The Carpenters were already strange enough. The brother and sister duo churned out hit after relentless hit in the 1970s, all perk, sweet harmonies and Karen Carpenter's eerily smooth voice. But that contralto seemed to mask a yawning emptiness; Karen crooned about melancholy in much the same way she sang about joy -- with the flattened affect of the medicated.
Filmmaker Todd Haynes found the perfect way to heighten that strangeness and illustrate the incongruity of Karen's heavenly voice by telling the story of her hellish life. The "actors" in his 1987 film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, are not real people but Barbie dolls, whose painted-on smiles and unrealistic bodies underscore the tragic nature of the tale. Karen Carpenter, you might recall, died after years of battling anorexia nervosa -- that voice, in later years, wafting out of a ravaged face.
Haynes' film is being shown as part of the Illegal Art tour -- a showcase for paintings, etchings, sculptures and fake stamps that borrow liberally from copyrighted, corporate images. Haynes' use of Barbies and his critical take on the Carpenter family earned the director no end of grief from Mattel and Karen's survivors. As a result, Superstar was barred from public release, though screenings such as those sponsored by Illegal Art and online versions keep the cult hit alive.
Although much ink has been spilled over Superstar in the years since its release, elements of its construction warrant further investigation. Why, for instance, does Haynes use Barbies? Their plasticity, perhaps, conveys a sense of the Carpenters' manufactured wholesomeness. But maybe the dolls also exemplify the body that Karen was striving so hard to attain. Barbie, commodified ideal of the female form though she is, really is neither female nor male. Her body is lumpen, stretched and sexless. She's empty, yet full of portent, enlivened by those who play with her.
In Superstar, Haynes poses his Barbie Karen against a backdrop of disturbing images from the Carpenters' pop-chart era. Shots of riots, assassinations and the Vietnam War flicker across that Barbie face, and Haynes re-enacts the Carpenters' performance at the White House, where then-President Nixon called them "young America at its very best." The nation's growing pains, Haynes seems to suggest, were mirrored in Karen's inability to break away from her stifling family and develop an adult identity and sexuality. And Karen, like Barbie, was trapped in a body that was disturbingly adolescent.
Superstar doesn't start off so grimly, despite opening with Karen's death. The sprawled Barbie legs, the screaming -- the opening of the film has an air of high camp that also informs Haynes' most recent work, Far From Heaven. In that film, the elegant manners of Cathy Whitaker (displayed in a performance of shivering beauty by Julianne Moore) conceal a passionate, wakeful heart. Cathy, too, was like a doll -- a creature posed, animated to become Haynes' symbol of the times, of human love and possibility crushed by sexual and racial discrimination.
If Haynes' Karen Carpenter doesn't seem as thrillingly alive as his Cathy Whitaker, it's through no fault of her own -- she's only a doll, after all. But watching the Barbie Karen begin to obsess about her weight, futilely struggle to free herself from fame and her family, and fall back into anorexic abuse becomes strangely moving. Haynes scrapes away at Karen's face as the film goes on, and the scarred plastic speaks volumes. So does the Ken-doll face of Karen's brother, Richard Carpenter, smug and grinning. When the Carpenter matriarch says, "You're both to continue living at home," Richard agrees. "Great suggestion, Mom. And it's very in keeping with our image."
The film is titled after the Carpenters' hit "Superstar," a song depicting a groupie left behind by a rock star. "Long ago, and, oh, so far away," sings Karen, the words recalling a fairy-tale beginning, "I fell in love with you." It's an ironic, apt anthem for both Haynes' vision and Karen's life. Karen was an amazing talent: Her delicate, adult phrasing and the purity of her voice were astonishing. But there she is, crooning her groupie lament, a real-life singer sighing through the part of a pining fan.
Superstar is shot through with such strange horrors. Haynes slathers meaning thickly on his Barbies -- they typify the evils of a whole decade, the patterns of a smothering family, and, in the movie's words, the insecurities of "the internal experience of contemporary femininity." But even as he layers social import upon his Barbie Karen, one can't help but think he has a more realistic image of Karen Carpenter than she had of herself. Haynes' Karen isn't just a body to starve and punish, a helpless groupie in thrall to a far-off power. She's also a complex young woman, an unnerving talent and, in the end, more flesh and blood than the real Karen Carpenter could bear to be.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor.