What Happened, Brittany Murphy? an HBO Max/Crave documentary examines the life and death of actress Brittany Murphy who passed away under mysterious circumstances in 2009 at the age of 32. Featuring interviews with those who knew her (costars, directors, etc.) those who covered her downward trajectory and death (reporters from Radar Online, People magazine, etc.) and those who investigated her death (coroner, medical examiner, etc) the two-part series doesn’t so much answer the question about what happened to her, as much as it reminds us of how awful and toxic the celebrity gossip cycle was in the early aughts, particularly for female celebrities.
The doc traces Brittany’s rise from plucky New Jersey kid with a dream to Hollywood starlet following her breakout role in 1995’s cult classic Clueless But after impressive performances in movies like Girl, Interrupted, 8 Mile, and Don’t Say a Word and moving into rom com leading lady territory with movies like Just Married and Little Black Book, Brittany’s career and personal life took a downturn, thanks in no small part to her marriage to Simon Monjack, a self-described “screenwriter” who everyone seems to agree was a shady and controlling conman who had undue influence over Brittany until her untimely death. Simon himself infamously passed away less than six months after his famous wife, in the same bathroom of the same house of the same cause (pneumonia) Yes, it’s all very weird and ripe for speculation.
But while What Happened, Brittany Murphy? spends a lot of time exploring the strange relationship between Brittany and Simon (and the even stranger relationship between Simon and Brittany’s mother Sharon following Brittany’s death) it doesn’t offer much in the way of answers into what went wrong with the once promising star, instead devoting a puzzling amount of screen time to true crime YouTubers speculating on her death (even more puzzingly while doing their makeup) unnecessary reenactment footage, and repurposing footage and sound ups from her films out of context to serve the narrative. It does, however, touch briefly on the pressures of the Hollywood spotlight and the impact it had on Brittany, who lost a shocking amount of weight in the years following her Clueless debut. One media article, calling Brittany “huggable, but not fuckable” seems to have hit the actress particularly hard. It’s a stark reminder of the toxic and misogynistic way female celebrities were covered in the late ’90s and early 2000s, a time when gossip websites reigned supreme. Remember, this was a climate when upskirt photos of celebrities were published online without consent, where female celebs were viciously scrutinized about their appearance and were regularly asked about their virginity and whether their breasts were real or fake. A particularly cringe-worthy 2002 Details magazine cover featured a post Britney Spears breakup Justin Timberlake with the headline, “Can We Ever Forgive Justin Timberlake For All That Sissy Music? Hey, At Least He Got Into Britney’s Pants.” Barf. Both at the use of the word “sissy” and at the congratulatory douchebag frat boy tone around “getting into Britney’s pants.” It’s hard to imagine a similar headline even making it to print today and if it had, not being absolutely, and rightfully so, torn to shreds on Twitter with its author forced to offer a bullshit apology. And tabloids and gossip sites weren’t the only culprits, even mainstream media got into the mix with some questionable interviews that simply wouldn’t fly today (see the Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer interviews with Britney Spears) While Brittany Murphy wasn’t as media facing as other early aughts celebrities like Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Mischa Barton,et al, she still couldn’t escape rampant speculation about her changing appearance, marriage to Simon, and rumours of supposed drug use. One of the worst offenders, gossip monger Perez Hilton, who profited immensely in the early aughts from his cruel and misogynistic “reporting” and who once proudly and unabashedly predicted Brittany would be “the next celebrity to die” is bafflingly given screen time in “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” without properly contextualizing his role in “what happened” to her. Bruce Bibby aka “Ted Casablanca” who also dealt in gossip via his blind items and column, “The Awful Truth” is also featured without being properly taken to task or having to answer for the role he played and his contributions to the culture of cruelty.
Ultimately the doc feels like a hollow, inherently unnecessary and unsatisfying retread of the downfall and death of a once promising young woman, and a missed opportunity to offer even the slightest bit of hindsight and context on the celebrity culture of the time. While the seemingly innumerable competing documentaries profiling Britney Spears are beginning to veer into exploitation territory, they at least offer some insight into conservatorships and why Britney’s is so questionable. What Happened, Brittany Murphy? only really offers more speculation and in 2021, is this really what we need? Let’s leave it for the YouTubers. At least we get a makeup tutorial along with it.