As the decade spanning 2010 to 2019 draws to a close, the 2000s comes into retrospective focus. With ten years’ distance, we’ve more or less come to a cultural consensus on what was important then, and what we can forget about now. But before we close the book, and on the tenth anniversary of her death, I’d like to nominate to the critical pantheon the work of Brittany Murphy, an actress who appeared in some of the best movies of her era, but who died too young to establish a proper legacy, and too quietly for posthumous superstardom.
Born Brittany Anne Bertolotti in 1977, Murphy spent her teenage years working steadily in television. She had lead parts on shows that were cancelled after a season and bit parts on more successful series like Blossom, Party of Five, and Boy Meets World. She landed a recurring role on Sister, Sister, and then in 1995 came Clueless. It’s hard to overstate how good she is in Clueless. She sells it as a skate punk outsider, and then as a hopeful and awkward misfit alone at the party, and then as a bitchy queen bee. Her character Tai delivers some of the most iconic deadpan lines in the movie: “Rollin with the homies” and “You guys got coke here?” and, infamously, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” (Which, at the time, was true of Murphy herself.) As Tai, Murphy is so sweet, so vulnerable, so guileless. It’s easy to see why her near death experience at the mall propels her to greater popularity. Watching Cher watch Tai watch Travis at the skate competition, how can you not fall in love?
With lithe and ethereal Gwyneth Paltrow and Kirsten Dunst the It Girls of the day, Murphy wasn’t quite pretty enough to be a leading lady, and (I speculate) something about that flat twang in her voice kept her from the kind of highbrow British period pieces that mark the debut of a Serious Actress.
Around 2000, Murphy got the Hollywood version of Tai’s makeover: she lost weight, bleached her hair blonde, had her nose done. And she was rewarded with a string of roles that put her, however briefly, on the A-list. She held her own in well-received dramas like 2001’s Riding in Cars with Boys and 2002’s 8 Mile, then spread her comedic wings opposite Ashton Kutcher in 2003’s Just Married (hardly a classic but, listen, when a rom-com makes over a hundred million, it’s not because the leads are dull and unpopular). Also in 2003, she played the daughter of a dead rock star in Uptown Girls with Heather Locklear and Dakota Fanning; then came 2004’s innocently mediocre Little Black Book; and finally, Murphy landed a big, blockbuster franchise when she appeared in 2005’s mega-hit Sin City.
Murphy was a movie star. She was included on the 2002 cover of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue, dated her co-stars, presented at the Kids’ Choice Awards. For half a decade, she’d had an inarguably successful career. But there’s always a next level, and she wasn’t necessarily headed there. At twenty-eight, she had aged out of “up-and-comer” status, especially after the arrival of Scarlett Johansson, also five-foot-three with a scratchy, deep voice, seven years her junior and already a silver screen darling after Ghost World, Lost in Translation, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Match Point. Murphy wasn’t a sex goddess like Uma Thurman, and between Kate Hudson and Reese Witherspoon, the unbelievably-pretty-girl-next-door area was covered. That slight twang in her pronunciation would forever mark her as working class; she couldn’t play a queen or a First Lady in a biopic. And no, she didn’t have the gravitas of a Kate Winslet or raw intensity of a Hilary Swank. Even with everything going for her, Brittany Murphy might never have nabbed an Oscar or even a Marvel movie. But it’s highly likely that she could have continued making good, solid mid-budget dramas and comedies. She was a well-liked celebrity and a household name, and she could have stayed that way.
Instead, everything went wrong. For the next four years, her movies flopped—because frankly, they were bad. She got to show off her lovely singing voice in Happy Feet, but an animated kids’ movie about penguins won’t get you a cosmetics contract. She got married and no one really cared. By 2009, she was acting in a B-list thriller opposite Dean Cain and had her part written out of The Expendables. And she was sick. Reports are generally speculative, but it seems that Murphy suffered from some combination of an eating disorder, a drug abuse problem, and at the end of her life, a respiratory illness. There was even that whole mold theory, when her husband died six months after she did. Whatever she was going through, Brittany Murphy was very sick, and eventually that sickness killed her. Like Daisy, Murphy died at home; her mother discovered her unconscious in the shower.
It’s horrible to try and PR-package a young woman’s death, but it’s important to understand how the circumstances of her death affected her legacy, or lack thereof.
It’s gauche but true: depending on how it plays out, death can do wonders for an artist’s career. If she’d been in and out of rehab, crying on Oprah and screaming at TMZ, Murphy’s demise could have been bigger news. Or if it had been a tragic slaying, or a motorcycle accident, or a dramatic suicide, it might have made for better entertainment. Compared to the Britney/Lindsay antics that dominated the tabloids that decade, another starlet burning out just wasn’t big news. It’s horrible to try and PR-package a young woman’s death, but it’s important to understand how the circumstances of her death affected her legacy, or lack thereof. Murphy died a year after Heath Ledger and two years before Amy Winehouse. In life, she never quite cracked the list of top stars, and in death, she didn’t crack the list of most notable losses of her era. And it’s a shame because, in addition to being a human being whose untimely death was of course a tragedy, Brittany Murphy was really fucking talented. And nobody really talks about it.
She is so, so compelling in Uptown Girls. She’s emotional and fun and a little quirky and weird with that Seth Rogen chuckle. In Little Black Book, she makes the most out of the unfortunate task of arguing with a dog every other scene, and comes utterly alive when paired with Holly Hunter. It’s like looking into a what-if time machine: two petite women with their distinct voices and big hair and deep-set eyes. I want Brittany to grow up to be Holly so bad.
Even more than staying in the movies, I wish Murphy could have been a television actress. Her career took a turn for the worse right around the time we entered the age of “prestige” television, just before a cable series seemed like a suitable alternative to movie stardom. Brittany Murphy on True Blood, Brittany Murphy on Weeds, Brittany Murphy on The Handmaid’s Tale! I could scream thinking about what Jenji Kohan could have done with Murphy’s unique mix of bubbly energy and broken innocence. This past decade, the one she didn’t live to see, delivered a veritable avalanche of complicated female characters to television. She should have been the goddamn queen of the Emmy awards!
But none of that can happen, and for fifteen-ish years now, Murphy’s contributions to generationally memorable movies like 8 Mile and Girl, Interrupted have been drowned out by the noise of nostalgia and pop iconography. She’s mentioned in the occasional “where are they now?” feature on the cast of Clueless, slotted into a “gone too soon” slideshow between stars who did far less but spun out more spectacularly.
Brittany Murphy on True Blood, Brittany Murphy on Weeds, Brittany Murphy on The Handmaid’s Tale! I could scream thinking about what Jenji Kohan could have done with Murphy’s unique mix of bubbly energy and broken innocence.
Toward the end of her life, Murphy seemed to be losing her grip a little. In her last recorded red carpet appearance, she loses track of what she’s talking about, though by the end of the interaction she’s once again charming and bright, laughing with the reporter about her hair. But compare that to a red carpet conversation from six years prior: she was warm and alert and careful and smart. People did notice her decline. On Weekend Update, Abby Elliot did a bit as Murphy, drunkenly slurring her words. After the real Brittany died about a week later, Saturday Night Live removed the clip from all digital editions of the show, and now it’s basically impossible to find. I don’t fault SNL for airing the bit, nor do I judge the show for deleting it. I just hope that Murphy’s memory isn’t relegated to another Hollywood train wreck…or deleted altogether. She made a body of work that has stood the test of time. Remember her. Appreciate her. If not all the time, then at least sporadically. FL