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What Happened, Brittany Murphy? Review 2021 Tv Show Series Season Cast Crew
Audiences have been spoiled by a semi-recent run of scripted and documentary projects offering thoughtful reevaluations of celebrities, mostly female, whose images were shaped and manipulated by a corrosive corner of media culture in the ’90s, ’00s and beyond.
From Britney Spears to Princess Diana to Marcia Clark to Britney Spears to Tonya Harding to Princess Diana to Britney Spears to Monica Lewinsky to Lorena Bobbitt to Britney Spears, we’ve seen time and again how filters of sensationalism and sexism can pollute a public image and leave a very real person trapped in a constructed and commodified prison.
Brittany Murphy, who died in 2009 at the age of 32, surely is a figure worthy of that sort of reevaluation. With the involvement of HBO Max and a solid documentarian, Cynthia Hill (Private Violence), at the helm, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? looked like it could be that sort of project.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? uses the visual language of schlock television — the gauzy reenactments, jittery editing and heightened score — to produce … two hours of schlock television, more Hard Copy or Inside Edition than an interrogation of the aesthetics and ideology that let those outlets thrive. Split into two hourlong segments as a reflection of its lack of cohesion more than anything else, the doc is maybe 20 percent a reminder of Murphy’s transcendent talent, 30 percent a dead-ended investigation into the mystery of her death, and 50 percent an unenlightening examination of Murphy’s late husband, Simon Monjack, the least distinctive con artist ever born.
It’s cinematic clickbait designed to generate journalistic clickbait — “10 Shocking Revelations From New Brittany Murphy Documentary!” — rather than anything compassionate or journalistic.
The most frustrating thing about this documentary — and you may have gathered that I found many things about this documentary frustrating — is that it unquestionably generates the requisite sadness about what we lost when Murphy died. The exact same sadness, of course, could be generated by five minutes of YouTube clips. When granted great material (see: Clueless), Murphy brought unparalleled natural exuberance. When placed within a deep ensemble (see: Girl, Interrupted), Murphy rose to the level of even her most decorated co-stars. When placed in otherwise standard genre offerings (see: Don’t Say a Word or several studio rom-coms), Murphy’s unmistakable spark came through.
Perhaps sensing the type of documentary being made here, very few of Murphy’s co-stars are present as talking heads. Kathy Najimy, who voiced King of the Hill characters with Murphy and appeared with her in something called Zack and Reba, is asked to do entirely too much of the heavy lifting, particularly given that the documentary contains zero footage from either of those projects. Murphy’s directors are far better represented, and contributions from Amy Heckerling, Shawn Levy, Gary Fleder and Alex Merkin, who helmed one of her last projects, are easily the documentary’s highlight.
Commentary from outside Hollywood is close to nonexistent, limited largely to one seemingly random scribe who makes the “provocative” assessment that Clueless is a classic and she’ll fight anybody who says it isn’t, as if Clueless were some obscure, lost-to-the-ages curio and not a fairly certified comedy classic. That sets a tone for a documentary that’s a lip-service affirmation of Murphy’s specialness and not an exploration of it.
It doesn’t help that Hill over-relies on a cheap device in which she uses clips from Murphy’s movies to illustrate points related to her life, like a scene from Abandoned, a horrid direct-to-video thriller featuring Dean Cain, in which Murphy’s character learns that her husband isn’t what he presented himself to be. At best, these are flimsy “art imitates life or vice versa” parallels. At worst, they give the impression, intended or otherwise, that Murphy was less an actress and more a passive figure living out a cinematic autobiography.
The documentary isn’t much better at getting to know Murphy the person. A former manager offers a rare beat of introspection, talking about all the coping mechanisms and support systems that child stars often miss out on. Because this is undoubtedly true, and because several interviewees refer to the way Monjack essentially put Murphy in isolation, this might be why Hill is forced to let people like Monjack’s personal trainer provide unsubstantiated descriptions of Murphy’s mental state. A makeup artist on a movie Murphy left after two days, who admits that Monjack was so controlling that she didn’t even have a chance to work directly with the actress, declares that “she was a disaster in her heart and she was a disaster emotionally and physically.” Sorry, but once you get that close to the bottom of the source barrel, you probably lacked the material to make a documentary about Brittany Murphy.
Comparably distanced analysis, generally with no introspection, comes from a few reporters at the very publications that sensationalized Murphy’s romances and critiqued her public appearances. I have no interest in Perez Hilton’s ongoing apology/self-justification tour, and although Hill absolutely confronts him about some of the “nasty” posts he wrote about Murphy, when Hilton says things like “2009, in many ways, was a very gross time,” nobody turns the statement back on him.
Hill is on better footing when it comes to the investigations into Murphy’s and Monjack’s deaths, but only because a bunch of retired people from the L.A. coroner’s office apparently have no compunctions about chatting about autopsies in ways that, to me, feel gross. But what do I know? Overall, this feels like a lot of fascination about a case that is, as one expert finally declares, very banal. Hill uses YouTube sleuths and their obsession with Murphy’s death for an unspecified purpose, maybe mocking them for the superficiality of their obsession but never gathering any understanding of it.
And then there’s the strange structuring of the documentary, which is split at the halfway point around a cliffhanger about an “exclusive” interview with Monjack’s mother and brother. It’s strange to split the documentary there, and even stranger to hype the interview, because Monjack’s mother and brother contribute nothing. They obviously didn’t know Murphy at all, and they were as conned by Monjack as anybody — and not in a poignant way.
If we’re in a moment of peak ’90s and ’00s celebrity reevaluation, we’re simultaneously in a moment of peak exploration of cons and con men, and Simon Monjack is a nondescript con man. Were he interesting, maybe there would be justification for abandoning Brittany Murphy as a subject in order to focus on this liar and artistic nonentity.
Brittany Murphy deserved better than Simon Monjack, and she deserved better than the treatment she received in the media, which probably contributed to his ability to control her in the way he did. She’s also still awaiting her substantive piece of reevaluation, because she deserved better than this documentary.