‘What Happened, Brittany Murphy?’ is a Cautionary Tale of Love and Trust

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The actress, Brittany Murphy, glances over her shoulder and smiles for the camera.
Brittany Murphy at the 2006 premiere of 'Happy Feet' in London. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

What you get out of What Happened, Brittany Murphy? depends entirely on how big a fan you are of the actress. The biggest fans—the ones who know her movies by heart, the ones who still pay her tribute annually, the ones who have long questioned the circumstances of her death—won’t learn a huge amount. But for folks who fell in love with Murphy in Clueless, cheered her on in 8 Mile, and then wrote off her death as just another Hollywood tragedy, What Happened is an emotional, often confounding, rollercoaster.

Crucially, at the end of this two-part documentary, viewers will be no clearer about why Brittany Murphy died. Of course, we’ve known since her 2009 passing that the cause of death was a combination of pneumonia, anemia and “multiple drug intoxication.” The reasons for her not receiving—or seeking out—medical assistance in the days before her death, however, remain incredibly murky. What is clear from various testimonies is that she almost certainly could have been saved had she made it to a hospital in time. What Happened also manages to vividly paint a picture of the perfect storm that Murphy found herself in at the time of her death. Her physical and mental health were suffering, as was her career—the result of an overbearing husband and lack of real emotional support.

What Happened subjects Murphy’s husband Simon Monjack to intense scrutiny—and rightfully so. He is shown to be a pathological liar, a controlling partner, and a man who responded to his wife’s death in a variety of deeply inappropriate ways. Among other things, in the months after Murphy’s death, he posed for portraits with Murphy’s mother Sharon in a manner that made them look like a couple. He walked a reporter from People magazine through Murphy’s scene of death in her cluttered bathroom, down to the exact position she was found in. He set up a website asking for financial contributions, then quickly took it down when people started asking questions. Various bombshell revelations about his past and the depth of his deceptions drop throughout the documentary.

It’s impossible not to draw parallels—especially so soon after Britney vs Spears, Controlling Britney Spears and Framing Britney Spears—between the way Jamie Spears treated his daughter and the way Monjack treated his wife. The financial benefits of Monjack marrying Murphy were huge—he is accused in the film of spending $3 million of her money in just three years. Like Spears, Murphy was also kept isolated by her male guardian, and became woefully reliant on him. Unlike Spears, Murphy never managed to navigate a path out. In a strange coincidence, Murphy died in a house that Spears sold to her in 2003.


The other main object of scrutiny in What Happened is the Hollywood system that subjects women to grotesquely restrictive beauty standards. Murphy is shown transforming from an excited wunderkind into a joyful teen starlet, and then an insecure woman, forced to alter her body, her hair and her style to appease casting agents. The film presents the tabloid press as complicit in this. It is remarkable to see a contrite Perez Hilton, looking back with regret at how his website mocked and dehumanized vulnerable celebrities, including Murphy, in the first decade of the 2000s.

What Happened also, thankfully, finds time to remind viewers just how enormously talented Murphy was—making Hollywood’s focus on her appearance even more galling. In particular, clips of Murphy in Girl, Interrupted hammer home her acting chops—and what we lost when she died.

At the center of What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is the codependent triumvirate of Brittany Murphy, Simon Monjack and Sharon Murphy. It’s fascinating and uncomfortable to witness their strange dynamic playing out in the documentary. Private photos Monjack took of Murphy at home are nothing less than chilling. It’s not a spoiler to say there isn’t a happy ending for any one of the three.

At its core, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is about wish fulfillment. It’s about what happens when unsuspecting people believe too much in fairytales. One gets the sense that Sharon and Brittany believed in—and craved—their own happily-ever-after so much, they didn’t stop to question who was offering it to them.

As the documentary points out, the strangeness of Murphy’s death is already a well-worn topic online, particularly among true crime vloggers. The value of What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is in its ability to also remind you of her humanity, her talent, and just how tragic the end of her life was. It also serves as a reminder that good people don’t always get what they want or what they need. And that, sometimes, the very people assigned to protect them are the ones that ultimately do the most harm.

‘What Happened, Brittany Murphy?’ begins streaming Thursday, Oct. 14, on HBO Max. Details here.