• Jennifer Barnick

Review: HBO Max's What Happened, Brittany Murphy?

Photo Source: HBO Max

The two-part documentary, What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, debuted on HBO/ MAX on October 14, 2021. Emmy nominee Cynthia Hill directed the film. Brittany Murphy's break-out role was as Tai in the iconic teen movie Clueless (1995). Brittany went on to play other big roles such as the female lead opposite Eminem in 8 Mile (2002). Brittany also starred in various indie films and a few notable romantic comedies. In 2007 Brittany Murphy would marry British screenwriter and filmmaker Simon Monjack. In December 2009, Brittany Murphy was found unconscious in her bathroom. She would be declared dead on arrival at the hospital.

The documentary explores the death of Brittany Murphy and the suspicious circumstances surrounding her shocking and early demise. Brittany was 32 when she died. Very quickly, three themes surface as the documentary unfolds. One, Brittany was a very kind and sweet person. Two, the press was very hard on Brittany. The third and primary theme was that Brittany's husband, Simon Monjack, was a villain. It is difficult not to give out spoilers, but while Simon was possibly a creep, there was no evidence that he was a murderous creep. There was also very little evidence that Brittany was personally unhappy with her husband. Much of the vilification came in the form of his dishonesty with people in his past, some shady financial dealings surrounding Brittany's money, and his controlling nature. However, the problem is that Brittany has passed away and cannot speak on the matter (Simon Monjack too has passed away and only his mother and his brother spoke on his behalf). While he was dishonest to others, was he dishonest with her? It was revealed that the couple spent almost all of their time exclusively with each other. Is it not possible he told her truths that he had not told others? Was he abusively controlling, or was she increasingly untrusting and wanted him to shield her from the world? I struggled with his vilification because it seemed like a lot of movie magic went into framing him as a monster, from dark music to movie clips of Brittany in character (versus Brittany in real life), which often included very dark, film noir scenes. It was as if the documentary was trying to make Brittany's life a film noir like many of her indie movie roles.

The press was an interesting theme. It was clear to most fans, including the press, that Brittany shrank as her career and fame expanded. It was hardly hidden that Brittany suffered from an eating disorder. Near the end of her life, she was noticeably gaunt. However, was the press to blame? How much did the press affect Brittany's eating disorder? Countless non-famous people suffer from eating disorders—to solely blame the press is to flatten a complex condition and the inner psyche of Brittany. I point this out as many documentaries on famous people use the media and the pressures of fame to cause the persons' demise. It begs the question: would Brittany Murphy still have an eating disorder if she did not become a famous actor? What if she became a lawyer, school teacher, or stay-at-home mom? Would the day-to-day stresses of those roles also trigger an eating disorder because most people who have a mental illness live ordinary lives?

Brittany as angelic was also a problematic theme for me. It's very ordinary that people are remembered a bit more rosily after they die than when they were alive. However, the repeated narrative that the actress was somehow sweeter than most mortals was uncomfortable for me because it took away her humanity. Thirty-year-old women are not sugary sweet—to frame Brittany Murphy as some sweet, almost childlike girl is to turn her story into that as a victim without dimension. While it makes vilifying her husband and the press a lot easier, it removes any depth and realness to the person the documentary was about. While the documentary is titled What Happened, Brittany Murphy? it hardly was about her. She was quickly flattened into a kind of generic, ultra-sweet, girl-woman victim of Hollywood and a predatory man. Certainly, a person of artistic gifts has a depth to match, and rarely do we portray gifted artists as sweet simpletons. Yet, this documentary bent backward to erase as much depth and messy humanity from the actress as possible.

It was challenging not to spoil this movie, but I left out some key points because I actually suggest watching it. However, I recommend watching it skeptically. How much of the film is movie magic? How much was Brittany—the movie's subject—flattened out so that other things like her husband and Hollywood could be highlighted? I say this because the documentary genre is my favorite film genre, and since the streaming revolution, the popularity and number of documentaries have exploded. Films such as Blackfish (2013) and Tiger King (2020) garnered huge successes leading to public discourse. The expectation of the documentary is that it is telling the truth. However, it can also be a powerful vehicle for propaganda and manipulation. Movie making uses very clever magic that often goes unseen and unacknowledged by the viewer. Things like camera angles, color filters, sound effects, music, and editing can all be used to affect a person emotionally which can affect how we think and make decisions. With this movie, I felt more magic than truth was presented.

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.