“Those people are complicit,” Kathy Najimy, Brittany Murphy’s longtime King of the Hill co-star, tells the camera in the new HBO documentary What Happened, Brittany Murphy? She’s referring to the press that criticized Murphy’s appearance and relationships throughout her career and then quite literally hounded her grave, looking for answers around her early death. “All of those people who wrote about her and talked about her and made the headlines,” Najimy continues.
She is not wrong, but she is making these accusations from within a documentary that allows the same paparazzi once ravenous for the intimate details of Murphy’s life and death to retell her story. In this documentary, Murphy is transformed into a modern-day cautionary tale that feigns concern while refusing to acknowledge that the film itself is yet another tabloid treatment of Murphy’s story. From the tasteless intro music—“Die Young” by Sylvan Esso—to the tearful interviews with Murphy’s friends and family segueing into interviews with paparazzi, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is a tawdry true-crime look at Murphy’s untimely death wrapped up in the kind of pseudo-intellectual handwringing about the early 2000s treatment of young famous women by the media in general made popular by Hulu and The New York Times’s early 2021 documentary Framing Britney Spears, its follow-up Controlling Britney Spears, and Netflix’s rival documentary Britney vs. Spears. Like those projects—which Spears has expressed contempt for—What Happened, Brittany Murphy presents a new way to gawk at the misfortunes of young Hollywood women, offering infantilizing morals around the pitfalls of fame and the fragility of their subjects while making experts of the people who profited off criticizing these women to their breaking points.
On February 5, 2021, when Framing Britney Spears was released, not much was known about the conservatorship in which Spears had been trapped for over a decade, not even whether or not Spears wanted out. Though a small but loyal group of supporters had been pushing the Free Britney movement for years, the attention around the Emmy-nominated documentary put significant pressure on the court to finally let Spears speak publicly on her own behalf, after which those who had been quietly profiting off of Spears’s conservatorship for years quietly walked away. Eventually, Spears finally got what she was at last allowed to publicly ask for: Her father was removed as conservator, leaving Britney free to do things like make the decision to buy an iPad for the first time since 2008.
While it’s possible that Spears would have never been released from a situation that sounds incredibly abusive without the outrage at the allegations made in Framing Britney Spears (allegations that others had been making to less fanfare for years), the coverage also spawned an insidious new spate of “documentaries” that are little more than E! True Hollywood Stories layered with a thin veneer of concern trolling.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? begins with a frantic 911 call made by Murphy’s mother, Sharon, as her 32-year-old daughter stopped breathing. After listening to a mother wail for her dead child, the film completely earnestly superimposes scenes from one of Murphy’s final films with clips of other dead Hollywood women, ending with a scene featuring Marilyn Monroe. From there, true crime makeup vloggers are allowed to narrate Murphy’s story as they apply eye shadow in clips cribbed from YouTube. The approach is stylistically chaotic and utterly crass, offering no insights into the ways Murphy’s story has become commodified as Monroe’s, just another cheap-looking package.
Murphy was a former child actor who became a cultural icon at 17 when she played Tai in Clueless, and her story, while tragic, is not an uncommon one in Hollywood. Young and talented, she was told she needed to package herself for stardom, and at the time (the early 2000s) that meant being blonde, rail-thin, and gamely available for public scrutiny. From Howard Stern asking her then-boyfriend Ashton Kutcher on-air how many men she’d slept with to defending herself in glossy magazines from online gossip speculating about her substance abuse based on paparazzi photos of her body, Murphy’s struggles parallel Spears’s, right down to the widespread ridicule of her marriage to a grifter and the grotty “I told you sos” that came after Spears’s 2008 breakdown and Murphy’s 2009 death from a combination of pneumonia, severe anemia, and multiple drug intoxication.
