In 2009, Brittany Murphy, the actress known for films like Clueless, Sin City, and 8 Mile, died in her home at the age of 32. A year later, her shady husband Simon Monjack died under similar circumstances. Was it murder? Was her husband a controlling Svengali? How could any of this happen to such a bright young thing? This was a story of crushing familiarity: the Hollywood starlet gone too soon, her death mired in tragedy and conspiracy. It seemed wearily inevitable that someone would pummel the depths of her passing for true crime entertainment.
From the moment the first episode of What Happened, Brittany Murphy? opens with the audio from the 911 call made by Murphy’s mother, featuring her sobs as she instructs her daughter’s husband on how to do chest compressions, you know we’re on shaky ground. It quickly becomes clear that this two-part documentary series is less interested in Murphy herself, the charming and vivacious actress who was dealt a bad hand, and more in the details of her death. She is here to be gawked at, to be picked over by ‘concerned’ parties, to be dissected for juicy tidbits, all under the guise of ‘telling her story.’ Most of the time, it’s not even about her anyway, living or otherwise. It’s about Simon Monjack.
To answer the question posed by the show’s title, Simon Monjack happened. An unemployed ‘producer and screenwriter’ with a long history of grifts behind him, Monjack seemed primed to leap into Murphy’s life when she was at a low point, personally and professionally. The series is fascinated by him and seems giddier to dissect his crookedness than Murphy’s independent achievements.
Videos of true crime and gossip YouTubers are shown, emphasizing the conspiratorial furor that defined Murphy’s death, but it’s not as though this glossy HBO Max-Blumhouse production is on more ethically sturdy foundations. Recreations of Murphy’s dead body lying on the floor of her home and the pill bottles on her nightstand are shot with the prestige of an Oscar-bait drama. Is it really necessary to dramatize slivers of a woman’s lung being dropped into a jar of water?
Few people featured here seem to have Murphy’s memory or best interests at heart. Kathy Najimy, her co-star on King of the Hill, is introduced insisting to the unseen interviewer that Murphy should be remembered for her talent and joyous personality. At one point, she refuses to answer a question relating to Murphy’s break-up with Ashton Kutcher, clearly aware that it’ll be used as part of some wonky narrative of her downfall (and yes, the documentary does just that). She’s a rarity in this stomach-churning show. Even clips of Murphy’s luminous performances in films like Clueless are mostly reduced to montages to paint the image of a little girl lost, her demise seemingly inevitable. The work doesn’t get to stand on its own, and neither does Murphy. Najimy sharply calls out the sheer volume of people — media, producers, comedians — who were complicit in Murphy’s pain. It’s a point the documentary practically sneers at when Ted Casablancas and Perez f**king Hilton turn up to comment on proceedings. Oh, poor Perez, you’re oh-so-sorry for spending years calling Murphy a skank and a drug-addicted anorexic, for predicting on a radio show that she’d die soon? Now you’re the almighty and altruistic voice of reason on the perils of tabloid culture? F**k right off with that sh*t.
In the closing moments, as more YouTubers smarmily declare that the truth hasn’t been told about Murphy’s death, a clip from one of her films is played where she pleads, ‘Why won’t you just let me die?’ What it reminded me of was the staggeringly arrogant ending to another exploitative true-crime series, Netflix’s Don’t F**k with Cats. In that show, an amateur online detective turns to the camera and declares that the audience is complicit in the disturbing case the show has spent several episodes leering over. Yes, it is us, the audience, who are the real villains here. Not the directors who decided to achingly recreate a young woman’s dead body lying in her house. Not the tatty tabloid hacks who were ‘following orders’ and ‘going with the flow’ by turning Murphy’s death and low points of her life into clickbait. Not HBO Max or Blumhouse for pretending there is even a smidgen of respectability in their decision to make sport of someone’s passing.
I’ve written a lot over the past couple of years about the increasingly ghoulish nature of true crime, a genre that was never particularly clean to begin with. Over a decade or so, it’s entirely oversaturated the market, from movies and TV shows to podcasts, ASMR channels, newsletters, and too many more things to count. Never before has true crime been more culturally relevant or critically legitimate. No longer is it the tawdry hobby you were embarrassed to admit to your friends, not when it’s morphed into a multi-million-dollar industry. Because it’s now accepted by the mainstream, there seems to be an implicit agreement that its most exploitative elements can be justified as acts of integrity. We’re not exploiting Brittany Murphy’s memory, you see, we’re actually holding the bullies to account, we just so happen to be doing that by replicating all of their worst excesses. You thought it was gross when tabloids speculated on her mental health? Well, here’s audio of her mother sobbing. That’s ethical.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? isn’t the worst example of this true-crime trend I’ve ever seen, sadly because the competition is so stiff, but it is representative of how dubious intentions are masked in the air of journalistic nobility. Pop culture’s been working a lot recently to correct the wrongs done to maligned and exploited women in the public eye, from Tammy Faye Bakker to Monica Lewinsky. This documentary is, if nothing else, helpful in reminding us that, ultimately, the personhood of these women matters jack sh*t to capitalistic forces of so-called entertainment. Being complicit pays.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is available to watch on HBO Max as of October 14, 2021.
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