What went wrong with the exploitative Brittany Murphy docuseries?

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Will Burgess/REUTERS</span>
Photograph: Will Burgess/REUTERS

It’s telling that What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, a new docuseries on the Clueless and Girl, Interrupted actor’s confounding death in December 2009, is bookended by two overwrought sleights of hand. The two-part HBO Max series begins with the frantic 911 call by her mother, Sharon Murphy, over a recreation of the EMS trip from Murphy’s house in Hollywood Hills to Cedars Sinai medical center, where she died from a combination of pneumonia, severe anemia and several prescription and over-the-counter medications at age 32. It ends with a hammy montage of fan videos made by internet detectives – straight-to-camera, brightly lit, skeptical recaps that often double as makeup tutorials – spliced with scenes from Murphy’s films, as if her expressive face is in conversation with their fascination.

Related: Stage fright: the tricky unease of the Britney Spears documentaries

That dialogue is a ruse; for the two hours between these moments, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? takes on the role of amateur sleuth. Combing through tabloid reports, medical documents and first-hand accounts of people orbiting her death, it purports to explain Murphy’s tragic, untimely demise and, more pertinent to headlines, her abusive, constrictive marriage to Simon Monjack, who died five months after her of pneumonia.

There is certainly space for a film or series to revisit Murphy’s largely undervalued career, her live-wire presence on screen, and the pressures which cornered her into a controlling marriage and, by many accounts, paralyzing 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, hyper-clinical detail, unwarranted skepticism, speculation for speculation’s sake – metastasized into one of the queasiest reconsiderations a 90s/00s star. What went so wrong here?

There are glimpses of a different, more considerate 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 made-over ugly duckling in 1995’s Clueless. All attest to a bubbly, ambitious, preternaturally kind and talented performer, as evidenced by old footage from her early theater days in New Jersey. The only child of a single mother, Murphy dreamed of Hollywood success, agonized over fitting in and was an open book of emotion amid myriad pressures over how to be a star in the late 90s.

At times, the series does seem interested in re-evaluating or seriously considering those pressures which precipitated Murphy’s professional struggles, exacerbated her health conditions and made 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 rose to “it-girl” fame; the whole concept of a cheeky, tiny, perennially “on” it girl in the first place; the relentless scrutiny over her body, her transformation from “ugly” (she never was) to hot; speculation over pills and plastic surgery (the truth of which is beside the point); how Hollywood facilitated disordered eating. This comes primarily from the testimony of Murphy’s King of the Hill costar Kathy Najimy and longtime friend Kelley Faulkner, two of the few participants who seem genuinely invested in projecting Murphy’s legacy as an enthusiastic, versatile performer and ebullient coworker.

But Hill undermines her own half-hearted attempts for critique by swerving into both pure schlock and the trap of mistaking interest for importance. Like Britney vs Spears, Erin Lee Carr’s documentary on the pop star’s conservatorship which premiered on Netflix last month, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? also prioritizes the experience of people adjacent to her pain – what the timeline and attention was like for the police officer, the lawyer, the PR representative, the Radar Online reporter who interviewed Monjack after her death. Hill includes numerous YouTube clips of fans speculating over the nature of Monjack and Sharon Murphy’s questionably tight relationship – a choice that was perhaps intended to demonstrate how Monjack’s shadiness fostered a thousand theories, but ends up perpetuating them.

Brittany Murphy and Simon Monjack in 2007.
Brittany Murphy and Simon Monjack in 2007. Photograph: Dan Steinberg/AP

More troublingly, the series seems aimed for clickbait headlines – “The eight biggest bombshells from the Brittany Murphy documentary,” etc. The two episodes indulge in a host of true crime tropes – tasteless recreations of pill bottles tipped over on the bedside table, slow motion pans over a messy bathroom, heavy-handed score – in covering Murphy’s promising career, health issues and especially her marriage to Monjack, who appears to have been one of the least convincing con artists ever. There are some truly egregious moments, such as a dramatization of the forensic pathologist dropping a sample of Murphy’s lung in water to confirm pneumonia during the autopsy (why not just say it was pneumonia? Why include a coroner at all?), or a recreation of the bathroom where she died.

It’s near impossible to watch this series and not think of the recent documentaries on Britney Spears – Netflix’s Britney vs Spears and two New York Times projects on FX on Hulu, all three of which contain uneasy elements of obsession with its central focus. But while those films ultimately concern a dubious legal arrangement that remains a work in progress continues to entrap thousands of others, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? dead-ends into self-serving speculation. Mostly, the series comes off as incredibly misjudged – that because there’s public interest in reappraising such beleaguered 90s/00s figures as Spears, Monica Lewinksy, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, Princess Diana and others, that any examination of a beautiful tragedy will pass muster. This is no Amy, Asif Kapadia’s sensitive, gutting portrait of Amy Winehouse’s tortured life, or Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 film on Whitney Houston, or even the serious but not overwhelming descriptions of spousal abuse in Tina, Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin’s 2021 documentary on Tina Turner.

As we’ve seen once again with widespread coverage, in traditional media and on TikTok, of Gabby Petito’s disappearance, America’s fixation with the loss of a beautiful white woman is evergreen and evolving. What Happened, Brittany Murphy? combines a newer phenomenon – online detectives taking fascination with Murphy’s death to queasy, self-serving ends – and packages it in an erstwhile Dateline style. That Murphy, barely afforded complex personhood here, still shines through in her brief screen appearances, is a testament to her talent – one deserving then and now of serious consideration.

  • What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is available on HBO Max now with a UK date to be announced