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Image / Living / Culture

‘What happened, Brittany Murphy?’: New documentary lays out her final years and the questions surrounding her death


By Sarah Finnan
26th Oct 2021

What Happened, Brittany Murphy

‘What happened, Brittany Murphy?’: New documentary lays out her final years and the questions surrounding her death

Brittany Murphy is just the latest celeb to get her own documentary with a new two-part special aired on HBO Max last week.

12 years on and the actress’s tragic death is being revisited in a new documentary. Titled What happened, Brittany Murphy?, the two-part HBO Max special has already caused quite a stir with many fans shocked by what the footage uncovers. 

All about the life and death of the talented star, the documentary delves into many different aspects of Murphy’s life, with particular emphasis on her relationship with husband, London-born screenwriter Simon Monjack.

A combination of old archival footage and new interviews with some of those closest to the actress (including friends and former colleagues), the piece doesn’t actually feature any new information… but it does bring up questions about what Monjack’s role was in her life and possibly in her death. In fact, many people were surprised to learn that he too died of similar circumstances just five months later.

Who was Brittany Murphy? 

If you don’t know the name, you definitely know the face and Murphy appeared in a string of critically acclaimed films throughout her career – including Clueless, Girl, Interrupted, Just Married and 8 Mile. She also starred opposite a young Dakota Fanning in the comedy-drama Uptown Girls which introduced us to the iconic line “fundamentals are the building blocks of fun”. 

Loved and adored by all those who knew her, fame went very hard on the actress who didn’t cope with the pressures of the spotlight all that well. Seeming to take a “career backslide” as Rolling Stone puts it, Brittany soon went from being Hollywood’s It Girl to appearing almost exclusively in low-budget slasher movies and straight-to-video features. 

Struggling with self-esteem issues and body woes, Murphy still seemed to be holding things together right up until she met her husband, which is when the documentary suggests that everything really fell apart. 

For better or for worse

Found unresponsive in her Los Angeles home at the age of 32, Brittany was later pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. At first, it was concluded that she had died of natural causes. Speculation of foul play led to further investigation and the autopsy report found that her death was actually caused by community-acquired pneumonia with contributing factors of iron deficiency anaemia and multiple drug intoxication. Reports confirmed that all drugs were legal prescription drugs though as she had caught the flu whilst filming for an upcoming movie. 

That was in late December of 2009. In January, both her mother and husband Simon claimed that Brittany didn’t use drugs or alcohol and that her death had actually been caused by a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse. Not many of those involved in the project consider Monjack a reliable source though. The trailer accuses him of rarely telling the truth, with one contributor adding, “every single word out of his mouth was a lie”. 

Wary of the relationship between the two from the get go, fellow actress and friend Kathy Najimy admitted that she thinks he “came along” when she was most vulnerable. “I think that’s where her judgement was muddled and she became prey,” she pointed out. “We all were scared and freaked out. Like, ‘who was this guy?’”

Others reiterated much the same sentiment. “A healthy 32-year-old doesn’t just die,” one pointed out while another claimed that “Simon took her away. He made sure no one could get to her.” Unquestionably creepy. 

Doctor’s conclusion

Dr Lisa Scheinin, the deputy medical examiner who conducted Murphy’s autopsy also appears in the documentary. Describing Murphy’s iron deficiency as a “life-threatening situation”, she concluded that the actress would have been battling a severe case of pneumonia “for some time”… but she probably would have survived had she made it to the hospital in time. “If she had gotten to a hospital early enough, you can detect pneumonia on a chest X-ray,” she says in the film. “It’s very easy to do. They could’ve possibly started treatment, but she would’ve had a chance.”

Why didn’t she go to the hospital then? Monjack’s ex-fiancé thinks he’s to blame. “I believe that Simon Monjack – even if he did not kill Brittany Murphy – he allowed her to die because he did not get her to the doctor and get her help. And I believe that he did the same thing to himself.”

Even filmmaker Cynthia Hill had very strong feelings about Monjack. “He was a disturbed individual who was used to conning people and Brittany was one of his last victims,” she told People Magazine in an interview about the project. “There was a pattern of behaviour that became very obvious the more research that we did.”

Naturally, all of the hype surrounding the upcoming documentary has also brought renewed attention to the media’s treatment of Brittany. One of many female stars to fall at the mercy of the early noughties tabloid culture, it’s only in hindsight that we realise just how damaging that must have been for her. 

What happened, Brittany Murphy? is available on HBO Max in the US and on SkyGo in Ireland, with hopes that it will air soon on Sky Atlantic.