If you grew up watching Brittany Murphy’s films, it’s likely that her 2009 death still haunts you in some way. The prodigious star’s passing at 32 at home—she suddenly collapsed on her bathroom floor—seemed too strange, too complicated to be caused by pneumonia and anemia. Conspiracy theories ran rampant soon thereafter and have continued for more than a decade: Was her death actually the result of an overdose? Toxic mold? Poison? The result of the FBI watching Murphy and her husband, Simon Monjack? Or maybe her family was involved? Yet HBO Max’s new two-part docuseries about the actress, What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, suggests there is another element to this story entirely—one more mystery we may have missed out on. In a world where society has clung to its fascination with the art of the grift—whether that be stories like LuLaRoe or Anna Delvey—Murphy’s tale, per this show’s telling, fits in swimmingly.
Director Cynthia Hill digs deeper into the bizarre circumstances and theories surrounding Murphy’s death, as well as the cultural backdrop that made it so tragic. The timing of the show makes sense: Revisiting Murphy’s story comes amid an ongoing cultural reckoning and reassessment of the media’s involvement in ripping young women apart for the sake of a headline. Just as the #FreeBritney movement and recent revisitations of Paris Hilton surrounding her sex tape have prompted society to reconsider the treatment of women in the early aughts, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? reexamines the scrutiny that the actress endured leading up to her death, providing a cautionary tale of how the misogynistic media machine could contribute to someone’s downfall.
The two-hour series follows the New Jersey native, raised by single mother Sharon Murphy, as she pursues her Hollywood dreams—and what happens after she realizes them. After relocating to Los Angeles in her preteen years, Murphy landed her first acting roles on sitcoms like Sister, Sister and Boy Meets World before she’d earn her breakout role as the endearing newbie-turned-popular girl Tai in the 1995 hit comedy Clueless. As Clueless helmer Amy Heckerling suggests in a talking-head interview, the role paralleled Murphy’s career: She opted for a “Hollywood makeover” after an agent described her as “huggable but not fuckable.”
As Murphy found success with Clueless and gained more prominence in Hollywood, she received more intense criticism. And it consumed her: She read everything written about herself. Eventually, she began dyeing her hair blonde, changed her style, and began dramatically losing weight. In the docuseries, Murphy’s friend and former King of the Hill co-star Kathy Najimy recalls that after she addressed her concerns about the actress’s slimming figure, Murphy explained, “If I wanted to be considered as a leading lady, I needed to lose a lot of weight.”
Despite the consequences of her weight loss, it appeared to work: By the early aughts, not long after Murphy’s physical changes, she had cemented her status as in “it girl” for leading roles in 8 Mile, Uptown Girls, and Just Married. She attended red carpet premieres and sat front row at fashion shows; she hosted Saturday Night Live; Roger Ebert raved about her in a 2004 review of her movie Little Black Book, praising her for her comic timing and naturalism. Murphy’s initial mark on Hollywood was as a scene-stealing actress who could oscillate from comedy to dramas seamlessly, but the final few years of her work were comparably forgettable, with roles in direct-to-video thrillers and horror films. Her descent into schlockier fare happened alongside the media’s critical obsession over her personal life. First, she dated her Just Married co-star Ashton Kutcher, from whom she endured a public split. Soon after, rumors began swirling about Murphy’s substance use and strange, unprofessional behavior in interviews and on film sets. And the speculation about her having an eating disorder never really went away—in fact, the docuseries depicts it as an “open secret.”
All of this led to Murphy becoming an easy punching bag for rabid gossipmongers, who profited off of young women’s pain as the aughts continued on. Earlier in 2009—the year Murphy died—the snarky commentator Perez Hilton predicted that the actress would meet a tragic ending sometime in the next 12 months, less a clarion call to get her help and more a way to further mock her. In the documentary, he says he regrets “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. It was so gross a time that, just two weeks before she died in December 2009, Murphy was the subject of a searing Saturday Night Live skit; cast member Abby Elliott portrayed an incoherent Murphy convinced that she had never stopped hosting the show and making excuses for why she’d been fired from an upcoming starring role. (The clip was removed online shortly thereafter, seemingly for being in poor taste.)
