‘Clueless’ Actress Brittany Murphy’s Tragic Death Exploited in Ghoulish New Documentary
The HBO Max doc “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” blames the late actress’s con-artist husband Simon Monjack for her death, but also comes off as icky and shameless.
It was a sad twist of fate when actress Brittany Murphy was laid to rest a day before Christmas in 2009. The former child actress, who had blossomed into Hollywood’s beloved girl next door with the success of Clueless, had always said it was her favorite holiday.
The 32-year-old had died a few days earlier at her Los Angeles home, where she’d been holed up with her mysterious and controlling husband, Simon Monjack. Her cause of death was cited as untreated pneumonia, exacerbated by Murphy being extremely anemic and underweight. And while there was no evidence of alcohol or illicit substance abuse, an autopsy showed she had a combination of painkillers and over-the-counter medicine in her system.
Murphy’s death prompted a media circus at the height of the aughts, when tabloids and paparazzi terrorized young starlets, a time when celebrity blogger Perez Hilton gleefully used Microsoft Paint to cruelly ridicule and mock the likes of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Murphy.
HBO Max’s What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, a two-part documentary that premieres Thursday, tries to deliver some answers as to what could have caused the bubbly and healthy actress’s health to decline so severely that one of the last people to ever work with Murphy described her looking so frail that she seemed to be in pain every time she moved.
“Her eyes were so sunken, and she just seemed so sad,” Something Wicked makeup artist Trista Jordan recalled. “She wasn’t herself. She was in so much pain. She had Bambi legs and couldn’t stand up."
The film places the bulk of the blame on Murphy’s 40-year-old husband Monjack, an amateur British screenwriter who is described as a prolific charmer and con man, jumping from woman to woman after he’d bled their finances dry. According to the documentary, Monjack controlled every facet of Murphy’s life and, harboring a sick preference for anorexic-looking women, encouraged Murphy to lose weight and get plastic surgery.
Ultimately, the documentary accuses him of refusing to let Murphy get medical help when she desperately needed it. And five months after Murphy’s death, Monjack also passed away, his cause of death nearly identical to hers.
It’s still somewhat of a mystery how Monjack managed to sink his hooks into Murphy. Her friends describe her being in a particularly vulnerable state when she met the aspiring filmmaker in 2006.
Already, Murphy had succumbed to the Hollywood machine, losing weight, dying her hair blond, and changing her look after being told she was “huggable but not fuckable.”
Her career seemed to be in a lull due to a few lackluster projects, and Murphy was nursing a broken heart over a string of short-lived relationships, including with her 8 Mile costar Eminem and with Ashton Kutcher, as well as failed engagements to talent manager Jeff Kwatinetz and Little Black Book production assistant Joe Macaluso.
These factors created a perfect storm for Monjack, and the two married a year after their initial meeting. At one point, friends tried to stage an intervention for Murphy, warning both her and her mother Sharon about Monjack’s history of previous run-ins with the law and that he was living in the U.S. on an expired visa. But they waved off their concerns, claiming they trusted him.
After Monjack’s death, it was uncovered that he had drained Murphy’s bank account of $3 million in just three years. Murphy’s grieving mother was distraught when she learned the jewels that Monjack had claimed to be worth millions of dollars were fake, quickly realizing all the properties and stocks he had claimed to have invested in were lies, too.
The documentary features interviews with Monjack’s defensive mother Linda and his brother James. They both admit that from an early age Monjack was a master manipulator, but Linda reasoned he only had a shift in his personality at 16 when his father died from cancer.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? reveals that Monjack had two children, which Murphy allegedly knew nothing about. Only after her death was it discovered that Monjack had fathered a daughter and was funding her private education in England. But in a twist that even Sharon and Monjack’s former crisis publicist Roger Neal were unaware of, Monjack had also fathered a son with his former fiancée Elizabeth Ragsdale.
Speaking out for the first time, Ragsdale recounted how she was swept off her feet by Monjack after meeting him in Paris in 1998, leading her to accept his proposal soon after they started dating. But she quickly learned he was a skilled liar, explaining that one night while trying to guilt-trip her into having sex, Monjack falsely claimed to have spinal cancer and to need an experimental shark fin treatment in Monaco.
Their relationship ended abruptly when Ragsdale was four months pregnant. Monjack had convinced her to fly to New York so their child would be born in the U.S., but after she landed and tried to contact him, he ghosted her. “I called him, and he answered. I said, ‘Simon, I’ve made it to…’ and before I could get that sentence out, he hung up on me. He left me pregnant and abandoned,” Ragsdale recalled through tears, adding that she briefly considered committing suicide because she was so heartbroken.
