‘What Happened, Brittany Murphy?’: How a likable star got mixed up with the wrong con man
HBO Max documentary series tells the actress’ story from her early movie success to her disturbing marriage to her mysterious death at 32.
For about a decade starting in the mid-1990s, Brittany Murphy was blazing a starry trail in Hollywood, from her breakout role as Tai in Amy Heckerling’s coming-of-age classic “Clueless” to critically acclaimed roles in films such as “Girl, Interrupted,” “8 Mile” and “Sin City,” all the while becoming a tabloid favorite due to her drastic changes in appearance, and a high-profile romance with her “Just Married” co-star, Ashton Kutcher.
A two-part documentary series available Thursday on HBO Max.
By the late 2000s, Murphy was doing a Lifetime movie and low-budget thrillers. Two days into production on the supernatural horror film “The Caller” in 2009, she was replaced.
A few months later, on December 20, 2009, Brittany Murphy collapsed in a bathroom in her home, and was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was just 32.
The two-part HBO documentary series “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” reveals how a talented, sweet and likable young star fell prey to the pressures of Hollywood stardom and was manipulated by a nefarious Svengali who turned her life — and death — into something out of a lurid true crime series.
Skilled documentarian Cynthia Hill weaves together a story featuring home-movie footage of a young and bubbly and adorable Brittany; clips from Murphy’s movies; the occasional re-enactment; news footage, and interviews with reporters who covered Murphy’s death, the retired Assistant Chief Coroner who handled Murphy’s case, friends and colleagues such as Heckerling and actress Kathy Najimy, and the mother and brother of Murphy’s late husband, Simon Monjack. The latter was a con man and pathological liar who swooped into Murphy’s world when she was most vulnerable and took control of virtually every aspect of her career and personal life.
“What Happened” takes us through Murphy’s rise to stardom and her radical physical transformation, with “Clueless” director Heckerling noting Brittany’s real-life makeover essentially mirrored the arc of her character in the movie. With the tabloids and online gossip columnists speculating about Murphy’s shockingly frail appearance and her sometimes unstable behavior (there’s a clip of her coming across as utterly lost at the 2003 Independent Spirit Awards), Murphy falls under the spell of Simon Monjack, who claimed to be a billionaire, said he had largest collection of Vermeer paintings in the world, spoke of dating Elle Macpherson and Madonna and even said he had cured his cancer through shark cartilage treatments. It was all pure bull----.
After Murphy’s shocking death, and the coroner ruling the cause was pneumonia, Monjack and Brittany’s mother, Sharon, gave a disastrous interview to Larry King, put out publicity photos that made them look like a couple, and told a reporter they’d share a bed together at night to comfort each other. This madness fueled speculation about possible foul play — and in a most unfortunate development, the documentary features clips from amateur sleuth vloggers who spout comments such as:
“Is the house haunted?”
“I called it! I knew she was murdered.”
“That could mean she was being poisoned.”
“Today I’m going to be telling you guys about a true crime story that I am really interested in, as well as doing my makeup …”
I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. Why these uninformed, ghoulish and tasteless fools were included in this documentary is beyond me.
Only a few months after Brittany Murphy died, Simon Monjack passed out in the same house and was eventually pronounced dead from the same cause: pneumonia. The tragically sad case just kept getting more bizarre. To this day, conspiracy theories abound about what “really” happened to Brittany Murphy and Simon Monjack, but there’s no hard and true evidence to refute the official findings. What we do know for certain is Brittany Murphy was gone far, far too soon.