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‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 20, 1989

You might start laughing at Todd Haynes' "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," a surreal reenactment of the singer's ill-fated career that uses Barbie dolls instead of real-life actors. But the giggle will soon die in your throat. This 43-minute drama, which initially appears to make campy mockery of the '70s singer, turns out to be a compassionate and deeply affecting treatment of America's easy-listening siren.

Approximately one-third the length of a regular movie, "Superstar" manages to cover more ground and leave a greater resonance than half a dozen rise-and-fall biographies (a genre that "Superstar" parodies). Countless impressions echo throughout your mind after viewing "Superstar," including strains of the hits you thought you had long since escaped -- but which have aged disturbingly well and which, in light of her untimely 1983 death, seem imbued with a deeper, fatalistic quality.

With dolls "playing" the parts of Karen and Richard Carpenter, as well as their parents, Haynes and cowriter/producer Cynthia Schneider chart the disturbing course of the singer's life -- a heady, sweet-natured success, followed by touring pressures and the ultimately fatal battle with anorexia nervosa (she died in her parents' home after a massive ingestion of ipecac syrup). Haynes and Schneider create a subjective but stirring sense of her increasing neurosis and, by intercutting images of President Nixon, the Vietnam war, the sitcom faces of television and antiwar demonstrations, indicate the troubled times she sang to.

"Superstar" is loaded with other, more grim significances. When the Carpenters perform for Nixon at the White House (in his banner year of 1973), you're clearly supposed to see the duo as Diet-Rite and doll-perfect fiddlers to a burning America.

The depiction of Carpenter's family is unflattering; they seem ignorant, though not uncaring, about her anguish. Anorexia nervosa is examined as an obsessional sickness, a denial of femininity; it is called a "fascism over the body in which the sufferer plays both dictator and the emaciated victim."

Karen Carpenter-the-Barbie-doll literally deteriorates before your eyes, her plastic "flesh" scraped away (by Haynes) as her condition worsens. But throughout these horrors (including recurring images of a hand slapping a doll's buttocks -- the disciplinary aspect of anorexia -- and a body plummeting to earth) is a heartfelt, though eerie, eulogy to a tormented woman who died for fame.

Watch "Superstar" while you can. Haynes, who has no rights to the Carpenters' songs, claims to have recently received a letter of warning from Mattel and has yet to hear from the Carpenter family.

Copyright The Washington Post

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