But Murphy’s waning stardom and ridiculed final years may have had another crucial influence: her Svengali husband, Monjack. Throughout the docuseries, the question of “Who was this guy?” arises repeatedly from Murphy’s peers and the reporters involved with the case at the time. For fans, Murphy’s marriage to the British screenwriter in 2007 seemed unexpected—though the docuseries depicts Murphy as someone eager to settle down, after two failed engagements.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? depicts Monjack as a Jamie Spears–like figure, a sociopathic con man who exerted control over Murphy’s entire life and benefited from his late wife’s fame and fortune. The docuseries suggests that Murphy’s marriage to Monjack was one rooted in power and control—the words “emotionally abusive” are never used, but they are clearly implied. We learn that Monjack had inserted himself into every aspect of Murphy’s life, becoming his wife’s agent, business manager, and even makeup artist. All of Murphy’s numbers were changed; she had no access to her phone or email. She’d spend all of her breaks during filming in Monjack’s car and even reached a point where she refused any type of intimacy on-screen, out of loyalty to her husband. The duo became extremely reclusive, never really leaving their home. In the docuseries, reporter Amber Ryland recalls discovering how, in the middle of the night, Monjack would do photoshoots where he’d dress Murphy “like a doll” and “encouraged her to become addicted to plastic surgery.” Murphy was reportedly “hypnotized” by him.
Monjack’s strangely entrancing pull played out in his relationship with Murphy’s mother, Sharon, as well, which is further examined in What Happened, Brittany Murphy? Monjack and Sharon did, what one of the talking heads described as, a “creepy” photoshoot following Murphy’s death. It made them appear as if they were her parents and not mother and son-in-law. Then, there was the news that Monjack and Sharon would share a bed following her death. It was hard for the public to avert their eyes and not come up with conspiracies like an affair between the two or a plot to get rid of Murphy.
We’re shown how, when conducting interviews about his late wife’s death, Monjack would control the conversation, even cutting Sharon off. This dynamic infamously was evident in a conversation with Larry King, where Monjack announced that he and Sharon would be starting the Brittany Murphy Foundation. To raise money for it, Monjack reportedly charged people to come to a memorial for Murphy. The tackiness didn’t fare well for the “foundation,” and eventually it disappeared, and all contributions were refunded.
The chilling twist people didn’t see coming was that Monjack died under similar circumstances as Murphy, just five months later. But while the documentary doesn’t reveal anything sordid and shocking about his death itself, what it does offer is a look into several of Monjack’s since-uncovered, increasingly disturbing actions. He was a professional fabulist, using fake names in different states where he owed various sums. In three years during their marriage, he had spent $3 million of Murphy’s money. And one of the two-parter’s saddest, strangest anecdotes involves Sharon going to pawn jewelry Monjack had given to Murphy, including a replica of Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s tiara, and finding out that none of it was real. But pseudonyms and fake tiaras weren’t all Monjack was hiding. He also secretly fathered two children with two different women, a daughter, Jasmine, and a son, Elijah.
An interview with Monjack’s mother, Linda, and his brother James helps paint a more holistic picture of Monjack as someone who knew how to “manipulate the environment to get what he wanted out of it.” He had regularly lied about who he was, it turns out, posing as a billionaire who said he was dying of terminal cancer until he was saved by an experimental treatment from sharks. He’d repeatedly find and date a woman who would fall for him and let him spend her money, only for him to leave when her money ran out. Elijah’s mother, Elizabeth Ragsdale, also appears for the first time on camera, saying that she believes Monjack contributed to Murphy’s death by not having her seek medical treatment—and did the same with himself: “He would rather be dead than be discovered as the con artist he was.”
No, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? doesn’t overturn the medical findings of Murphy’s death, as some skeptics might hope. But what it does offer are details of her personal and professional sides that were absent from the tabloids—and a deeper look into the man she married toward the end of her short life. It also exposes a new scenario in which Murphy was the victim of a grift, a thoroughly contemporary story in the age of fabulism, which keeps us enthralled by the events surrounding her death, more than a decade later. Murphy’s story, as told by the docuseries, still deeply resonates and entrances as we learn there are secrets about Monjack and her relationship that may still not have been discovered.
Still, it’s impossible not to hypothesize about what Brittany Murphy’s life and career could have been like, had it not ended so tragically. Maybe Murphy would have found her way back to the center of Hollywood again, getting the help she desperately needed for her mental and physical health. Maybe she would have left Monjack before he drained her of her millions. The saddest part is that this is something no documentary could ever show us, no matter how comprehensive.