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Remembering Brittany Murphy with the people she touched

In the month that would have marked the actor’s 40th birthday, we delve into the mantras she lived by and the dreams she chased

TextAdam WhiteIllustrationOwain Anderson

For anyone who grew up during the era of her fame, or those who have discovered her in the favourite films of your older, 90s-inclined siblings, Brittany Murphy was one of the greats. Standing at barely five foot two inches, she was tiny but magnetic, with the rare ability to seem both completely approachable and disarmingly terrifying, personas she could switch on and off with remarkable ease. She had a big, bawdy laugh and acted like how you or I would act if we were suddenly in movies – manic pep mixed with a breathless disbelief that things had turned out quite so good.

She was the equivalent of dancing around your bedroom to a Spice Girls track, or bawling your eyes out at the end of a party and a few too many drinks. She could and did seem to convey every facet of young adulthood; every glimmer of nervy happiness, or the pain of unstoppable melancholy.

She could also be dark, with a haunted quality that sometimes made you uncomfortable. Whether it was in the script or not, it wasn’t hard to spot in her characters the weight of eventful pasts, a sense that these people were living and breathing before anybody had cried ‘action!’, and who would continue to exist long after the credits had rolled.

As a cultural figure, she seemed enjoyably contradictory – an open book but also intriguingly unknowable. In the years since her death at the age of 32, many have been driven to try and fill in the blanks, occasionally with a tin-foil hat worth of 4chan-style nonsense. It’s a legacy she never deserved. She should have turned 40 this month, the age where actresses who made it big early often find themselves experiencing thrilling rebirths. If things weren’t quite so cruel, Brittany would have been one of them.

In October 1990, video enthusiasts Carl Sylvester and Ryk Schoonheim were recording footage of the annual country fair in their hometown of Metuchen, New Jersey when a young girl smacking gum approached them. “Would you like a children’s perspective?” she asked.

“I was kind of surprised,” Sylvester recalls. “Because no child really says that. She reached out and she had an energy that I’d never found in a child before. So I said to Ryk, ‘Why not give her the microphone and have her interview some people?’ Which she did. She turned around and started to interview another young girl. She did a very good job. She had the expressions, the words, the energy. She had it all. She had a gift. And I can see why she became a very famous star. I’ve seen so many young girls and boys who’ve wanted to become famous, and yet they don’t have what she had. She actually reached out for it, and I can see why she got what she wanted.”

At the end of the clip, later broadcast on a local public access TV station, the girl announces her name. She giggles, briefly losing the uncanny Diane Sawyer impression she had so perfectly aced just seconds prior. She declares, “My name is Brittany Murphy, and I go to Herbert Hoover Middle School.” She is 12 years old.

When she was 12 and a half, Brittany finally convinced her mother Sharon to let her attend acting auditions, the pair driving the 60 mile round trip to Manhattan from their home in the New Jersey suburb of Edison. She had her headshots and several years worth of training at local song and dance classes, along with a dogged determination to become a star. Brittany and Sharon shared a uniquely close bond, with Sharon chaperoning her across the world throughout her career. They shared a home for the majority of Brittany’s life, and described each other as best friends rather than mother and daughter. But Sharon, by all accounts, exhibited none of the ‘horrifying stage mom’ cliches that sort of description tends to imply.

“She just had an offbeat way of looking at the world and a sense of humour and sarcasm that was beyond her experience. Because she lit up a room when she came in. She wasn’t jaded. She was an original” – Nicole Bettateur, Zack and Reba director

After a move to Los Angeles, Brittany quickly began winning parts in commercials, followed by appearances on a host of 90s kids TV shows. She was a member of a wholesome pre-teen pop band named Blessed with Soul (think a less glossy version of the Mickey Mouse Club) that she had formed with the future Six Feet Under actor Eric Balfour, and filmed guest spots on sitcoms like Boy Meets World and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. She even coaxed Tia and Tamera into smoking cigarettes on Sister, Sister. But it wasn’t until Clueless that Brittany found true recognisability.

Brittany’s wide-eyed naivety in the role of sartorially-challenged new girl Tai Frasier gives Clueless its heart and soul, while her line readings range from adorably deadpan (“My buns? They don’t feel nothin’ like steel”) to charmingly oblivious (“I hope not sporadically!”). But she could also convince as a vaguely scary Frankenstein’s Monster with a surprising inner strength. When Tai mercilessly shoots down Alicia Silverstone’s Cher by calling her a virgin who can’t drive, it wasn’t just a perfectly-timed rebuke to a condescending popular girl, but a clear sign that Brittany, as an actress, had a range far beyond the bounds expected of her.