Ragsdale alleged that Monjack preferred anorexic-looking women and would often criticize her body. She also claimed he had separated her from loved ones and believes she would have died if a friend hadn’t intervened and made him take her to a hospital when she was severely ill.
The L.A. County coroner contended that Murphy being extremely underweight played a direct role in her death, explaining that in order to have such a drastic case of anemia, she hadn’t been eating. The county’s medical examiner added that Murphy’s blood count was dangerously low. “If she had a test before she died, any doctor would have her in the ER and hooked up to a transfusion,” she said.
Murphy’s isolation mirrored Ragsdale’s description of Monjack shutting out her family and friends. Soon after they started dating, Murphy fired her entire team, putting an unqualified Monjack in their place. As a result, her career took a major nosedive; Murphy began appearing in junky horror films and straight-to-video movies. In Murphy’s last film, Monjack had even demanded to be her sole makeup artist.
Many spoke of how Murphy often seemed to be under the influence of some type of substance, with her speech slurred and a glazed look in her eye. After her death, investigators found nearly 90 prescription pill bottles scattered around her bedroom. The prescriptions were under her name and a handful of aliases.
She was nearly fired from Across the Hall due to her erratic “Jekyll and Hyde” behavior, including her refusal to do a simple kissing scene because of her relationship with Monjack. (Director Alex Merkin purposely let Monjack overhear him complain that Murphy was on the brink of being replaced, with Monjack ultimately forcing Murphy to do the scene.)
Monjack also exerted control over Murphy’s personal life, with former co-stars and directors recalling how she didn’t seem to have a phone and the only way to contact her was through Monjack.
Isolated from her friends, Murphy spent most of her time hunkered down in her unkempt L.A. home with Monjack, where Sharon also lived. The couple would hardly sleep, allegedly taking downers throughout the night before taking uppers during the day to stave off exhaustion. The documentary alleges that during these all-nighters, Monjack and Murphy would stage bizarre photoshoots, where Murphy would pose with bondage-style masks over her face.
Following Murphy’s death, Monjack did little to ease the speculation surrounding him, choosing to pose with Sharon in a photoshoot that made it appear as though they were lovers, rather than a grief-stricken mother and her son-in-law. Making matters worse, they openly admitted to sleeping in the same bed, claiming they were comforting each other.
A subsequent interview with Larry King also became a disaster, as Monjack attempted to explain his reasoning for not wanting an autopsy performed on Murphy while a loopy Sharon sputtered incoherently. “There was this woman who just lost her daughter,” he said, referring to Sharon. “It was such a shock. This pristine body that is curvy in all the right places, skin like silk. How could I say in front of her mother, ‘Cut her up?’”
While What Happened, Brittany Murphy? attempts to answer its own question, it falls short, with the full truth of what occurred resting solely with Murphy and Monjack.
If anything, it stresses how she was horribly mistreated and disregarded, both then and now. Those closest to her were unable to spot the tell-tale signs of potential domestic abuse, and those who could were unable to pry her from Monjack’s tight grip.
As a result, Murphy was exploited by the person she trusted the most: her husband. And the documentary is often guilty of exploitation as well.
The opening scene plays the heartbreaking 911 call where Murphy’s mother lets out a guttural wail as Monjack tries to perform CPR on Murphy’s lifeless body. Barely has the viewer had the chance to recover before Sylvan Esso’s synth-y pop song “Die Young” blares over the title sequence while photos of a young Murphy flash across the screen.
The filmmakers selectively sprinkle in clips of Murphy from her various films to serve as a sort of strange first-person commentary. When interviewees are speculating about Murphy’s drug and prescription pill use, Murphy is shown as her character Daisy in Girl, Interrupted saying, “Just give me the fucking Valium.”
In one of the final scenes of the documentary, random YouTube vloggers are given screen time to spout off their unfounded theories about whether or not Murphy’s autopsy was forged, if she was intentionally poisoned, or if someone was bribed to cover up the truth. The film cuts to a clip of Murphy in The Prophecy II where she shoots herself in the chest with a gun. “Please can’t you just let me die?” she pleads.
There’s no denying that there should be some sort of public acknowledgement over how Murphy was wrongfully hung out to dry by the public and the media. During a time when she desperately needed help, she was used as a cheap punchline on Saturday Night Live and mocked by Howard Stern, who referred to her as fat and ugly, and made crude comments about her past relationships to her then-boyfriend Ashton Kutcher.
The world has been forced to re-examine its treatment of Spears, Hilton and Lohan—and Murphy deserves the same level of compassion. Only for her, it will come far too late.