Here is part 1 below:
- I meant to see Insidious and one of the new releases since last week, but I got tied up with my new favorite thing, That Metal Show on vH1 Classic. If you like rock and/or metal, this is a show for you. It's fashioned like something 411mania would do with Top 5 lists, interviews, arguing on certain topics, questions, and more. I also dove into the Scream trilogy on Blu-Ray.
- I'm really sad to hear about Edge's retirement. He was easily the #1 performer that kept me watching WWE for many years now.
- I'm looking forward to picking up the new Foo Fighters and TV on the Radio albums today. Lately I've been listening to random stuff like Stone Sour and Genertion X. I've been hard at work reading Green Lantern comics in preparation for the film. You'll see how I'm preparing for Thor soon enough.
- I also saw Charlie Sheen at Radio City Music Hall. I plan on writing about it within the next few days.