TNB Night Owl–Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

What do you do when you want to make a movie but have no money? You can do like Kevin Smith did with CLERKS (1994) and hire friends, use local locations, and sneak scenes in whenever you get a chance. Or you could do what Todd Hayes did with SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (1988) and use Barbie dolls instead of human actors. Not only can they be found cheaply, what you end up with adds to the symbolic level.

Hayes tells the story of Karen Carpenter from the start of her musical career through her untimely death due to eating disorders. Karen is portrayed as a victim of circumstance. Her parents not only managed the her career but Karen’s personal life as well, to the point where she was begging them to “let” her have her own apartment in her mid-twenties, despite years of a successful career behind her. Her brother took control of their musical careers, repeatedly discounting her concerns about the amount of touring and its toll on her mental and physical health. The only place she could exert control was over what food she put in her mouth. Combine that with the pressures put on women in the public eye, and Karen was left with a war with food.

Using Barbie dolls, which were already notorious for their unrealistic proportions, reiterates Karen’s struggle with seeing herself as imperfect. As Karen’s disease progresses, the doll used in her place is shaved down to reflect her weight loss. The choice used to save money also added a symbolic level to the movie.

The doll scenes were intercut with facts about anorexia as well as “on the street” interviews with live people about women’s body image issues. Not much knew is discussed here, but it helps flesh out the movie.

Hayes also included actual Carpenters recordings. Since this movie was made for comparatively no money, he never cleared the rights. When the Carpenters family were made aware of this movie they were furious. While they couldn’t shut it down over their offense, they could sue for copyright infringement. They were successful in getting the movie pulled from any legal circulation. Despite Hayes’ successful film career since SUPERSTAR, including Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, this movie has not been legally available in three decades. That hasn’t stopped it from being in circulation on YouTube:

Question of the night: what’s your favorite song to relax to?

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