Featured Article: The Biographical Films Of Karen Carpenter

Lee chronicles the biographical films about the life of Karen Carpenter. 

The Carpenters ruled the pop charts for 14 years until the tragic death of Karen Carpenter in 1983. She was only 32 years old. The duo caught fire in the early ‘70s, and their squeaky-clean image and wholesome songs were a welcome pleasantry while the Vietnam War continued to drag on. Their popularity generated 5 television specials, 18 Grammy nominations, and an invitation to perform at the White House. While there hasn’t been a big screen adaptation made about Karen’s life, there have been two small screen bio films made about the singer. 

Superstar - The Karen Carpenter Story - 1987

Using a cast of Barbie and Ken dolls, director Todd Haynes spent two months building miniature replicas and sets for his film. Haynes pieced together real life first-person footage with miniature scenes to bring to light one of pop music’s most fascinating and tragic icons. The film begins the day Karen dies before flashing back seven years to when The Carpenters were at the peak of their fame. The Barbie production is oddly fascinating, especially the montage scenes of The Carpenters’ live performances.  Haynes’s sets are impressive, providing an intimate behind-the-scenes look at Karen’s battle with anorexia nervosa. Superstar focuses heavily on the disease, highlighting the various habits Karen developed to lose weight. There are a few moments when facts about the disease scroll up the screen. These scenes are reminiscent of old educational scare-tactic films. The film takes the subject very seriously, highlighting the side effects associated with the disorder. It’s an honorable approach, especially considering most of the world had never heard of the disease during Karen’s short life. The singer’s sudden death would bring a much needed spotlight to the severity of eating disorders. 

The use of Barbies provided a unique advantage for Haynes’s DIY film. It gave the director a safe approach to accurately display the effects of anorexia. At her thinnest, Karen was wraith-like, a pale and skeletal version of herself. Extreme weight loss would have been an offensive request to ask of an actress, not to mention extremely dangerous. While the Barbie production may seem like a comical approach to a film, Superstar is surprisingly very dark.

Superstar was well received at several film festivals, but showings and limited distribution were short-lived once Richard Carpenter had seen the film. He wasn’t happy with the portrayal of Karen and his family. He especially took offense to a scene that hinted that he was a homosexual. Carpenter sued Haynes, who never obtained musical licensing for the songs in the film. The musician easily won the lawsuit, which required all copies of the film recalled or destroyed. A few copies survived, but multiple duplications over the years have severely altered the quality of the film. It’s a shame; the film does a great job bringing public awareness to eating disorders and self starvation. Haynes’s altered and thinned Barbie doll gives viewers a realistic look at Karen at her worst.


The Karen Carpenter Story (1989)

The Karen Carpenter Story premiered January 1st, 1989 on CBS. While Karen is the focus, the film highlights the brother and sister duo, rather than just Karen herself. So much so that it wouldn’t have been far-fetched for the film to be titled The Karen and Richard Carpenter Story. Richard Carpenter served as a producer for the made-for-TV film. The film starts before the fame, focusing on the duo’s musical roots before their rise to pop stardom. Cynthia Gibbs does an honorable job capturing Karen’s playful spirit, and Mitchell Anderson does an equally impressive job as Richard Carpenter. It also gives viewers a better understanding of just how talented Richard Carpenter was, and how he was an equally influential force in The Carpenters’ success. 

When the storyline approaches Karen’s battle with anorexia, it does so with a safe “after school special” approach. It doesn’t feel as darkly represented as it should, considering it’s the driving force to the ultimate demise of The Carpenters. As the story progresses, Gibbs is fitted with looser and larger clothing to simulate Karen’s dramatic weight loss. It would have been unacceptable to expect Gibbs to lose weight for the role, not to mention insulting to those battling eating disorders. The film also focuses on Richard Carpenter’s addiction to sleeping pills, bringing to light the personal demons the duo both endured. The portrayal of these addictions gives the audience an idea to how The Carpenters lost over $250,000 due to cancelled shows during their touring career. 

The Karen Carpenter Story also sheds light on The Carpenters’ overly protective parents. The film tries a little too hard to create a wedge between Karen and her mother, attempting to use the difficulties between mother and daughter as an excuse for Karen’s illness. These scenes lack sympathy, creating several unnecessary scenarios before setting up an extremely hokey and fictional feel-good ending. Richard Carpenter was quick to point out several fictional scenes in the film; "Certain things were overblown,” he said after the film premiered, “but we're dealing with a TV movie, so you have to take it with a grain of salt.” Years later, he would claim his involvement in the film as one of the biggest mistakes of his life. 

Overall the film does a good job telling the story of The Carpenters as a whole, but it lacks the severity and seriousness in displaying Karen’s battle with anorexia. While Richard Carpenter is no doubt an impressive composer and songwriter, the lasting impression of The Carpenters is Karen’s angelic voice, and more importantly, how her life was tragically cut short. 


Many musicians who have overcome adversity have had their stories brought to life on the big screen. Some of these adaptations have made for some amazing films with Oscar nominated performances -- Ray, Walk the Line, and The Buddy Holly Story to name a few (yes, Gary Busey did get nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Buddy Holly in 1978). Karen Carpenter’s story in the world of entertainment is an important one. Her death brought a much-needed public awareness to a serious disorder. At the time of her death, anorexia was still considered a shameful, dirty secret no one wanted to talk about. It was also considered a young girl’s habit. Carpenter’s band mate John Bettis summed it up best: “Anorexia nervosa was so new that I didn't even know how to pronounce it until 1980." Even after her death, Karen’s family tried to blame her death on a weakened heart, not wanting to acknowledge the disease. The claim was partially true. 

Karen’s ultimate cause of death was heart failure, but many chose to ignore that the failure was caused by her struggle with anorexia. In today’s fat shaming society, eating disorders and one’s lack of confidence continue to have tragic results. Meanwhile, celebrity worshiping and “selfie” photograph sharing on social media have brought exaggerated ideas of beauty to a new level. Social media has also sadly given bullies the opportunity to shame others from afar, 24 hours a day. There is a need for a proper big screen adaptation of Karen Carpenter’s life now more than ever. It would no doubt be a delicate undertaking, especially in the case of Karen’s dramatic body transformation. Although frail bodies have been accurately portrayed in films such as Schindler’s List, and the use of limited CGI with actual make-up helped bring Brad Pitt through the various stages of life in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. Realistically, such a film will likely never happen, especially considering Richard Carpenter’s actions and comments on the prior mentioned films. It’s sad really, resulting in yet another lost opportunity to turn a tragic story into something positive.  

Where's the method to this madness
As we create the suffering
And we do each other in and we still hold on

The Carpenters – “When It’s Gone”

-Lee L. Lind

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