lTellingly, What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, a new docuseries about the confusing death of actor Clueless and Girl, Interrupted in December 2009, is plagued by two over the top magic tricks. The two-part HBO Max series begins with her mother, Sharon Murphy’s frantic 911 call, during a recreation of the EMS journey from Murphy’s Hollywood Hills home to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where she died of a combination of pneumonia, severe anemia and various prescription and over-the-counter drugs by age 32. It ends with a hammy montage of fan videos shot by internet detectives – straight to the camera, brightly lit, skeptical replays that often double as makeup tutorials – spliced with scenes from Murphy’s movies, as if her expressive face is conversing with their fascination.
That dialogue is a ruse; for the two hours between these moments, What happened, Brittany Murphy? takes on the role of amateur sleuth. By combing tabloid reports, medical records, and people’s first-hand accounts surrounding her death, it claims to explain Murphy’s tragic, untimely demise and, more pertinently to the headlines, her abusive, oppressive marriage to Simon Monjack, which ended five months after her death. death died pneumonia.
There’s certainly room for a movie or series to revisit Murphy’s largely underrated career, her live-wire screen presence and the pressures that propelled her into a controlling marriage and, by many accounts, crippling anxiety over her career and appearance. But this series, directed by Cynthia Hill, feels less like a monument to Murphy’s life than an exploitation of her death, the tropes and pitfalls of true crime obsession – another’s pain as a puzzle, hyperclinical details, baseless skepticism, speculation for speculation’s sake – seeded into one of the most obnoxious rethinks of a 90s/00s star. What went so wrong here?
There are glimpses of another more thoughtful Murphy series – Hill managed to recruit some of Murphy’s childhood friends to participate, as well as co-stars such as Taryn Manning and Amy Heckerling, the director of her breakout performance as a make-up artist. about Ugly Duckling in 1995’s Clueless. All testify to a bubbly, ambitious, supernaturally kind and talented performer, as evidenced by old footage from her early New Jersey theater days. The only child of a single mother, Murphy dreamed of Hollywood success, ached to belong and was an open book of emotions amid countless pressures to be a star in the late 90s.
At times, the series seems interested in re-evaluating or seriously considering the pressures that accelerated Murphy’s professional struggles, exacerbated her health problems, and left her vulnerable to an emotionally abusive and controlling husband. It touches on the intense focus on women’s bodies during the period when Murphy briefly became known as ‘it-girl’; the whole concept of a sassy little perpetually “on” girl in the first place; the relentless examination of her body, her transformation from “ugly” (she was never) to hot; speculation about pills and plastic surgery (the truth of which doesn’t matter); how Hollywood made disordered eating possible. This comes mainly from the testimony of Murphy’s King of the Hill co-star Kathy Najimy and longtime friend Kelley Faulkner, two of the few participants who seem to have been genuinely invested in projecting Murphy’s legacy as an enthusiastic, versatile performer and exuberant colleague. .
But Hill undermines her own half-hearted attempts at criticism by straying into both sheer schlock and the trap of mistaking interest for importance. Just like Britney vs Spears, Erin Lee Carr’s documentary about the pop star’s conservatory that premiered on Netflix last month, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? also prioritizes people’s experience next to her pain – what the timeline and focus was like for the police officer, the lawyer, the PR rep, the Radar Online reporter who interviewed Monjack after her death. Hill features numerous YouTube clips of fans speculating about the nature of Monjack and Sharon Murphy’s questionably close relationship—a choice perhaps intended to show how Monjack’s obscurity nurtured a thousand theories, but ultimately perpetuates them.
What’s even more disturbing is that the series seems to be focused on clickbait headlines – “The Eight Biggest Bombshells of the Brittany Murphy Documentary”, etc. The two episodes enjoy a host of true crime tropes – tacky recreations of pill bottles being thrown on the bedside table tilted, slow motion pans across a messy bathroom, heavy-handed score – in beating Murphy’s promising career, health problems and most importantly her marriage to Monjack, who seems to have been one of the least convincing con artists ever. There are some really egregious moments, like a dramatization of the forensic pathologist dropping a sample of Murphy’s lung into water to confirm pneumonia during the autopsy (why not just say it was pneumonia? Why a coroner at all?), or a recreation of the bathroom where she died.
It’s almost impossible to watch this series and not think about the recent documentaries about Britney Spears – Netflix’s Britney vs Spears and two New York Times projects about FX on Hulu, all three of which contain uneasy elements of obsession with the central focus. . But while those films ultimately involve a dubious legal settlement that’s still a work in progress, it continues to trap thousands of others, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? ends up dead in selfish speculation. Most of the time, the series comes across as incredibly misjudged – because there is public interest in re-evaluating such beleaguered 1990s/00s figures as Spears, Monica Lewinksy, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, Princess Diana, and others, any investigation of a beautiful tragedy will succeed. . This isn’t Amy, Asif Kapadia’s sensitive, heartbreaking portrayal of Amy Winehouse’s tormented life, or Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 film about Whitney Houston, or even the serious but not overpowering depictions of partner abuse in Tina, Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin’s 2021 documentary about Tina Turner.
As we’ve seen again with widespread coverage, in traditional media and on TikTok, about the disappearance of Gabby Petito, America’s fixation on the loss of a beautiful white woman is always green and evolving. What happened, Brittany Murphy? combines a newer phenomenon – online detectives fascinated by Murphy’s death to sick, selfish purposes – and wraps it in an earlier Dateline style. That Murphy, who barely has a complex personality here, still shines through in her brief screen appearances is a testament to her talent—a talent that should be seriously considered then and now.