In the early 2000s, Brittany Murphy was a popular actress, with starring roles in films like 8 Mile and Just Married. Her breakthrough part in 1995’s Clueless indicated her strength as a comedic performance, and she turned in fine dramatic work in films like Girl, Interrupted. But, like too many other celebrities, Murphy died an untimely death at the age of thirty-two in December 2009, with the official cause ruled as pneumonia. The new HBO Max documentary What Happened, Brittany Murphy? ponders what could have been but spends much more time on the questionable circumstances that led to her tragic death.
Thanks to the decade and a half that she worked regularly as an actress, there is plenty of footage of Murphy, both in the process of acting and simply mugging for the camera that she either knows or doesn’t know is rolling. This nonfiction investigation makes tremendous use of the extensive library of clips at its disposal, drawing countless parallels between the roles Murphy played and real events happening in her life. It’s reminiscent of how Anthony Bourdain’s writing was startlingly prescient as utilized in the recent film Roadrunner, though this film doesn’t appear to employ any controversial artificial manipulation of her voice or image. Using only that preexisting content makes Murphy feel all the more distant, and there is something particularly haunting about the invocation of her memorable signature line from Don’t Say a Word: “I’ll never tell.”
Like many other documentaries about high-profile deaths that were heavily and publicly scrutinized, this project has a definitive angle. Murphy’s husband Simon Monjack is the prime suspect, not explicitly guilty of murder but certainly of shady and damaging behavior. It’s easy for viewers to draw their own conclusions, since the dynamic of Monjack and Murphy’s mother Sharon on Larry King Live is at best bizarre and at worst very disturbing, as is the assertion from a journalist that Monjack’s mother-in-law would frequently crawl into bed with him for comfort following her daughter’s death. The film also highlights YouTubers who merge makeup tutorials with conspiracy theories, emphasizing if nothing else the sensational nature of Murphy’s decline and how startling and unbelievable her death was at the time.
This is all part of a larger picture, an indictment of an industry that puts far too much pressure on its players to be prettiest and thinnest and most desirable. Murphy’s costars, directors, and other colleagues chime in on how she was undone by the demands of an unforgiving system, one that made her vulnerable to the predatory advances of Monjack, who saw an opportunity for control and fame and took it without hesitation. Perez Hilton gets a particular spotlight as he recalls his own role in mocking Murphy and contributing to a culture that never allowed her to be happy with who she was. It’s difficult to watch as Murphy begins to show signs of distress, appearing on set unprepared and unfocused, and to try to comprehend the all-too-familiar path that led her there.
Anyone seeking irrefutable and concise answers about how it was that Murphy died of pneumonia when she was only thirty-two years old and whether her husband was to blame won’t find them here. This is the latest instance of the increasingly popular true-crime genre, one that seeks to shine a light where it hasn’t previously – or at the very least, recently – been shone, grasping onto clues that have been left behind and might somehow be able to help piece the puzzle together. It’s simultaneously good and sad to see Murphy again after so many years, and there’s some hope in the concept that a search for an explanation for what happened to her might help save others like her from similar fates in the future.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is now streaming on HBO Max.