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What Happened, Brittany Murphy? tries but fails to shed light on a troubled star

The new docuseries about the life and premature death of the Clueless actor has a lot of theories, though

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Brittany Murphy
Brittany Murphy
Photo: HBO Max

Coming fast on the heels of a series of documentaries examining the life of Britney Spears, the new two-part HBO Max docuseries What Happened, Brittany Murphy? touches on some similar themes: a troubled star, a controlling man, and of course, the absolutely unforgiving era of early 2000s gossip blogs.

But in the case of this documentary, there’s only so much new information to uncover: Murphy died at the age of 32 in 2009, and the surprising nature of her death inspired legions of both amateur and professional sleuths to try and figure out what, exactly, happened even then. The cause of death at the time was ruled to be pneumonia combined with anemia, alongside a potent combination of over-the-counter drugs found in Murphy’s bloodstream. But could there have been something more?

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Murphy first burst into the public consciousness with a major role in the 1995 film Clueless, in which she played the guileless Tai, who Alicia Silverstone’s Cher aims to mentor into a popular kid. The role is meant to be a somewhat gawky underdog; it is a tremendous credit to the then-17-year-old Murphy that the performance was a star-making role in which the iconic and ridiculous line “You’re a virgin who can’t drive” is delivered with gravitas.

The reason Murphy was cast in the role in the first place was that she looked a little unpolished, at least by Hollywood standards, but in her subsequent acting projects, a thinner, blonder Murphy emerged. In some ways, she followed a very traditional path for starlets, dating a popular co-star (Ashton Kutcher) and pursuing the high-concept comedies available to young actresses at the time. But she was dogged by relentless tabloid attention, which fixated both on her physical transformation and the possibility that she had a drug problem. By the time she died, her star had largely waned, and a morbid fascination with what might have gone so awry was as inevitable as it was grotesque.

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All of that, alongside the more nuanced view of the pressures of fame and the responsibilities of the tabloid media that have now taken hold in the culture, Murphy’s story is ripe for reexamination, and What Happened, Brittany Murphy? joins the fleet of prestige projects looking into our recent pop cultural past. But there isn’t a lot that’s new here, and what passes for insight comes largely from the tabloid press who haunted her while she was alive. If you remember that era and were curious enough to follow the various twists and turns of the investigation, you may remember that Murphy’s husband, a screenwriter named Simon Monjack, attracted quite a lot of suspicion in the early days after her death. When he also died from pneumonia just a few months later, the story only grew more baffling.

The first part, in particular, feels undeveloped, jumping back and forth between the days immediately following Murphy’s death and her rise in Hollywood. All the interviews are slowly revealed as back benchers in Murphy’s life: It’s predominantly a parade of hangers-on in the Hollywood ecosystem who opine about Murphy’s life without much firsthand knowledge of it, and a couple of directors who weigh in to say she was a lovely if troubled person. The second part fares better, delving into some of the unpleasant realities of her life, including her drug use and the specifics of Monjack’s controlling behavior.

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In fact, the interviews go into overdrive to make a case that something unsavory was going on with Monjack, that he was a crook and a known liar who took over Murphy’s life and ruined it. But it’s hard not to come away from it thinking that in the entirety of the documentary, there are only two interviews from people who knew Murphy in her Hollywood years and aren’t trying to craft a narrative about her.

One of them is the actor Kathy Najimy, who starred with Murphy in the voice cast of King Of The Hill, and who expresses genuine grief at not having done more to help her. Her sharp refusal to talk about Murphy’s heavily documented split with Kutcher comes across as an indictment of the interviewer for asking about such tawdry subject matter at this late date—it was just a bad breakup.

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The other is Harley Pasternak, a physical trainer who worked with the couple. While ample screentime is spent theorizing about the nature of Monjack and Murphy’s relationship—was he too controlling, were they deeply in love—it’s Pasternak who clears away a lot of the speculation. Did Murphy seem like she wanted to be with Monjack? “She seemed like she was high. So, I don’t know,” Pasternak responds. It’s deeply dispiriting, but also the sort of straightforward answer sorely lacking in a docuseries full of talking heads who want to prove themselves Murphy scholars.

What truly makes the documentary a disappointment is its profound incuriosity about the world that sent Murphy tumbling into the arms of Monjack to begin with. This is a film that features four different people who worked as celebrity reporters during her lifetime, as well as a man who admits to leaking a story about Murphy’s husband to the National Enquirer. So many of these people were active participants in a Hollywood system that ate her up and spat her out and then mocked her relentlessly. Sure, maybe Monjack encouraged her to get plastic surgery, but he was by no means the first person to suggest her looks needed to change.

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The documentary repeatedly passes over moments when it could have gone for a stronger indictment of those that made her who she was. Former gossip reporters talk opaquely about how bad gossip blogs were then. Perez Hilton admits to repulsive behavior but then says the era itself was “gross,” as though he weren’t one of the ringleaders who made it that way. A perhaps unintentionally revealing moment is when Clueless director Amy Heckerling, who cast Murphy when she was just 17 (and younger than all of her co-stars), is asked whether Murphy was still going to school at the time. Heckerling looks baffled and eventually musters up, “She might have been emancipated?”

But the documentary never offers any introspection about the pressures of being newly famous at 17. At one point, someone says friends of Murphy held an intervention to try and convince her and her mother that Monjack was bad news, but you won’t see any of those friends here.

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Perhaps the most excruciating moment in the entire project is a brief glimpse of a “Weekend Update” segment in which Abby Elliott appears as Murphy, only weeks before she died, and after she’d been fired after two days on set of her latest project. Elliott impersonates Murphy as a pop culture joke: ditzy, addled, a starlet gone sordid. The scene is mercifully cut short, but it’s hard not to wish for a version of the documentary that let it play out longer, summoning up the era more fully to make the viewer squirm as they remember how Murphy was treated, how vicious the narrative was about a person for whom the great joke, somehow, was that she was anorexic and addicted to drugs. That is the documentary that would tell you something insightful about what happened to Brittany Murphy.