In the wake of the #FreeBritney movement and the reassessment of previously reviled cultural figures like Paris Hilton, there has been a full reckoning with the toxicity of early-aughts media and culture — how we publicly policed young female stars’ bodies and life choices, clucking our tongues with faux concern while at the same time using our talons to rip them apart. The latest famous figure to be reconsidered in this new light is also one of the most tragic: Brittany Murphy, the prodigiously talented breakout star of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, who was swallowed up by the early-2000s tabloid-industrial complex and then died of pneumonia and anemia at her Hollywood home in 2009, at the age of 32.
At the time of her death, Murphy was on a career backslide, appearing almost exclusively in slashers and straight-to-video features. But just a few years earlier she’d been an It Girl, co-starring in hugely successful films such as Girl, Interrupted; 8 Mile; Just Married; and Uptown Girls, and dating co-stars like Eminem and Ashton Kutcher. Her precipitous downfall is the focus of What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, a two-part HBO Max documentary which traces her early successes, self-esteem struggles, and sudden, puzzling death. The mystery surrounding Murphy’s passing deepened further when her husband, Simon Monjack, a third-tier Hollywood screenwriter, died of similar causes less than six months later.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? presents a fairly straightforward narrative (though, produced by the horror juggernaut Blumhouse, it injects the opening and closing moments with a spooky flair). The film chronicles the upward trajectory of Murphy, an irrepressible little girl raised by a single mother, Sharon Murphy, in New Jersey, with big dreams of one day becoming a famous actor. Mother and daughter moved to Hollywood when Brittany was a preteen, and she quickly began booking small roles in sitcoms like Sister, Sister, The Torkelsons spinoff Almost Home, and Boy Meets World before making her film debut as the ungainly yet lovable Tai in 1995’s Clueless. But insecurity set in fast. After receiving merciless feedback from producers and agents, Brittany gave herself an extreme makeover, dying her hair blonde and shedding a dramatic amount of weight from her already petite frame.
Soon, she started to land leading-lady roles, while becoming a tabloid mainstay during her relationship with Kutcher. But not long after their split, her career went into a tailspin, with Brittany booking fewer and fewer high-profile roles amid rumors of drug use and erratic behavior on set, until her untimely death.
It wasn’t until after her passing that the public realized Brittany had fallen into the grip of her Svengali husband, a British screenwriter and aspiring filmmaker who turned out to be little more than a con man. But hindsight gives the film a clear perspective: Monjack, while an insidious force in his wife’s life, was far from the only one to blame for her death. What Happened, Brittany Murphy? also casts its lens on the culture at large, revealing how Hollywood, the media, and the public were complicit in another promising young woman’s tragic demise. Here is a rundown of the most explosive revelations from the film.
1. Brittany’s extreme weight loss likely played a role in her death.
During her rise to fame, Murphy was subject to intense scrutiny from the media about her noticeably thinner appearance versus her Clueless days. The documentary sheds some light on her transformation, with people close to the actress saying that an agent telling Murphy she was “huggable, but not fuckable” prompted her to lose a great deal of weight. (Brittany herself recalled the humiliating moment in an Interview magazine feature.) The film also reveals that the anemia that the Los Angeles County coroner determined to be a major factor in Murphy’s death was likely caused by the fact that she was extremely underweight. And rather than receive support at home, Murphy faced further criticism from Monjack, who reportedly encouraged her throughout their marriage to get plastic surgery and lose even more weight. “To develop an anemia of this nature, she was not eating,” the coroner tells the filmmakers flatly. “How did all of this develop?” Not only did Monjack foster Brittany’s grave condition, he also allegedly refused to take her to the doctor when she fell seriously ill in her final days.
2. Brittany’s mother and husband routinely slept in the same bed after she died.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? focuses a good deal on the relationship between Murphy’s mother, Sharon, and Monjack, who became extremely close after her death. Sources close to the duo — including a Radar Online reporter who interviewed Monjack at home following Brittany’s death — report that they slept in the same bed after the actress died, clinging to each other in their grief. A post-death photo shoot featuring Sharon and Monjack holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes looked like “parents grieving as opposed to a husband and his mother-in-law,” one insider says. A joint interview on Larry King Live, in which both Monjack and Sharon Murphy appear extremely disoriented, did not help to quell rumors about their bizarre connection. (When King presses Monjack as to why he didn’t want an autopsy on his wife’s body, Monjack says, “This pristine body, curvy in all the right places, with skin like silk… How could I say ‘Cut it up’ in front of her mother?”) While the film doesn’t draw any definitive conclusions about the nature of the relationship between Monjack and Sharon, it presents enough evidence — including those creepy photos — to suggest it was unsavory at best.
