Like a train crash, HBO Max‘s new two-part documentary What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is shocking and stomach-churning to watch. The series delves into the tragic life of one of Hollywood’s most incandescent stars of the late ’90s and ’00s: Brittany Murphy. While many of her contemporaries — like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears — are finding absolution in retrospective doc projects, Murphy’s life can’t be made better by reappraisal. She’ll never hear catty gossip bloggers’ apologies or win a long-sought victory in court. All Brittany Murphy can be is remembered and What Happened, Brittany Murphy? underscores the horror of her story by focusing on it most grisly moment: her untimely death.
I watched What Happened, Brittany Murphy? with bulging eyes, a slacked jaw, and a heart full of anger. The project’s lurid approach to the subject matter ironically emphasize just what a shitty hand Murphy got dealt by Hollywood, the press, and everyone watching her.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? attempts to explain how Clueless and 8 Mile star Brittany Murphy died suddenly at the tender age of 32. While the coroner explained that the actress was anemic and suffering from pneumonia, that answer never made sense to Murphy’s fans (or most anyone else with a passing knowledge of how treatable those conditions are). Soon conspiracy theories swelled around the peculiarly close behavior of Murphy’s husband, Simon Monjack, and her bereaved mother. Could Murphy’s death have been wrongful? Was it murder? Poison?!? The affects of black mold? Murphy’s own death became even more suspicious when Monjack died of similar causes less than a year later — and revelations about his own cons and lies came to light.
So what drove Brittany Murphy to her early grave? Well, after flirting with a series of scandalous answers, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? lands on something tragically mundane. Trapped in an emotionally toxic relationship, Murphy succumbed to her illness simply because her husband was so controlling he was loathe to seek medical attention for her. I don’t feel like this is a spoiler, per se, because uncovering Murphy’s cause of death isn’t actually the most interesting part of this documentary. What’s fascinating is how it’s unclear if What Happened, Brittany Murphy? can even claim the high ground in its storytelling.
A hallmark of What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is illustrating how ghoulish ’00s celebrity culture was even in recent retrospect. Perez Hilton, “Ted Casablancas,” and a passel of celeb gossip reporters recount their role in bashing Murphy while she was alive or covering the lurid details of her death. Audio clips and archived articles show just how cruel the tabloid media was to the then-rising star. What Happened, Brittany Murphy? argues that Monjack waltzed into Murphy’s life at a low point and established total control. From there, she was doomed. But What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is so focused on people’s perceptions of Murphy and excavating Monjack’s dirty laundry, that it teeters into the same sensationalist celeb gossip fare that it seeks to criticize.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? will make you furious on behalf of the fallen star, disgusted at the cons worked all too easily by her deceased husband, and horrified by the way Hollywood always has — and still does — dispose of talent. Ultimately, the series comes to conclusions that only make Murphy’s death all the more tragic in its needlessness. The most disturbing part of What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is how it indicts everyone, especially its own gossip-devouring viewers.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? premieres on HBO Max today.