Part of the cheapness of What Happened, Brittany Murphy? comes from the ways in which the opinions of the people who profited off gossiping about Murphy are given equal weight with those who seem to have genuinely loved her. Along with heartfelt stories about Murphy told by co-stars like Najimy and Amy Heckerling, who gave Murphy her breakout role in Clueless, there are tabloid reporters like Amber Ryland, a paparazzo who worked for RadarOnline at the time of Murphy’s death. Both Najimy and Ryland seem in agreement that Murphy was treated unfairly, but only one of them was ordered by an editor to show up at Murphy’s door with flowers following her death to try and get an exclusive. Yet instead of pausing to examine the part people like Ryland may have played in the toxic celebrity culture that surrounded Murphy’s death and Spears’s breakdown or even asking any meaningful questions about the legacy of that culture, What Happened Brittany Murphy? is more concerned with allowing YouTubers to speculate that Murphy’s mother was possibly in league with her terrible husband to murder her.
The film’s title promises some sort of investigation into Murphy’s death. But the film seems to counter that explanation with conspiracy theories about Murphy’s husband Monjack, who died under similar circumstances six months after Murphy; his relationship with his mother-in-law; and the mold in her house. Ultimately, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? concludes that what happened is exactly what the coroner said happened. The point in offering up those conspiracy theories, as told in tones of feigned outrage by the YouTubers applying their eye shadow, is simply to re-examine the well-known fact that Monjack was almost certainly a grifter who hoodwinked a vulnerable Murphy and then tanked her career while squandering her money, just like the tabloids lurking around outside Murphy’s home in the days following her death said he did. The point is not solving a mystery, not that it should be left to documentarians to solve mysteries in the first place. There’s no mystery to solve.
It’s the same kind of gossipy dreck that US Weekly was peddling in 2009, only now with a few allusions to the idea that paparazzi are bad. Part two even allows Perez Hilton—who declared in a 2009 interview that Murphy would be the next celebrity to die—to attempt to absolve himself for the millions he made publishing photographs of Murphy and mocking her alleged drug addiction.
“I didn’t even view Brittany Murphy or any of the celebrities I covered as real people,” Hilton says by way of apology. “They were characters to me.”
But they’re characters still: the pretty dead girl in Murphy’s case, and the beautiful princess locked in a tower in Spears’s. Britney vs Spears doesn’t even pretend it’s on a mission to free Britney like the New York Times did. Instead, journalist Jenny Eliscu, who has interviewed Spears in the past, and filmmaker Erin Lee Carr “investigate” just how bad Spears’s conservatorship really is. Along the way, they platform Adnan Ghalib, the paparazzi who dated Spears during one of the darkest periods of her life while profiting off that relationship, and Sam Lutfi, whose proximity to Spears at the same time also seemed to be lucrative. Both men are allowed to tell their sides of the story completely unquestioned, despite the guise of “investigating” Spears’s circumstances. Instead, like What Happened, Brittany Murphy? we simply get the horrible details of a heartbreaking story—the men who wiretapped Spears’s bedroom at her father’s request saying that they did, in fact, wiretap Spears’s bedroom; a former employee explaining that she once had to buy Spears a pair of Sketchers because her dad wouldn’t let her have them.
When Spears was allowed to speak publicly about her conservatorship, she called it “embarrassing and demoralizing” to be constantly monitored, kept legally a child by the court system despite working full-time as one of the biggest pop stars in history. But she’s also said that the constant public scrutiny, even with its new veneer of sympathy rather than the derision with which she’s been treated in the past, is also embarrassing. In an Instagram post, Spears said of the FX and New York Times treatment of her situation, “I cried for like two weeks and well... I still cry sometimes.”
Throughout the spate of Spears documentaries and in the clips of YouTube conspiracy theorists sprinkled throughout What Happened Brittany Murphy? there’s an air of certainty that speculating about these women’s lives while digesting every detail of the trauma is somehow for their own good. Even the documentary’s title is a question, but it’s the wrong question. If we’re only asking what happened without interrogating why, then all this newfound coverage of Hollywood women’s sad stories is simply entertainment, just like it always was.