3. Simon Monjack had not one, but two, secret children with other women.
According to the film, Brittany was not aware during her lifetime that Monjack had secretly fathered two children with other women: a daughter, Jasmine, in England; and a son, Elijah, in Paris. While some of Monjack’s family members and acquaintances knew of Jasmine, the film marks the first public statement by Elijah’s mother, Elizabeth Ragsdale, on her relationship with Monjack, who proposed to her and then impregnated her in Paris in the 1990s. After abandoning Ragsdale without a word while she was still pregnant, Monjack finally contacted her again in 2007, right after he became engaged to Murphy, offering to buy her a house. Ragsdale says in the film that she believed Monjack’s intention was to buy her silence. “The stakes were a lot higher with him being married to Brittany,” says Ragsdale. “He didn’t want anybody to know I was out there with his son.”
4. Monjack was a serial fabulist who told people, among other things, that he’d had terminal cancer that he cured with an experimental shark-cartilage treatment.
In the film, Ragsdale says that Monjack told her he was suffering from spinal cancer and needed shark cartilage treatments in order to recover. It wasn’t until Monjack had abandoned her while she was pregnant that Ragsdale contacted Monjack’s mother, Linda Monjack, and realized the story was bogus. Linda, who is interviewed in the film, defends her deceased son in this regard, saying that he had developed extreme paranoia after his own father’s death of cancer: “I certainly don’t think he went out to tell people he had cancer. I think he believed it.” But Ragsdale wasn’t the only one he fed this lie. Prior to Monjack’s relationship with Britany, he met filmmaker Allison Burnett at a dinner party, where he told the assembled guests that he was a billionaire with the world’s largest collection of Vermeers; that he had dated Elle MacPherson and Madonna; that he had a collection of Ferraris; and that he’d been dying of brain cancer until he purchased a treatment derived from shark fins that saved his life.
5. Monjack spent $3 million of Brittany’s money in three years.
Following Monjack’s death, Sharon Murphy asked her publicist to pawn jewelry that Monjack had given Brittany, including a replica of Audrey Hepburn’s tiara in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, so that she could pay her bills. Sharon’s publicist, Roger Neal, had the items appraised by two of his high-end clients in the jewelry business, only for them to tell him that all of it was fake and worthless, leaving Sharon essentially destitute. All told, Monjack spent an estimated $3 million of Brittany’s money over a period of just three years. “He lived off this girl who had worked her heart out for every penny she had,” a former associate says.
6. Monjack controlled every aspect of Brittany’s life, becoming her agent, business manager, and even makeup artist.
Following the classic patterns of a domestic abuser, Monjack cut Brittany off from all of her old friends and lifelines as their relationship progressed, according to several people interviewed in the film. He took over her email account and confiscated her phone, and assumed complete control of her money. But he wasn’t content just to rule her personal life: Not long after they wed, Monjack fired Brittany’s entire professional team and became the sole manager of her career, negotiating her sex scenes (one director says she refused to do a planned kissing scene until he threatened, within earshot of Monjack, to have her replaced), and even doing her makeup on movie sets.
7. Brittany’s struggles with drugs were worse than the public knew at the time.
Immediately after Murphy died, there was speculation of a drug overdose, mostly because of how young she was at the time. But while she was not a known addict, for years there had been whispers among Hollywood insiders that Murphy grappled with substance abuse. Multiple people interviewed for the film reported seeing Murphy high and glassy-eyed on set and at industry events, alleging that she and Monjack would stay up all night doing downers and then take stimulants in the morning to stave off exhaustion. It was during these late-night binges that Monjack would encourage Murphy to participate in creepy photo shoots, where he would “dress her like a doll,” says one People magazine reporter. The Los Angeles County coroner also reports in the film that he found 90 prescription bottles on Monjack’s bedside table the night of Brittany’s death, several in “third-party names” like Lola Manilow, which he presumed were aliases.
8. Perez Hilton predicted Brittany’s death.
One of the architects of early-2000s media culture was Perez Hilton, the gossip blogger known for giving celebrities vulgar names and crudely drawing white lines near their noses and mouths to imply they were drug users. In a revelatory sit-down with the filmmakers, Hilton reveals that he had told a radio station in 2009, shortly before Murphy’s death, that she would be the celebrity that would be the next to die in the coming year. Hilton seems genuinely remorseful for having made the grim prediction, and for the role he played in building the culture that put Murphy on a pedestal only to brutally knock her down. “All these years later now, I regret saying that, putting that energy out there. It’s gross… but that’s definitely telling of the time — 2009, in many ways, was a very gross time,” he says.
From Rolling Stone US