The new HBO Max documentary is a tabloid portrait of the late star that’s often embellished but nonetheless insightful.
Brittany Murphy’s death in 2009 was a shock to anyone who had followed her career. The combination of pneumonia and anemia made it seem like a strange death for a 32 year-old. There was also an element of “what ever happened” to her, to the performer of incandescently goofy allure in films like Clueless and dramatic intensity in Girl, Interrupted.
As her roles changed from A-list to direct-to video films, there were rumors of her drug use, health problems, and a turbulent behind-the scenes life with Simon Monjack. Her death – and then, on top of it, the husband’s death five months later – became a tabloid mystery, stoked by Lifetime movies and Investigation Discovery specials.
Britney Spears was not the only young star of pop, but another tabloid and Lifetime movie showcasing her complicated life has made it a streaming-era success. A meta-tabloid documentary on her life has been created. Brittany Murphy, HBO Max’s “What Happened?” Cynthia Hill is attempting to tell the story. It is a probe into her downfall and lays out fan theories as well as tabloid speculation, while also commenting on their sensationalism. Although it’s sometimes tasteless, it’s paradoxically a fascinating look at the star and her career.
What Happened is a forensic investigation into Murphy’s death. Toward the beginning, there is footage and audio from the night of her death, as well as input from random YouTubers raising questions about her seeming downward spiral, a new feature of streaming documentaries specializing in the mysterious deaths of young women.
It shifts back and forth between interviews and scenes that discuss Murphy’s rise to fame and performer status. They are quite insightful. Bekanntes and friends recall that Murphy’s mother, who was single-parent, raised her. She followed her dreams from New Jersey to Hollywood.
Murphy began performing in childhood. Her amateur footage as a tween demonstrates her natural ability to act in front of cameras. She quickly moved from television pilots to television shows like Sister Sister, to her star-making role in 1995’s Clueless Amy Heckerling, one prominent Hollywood person whose presence gives the movie gravitas is the director of that movie. She recalls that Murphy seemed to embody Tai, the outsider in Clueless. While other aspirants seemed too trying,
We learn about Murphy’s dedication and her memorable delivery of the famous line “You’re a virgin who can”t drive.” Her acting opposite Angelina Jolie in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted made many take notice of her.
One of the most important points is that Murphy was brought up in the industry and the limited beauty standards of Hollywood in the aughts made it difficult for Murphy to find a career. The film shows that her talent was not in doubt. Director of 2001’s Don’t Say A Word! recollects how Murphy seamlessly transitioned from her screen to a real scene with Michael Douglas. She effortlessly recalibrated her performance to make it more dramatic and intense to match the film’s rhythms.
An agent told her she was “huggable, but not fuckable”, and she was deeply affected by these comments. Kathy Najimy, a Costar recalls how she transformed herself by losing weight and dying her hair blonde. Her management tried to position her as a leading woman and she played opposite Eminem’s in 2002’s 8 Mile. Before vying with Ashton Kutcher for rom-com relatability in 2003’s Just Married.
Murphy appeared to be very private, which is part of the discomfort in this film. Even though she was a sex-partner to Eminem and Kutcher in her past, we see a reluctance to play the celebrity card even in the brief glimpses of Murphy. Maxim covers and quotes taken from interviews in which she responds to rumors about eating disorders paint an evocative portrait of her vulnerability.
Even though she was a star in her own right, it’s not like she turned her life into a series of interviews or tabloid stories. The film is also affected by the lack of more of her perspective.
Instead of allowing the public to know, the film instead tramples on her to focus attention on her husband, Simon Monjack, a British screenwriter who is unemployed and shady.
According to the film, their 2007 marriage marks the beginning of her downfall. Radar Online reporters are brought out by People magazine to speculate on Murphy and Monjack’s relationship. The film can have its cake, and eat it too. It speculates about uncomfortable things while not getting too messy.
Monjack is portrayed in the documentary as a con artist and predator with a history full of fabulism and unpaid debts and an inclination to attach himself to females. Evidence suggests that Monjack encouraged her to lose weight, and to have plastic surgery. One of the images he took at night of her, with one of her muzzled, is haunting and eerie. One of her last films’ director recalls how she appeared less professional and worse when he was there.
New reporting has been done on the backstory of the husband, including interviews with his brother and mother and even an ex-fiancee who bizarrely recounts how Monjack refused to call for help when he was sick.
According to the testimonies, Murphy’s death from anemia and pneumonia was completely preventable if she was taken to a hospital sooner. Sharon Murphy’s mother called 911, becoming another subject of speculation after Murphy’s passing.
The film ends with Murphy’s death and Monjack’s similar death. It almost feels like there is an element to a slow murder-suicide. Monjack plays the role of a family destroyer, but not the sudden violence that they both die.
Perez Hilton, a disgraced gossip blogger, looks back on the way he covered Murphy’s final year. He speculated in an interview that Murphy would soon die. He admits it was gross and says that he was sorry. And there is a way in which the film’s tonal unevenness, ranging from commentators enthusing about the “iconic” nature of Clueless to faux-sober reporting about Monjack, matches the weirdness surrounding Murphy’s life and mysterious death.
As Murphy’s body is examined, the documentary shifts to the forensics of Murphy’s body. Even the weight of her organs. There’s still the question of whether or not it’s necessary to do so. This documentary reminds us that celebrity women’s bodies can speak for themselves, even in death. This film is more is seems to representat our culture rather than a special case.