In the wake of the impact that 2021 documentary The New York Times Presents Framing Britney Spears had on freeing the singer from her years-long conservatorship—and also shining a light on our cumulative mistreatment of a woman in distress—perhaps we’ve internalized a new standard for how documentaries treat victims. At the very least, that doc proved that a healthy dose of revisiting our sins is necessary in recognizing the misogyny, cruelty, and judgement that was part and parcel of 2000s celebrity gossip culture. And it’s with that fresh clarity one can laser target the massively tone deaf flaws that are woven throughout the storytelling choices in the HBO Max original documentary series, What Happened, Brittany Murphy?
Directed by Emmy-nominated Cynthia Hill and executive produced by Emmy-winner Jason Blum, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is a two-part documentary series that charts the tragically short life of actress Brittany Murphy, known for her celebrated performances in Clueless, 8 Mile, and voicing Luanne Platter on all 13-seasons of King of the Hill.
Lauded as naturally effervescent and unquestionably talented, Murphy had a meteoric rise from a precocious local actress in New Jersey to an exceptionally busy kid actor in ’90s Los Angeles. But movie star status came with her delightful turn as Tai Frasier in 1995’s Clueless.
Alongside her personal history, the doc also recounts how Murphy was dogged by the industry and media voices as being “fat,” which prompted her to radically change her appearance and weight for the rest of her career. But most damaging was her whirlwind relationship with, and then marriage to, British screenwriter Simon Monjack.
Using video footage of the couple, Monjack in his own words, and new interviews featuring Murphy’s friends, co-workers, Los Angeles investigators on the case—even Monjack’s former lover—the docuseries paints a compelling case that the man was a liar and manipulator who hid a plethora of shady crimes from his trusting wife. As he became more controlling of Murphy’s life and career, her reputation suffered greatly, culminating in her shocking death from what was eventually labeled pneumonia; an entirely treatable case if Monjack had taken her to the hospital before she collapsed.
As another story of predatory men who exploit the vulnerable, Hill and her producers do a very good job of relaying the nuance and context of Murphy’s whole life, laying the groundwork for how someone like Monjack could slip in and do their worst. But where the doc fails on an exceptional level is succumbing to the temptation of including the tasteless freak show elements that existed in fringes of her life, and have continued after her passing.
The emotionally honest remembrances and assessments of Murphy from the likes of director Amy Heckerling and co-star/friend Kathy Najimy are put next to the bizarre inclusion of YouTube vloggers, some whom are even doing their makeup while loudly pontificating into their webcams about the “real truths” behind Murphy’s death. In a first, to my mind, they are utilized as exposition alternatives in catching the audience up on the more sensationalized aspects of Murphy’s death. As they preen and scream their assertions into what should have just been the ether of the toxic internet, the producers have given them a forum to speak with self-appointed authority about a woman they never knew. I kept waiting for the doc to reveal that one of them helped uncover some piece of vital evidence, but that never happens. They aren’t even named or given lower thirds, just appearing randomly like some terrible Greek Chorus of internet ghouls.
Adding insult to injury is the inclusion of toxic celebrity blogger Perez Hilton as a talking head, too. The doc makes a clear case of Hilton posting terribly cruel posts about Murphy throughout her career, implying she was a pill popper and crazy, just like he did with Brittany Spears at the time. Yet here he gets to sit down and talk about how wrong he was, all in service of his ongoing public image rehabilitation tour. Who decided that it was a good call to give an admitted abuser a seat at the table in a doc about the very women who suffered from the callousness of his behavior? It’s beyond tasteless, especially when there are other pundits like Ted Casablanca, who speak to the nasty celebrity blogging culture of the time.
The producers also make several unsavory and sensationalized editorial choices, like taking footage from Murphy’s performance as the disturbed character of Elisabeth Burrows in Don’t Say a Word and intercutting her whispering, “I’ll never tell” into a cliffhanger reveal about Monjack’s hidden past. It’s jarring and entirely distasteful to use out of context footage to “cleverly” connect her career to her dire real life. And it only gets worse in the second episode, where those kinds of insertions appear more frequently and unnecessarily.
The docuseries ends by reiterating the reasonable conclusions based on the evidence previously determined by coroners, independent investigators, and close friends. But Hill and company again make the inexplicable choice to let the YouTube theorists have the last say with their conspiratorial implications of “maybe that isn’t the whole story” as the official close to the whole endeavor. Why would you do that? And why would you debase the memory of Murphy when so many in her circle made it clear what a special person she was, and should be remembered as? Ultimately What Happened, Brittany Murphy? often feels as exploitative as the very gossip culture it should have sought to expose.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? premieres October 14, 2021 on HBO Max.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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