Her work in the immediate aftermath of Clueless is arguably her strongest, full of wonderfully jarring, scene-stealing cameos in films that quickly developed cult followings. In Freeway, she is the paint-huffing, scarred lesbian who molests Reese Witherspoon; she’s the daffy theatre geek in the beauty pageant classic Drop Dead Gorgeous; and the tragic Daisy in Girl, Interrupted. She also ventured to Broadway during this period, appearing alongside Allison Janney and Anthony LaPaglia in a 1997 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. The New York Times called her “exceptional”.

Nicole Bettauer directed her in 1998’s Zack and Reba, a black comedy about a pair of young eccentrics bonding over the suicides of their respective partners. She practically fell out of her chair when Brittany entered the audition.

“I was like, who is that?” she remembers. “It was like this wholly true original walking in the room, and she floored us. Zack and Reba was this weird mix (of genres), and I was really looking for people who were just slightly off-kilter in the best sense of the word. She was kind of wise beyond her years – a little bit of an old soul. It was a strange script – funny and off and dark and dramatic. And she had all of that. She just had an offbeat way of looking at the world and a sense of humour and sarcasm that was beyond her experience. Because she lit up a room when she came in. She wasn’t jaded. She was an original.”

When the cameras weren’t rolling, Bettauer would hit karaoke bars with Brittany and fellow cast member Kathy Najimy, a close friend of Brittany’s who also played her aunt on the long-running animated series King of the Hill. Brittany was a belter, somebody with shockingly impressive pipes, who would sing at the drop of a hat.

For a scene in Double Jeopardy, a 1996 TV movie about a murdered teenage girl, Brittany was supposed to dance by herself while the Eurythmics hit “There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)” blasted from a nearby speaker. But instead she began to sing along with Annie Lennox’s vocals, until the two voices blended into a soup of crystalline soul. The take made it into the finished film.

She was also known for singing at the top of her lungs before each take, something she said helped her get into character. It was while doing this that she smashed into the life of musician and actor Keram Malicki-Sanchez, who performs under the name Keram. On the set of the sharp teen slasher flick Cherry Falls in 1999, he heard her singing before he actually lay eyes on her.

“She and I had a scene coming up, and she was walking down the hall and I could hear this booming, sort of Ella Fitzgerald voice,” he recalls. “I had no idea who was singing, and she rounds the corner and she’s this little tiny thing with these big eyes carrying this giant voice. And I think I remember one of the camera crew or one of the grips sort of rolling their eyes, like ‘Oh god, here she goes again with her singing.’ It said an awful lot, that she was a little bit in her own world singing this dreamy thing and only for herself.”

Malicki-Sanchez would become fast friends with Brittany, roping her into one of her most covert extracurricular projects: the Blue Rose Harlots, a musical ensemble that performed on apartment floors and in home studios, with the likes of Brad Renfro and Dawson’s Creek actor Jordan Bridges among its rotating members. It was what Malicki-Sanchez describes as “a secret super-group – like Fleetwood Mac turned upside down.”

The group had no discernible musical identity, bouncing between Mamas and the Papas-style ‘70s folk to grimy electropop full of loops and synthesisers. But it was here that Brittany explored her most instinctual, experimental creativity. Performances would sometimes involve her reclining across a piano top singing old jazz numbers, or nights when she would play different characters and recite spoken word poetry against a wall of improvised production. Tragically, no recordings exist.

Brittany wanted people to know she could sing, and was drawn to projects that allowed her to perform, even if only for a moment. There was her teary rendition of “Soldier Boy” by The Shirelles in the Drew Barrymore weepie Riding in Cars with Boys, her stirring interpretation of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” in Happy Feet, and the romcom Little Black Book, in which she sang old Carly Simon hits. Many would refer to an aborted Janis Joplin biopic as Brittany’s white whale, an acting and performing showcase that devastated her when it fell apart due to music rights issues.

She also spoke repeatedly of wanting to enter the professional music world and record an album herself. She reportedly spent time working on songs in the studio, but so far no recordings have emerged. In her short life, she only managed one official single: the euphoric club hit “Faster Kill Pussycat”, a collaboration with Paul Oakenfold.

“I think the biggest problem in capturing her voice was not understanding what direction to take it,” Malicki-Sanchez says. “This was somebody who auditioned for Rent and Chicago and killed it, but also – what is she gonna do, put out a musical record? She’s not Ethel Merman. She had these other sides to her. So I think it was very difficult to figure out for the industry. Like how do you use her correctly? Lady Gaga maybe figured out a record that Brittany Murphy might have made, but also Brittany had this incredibly sultry, breathy sound. It wasn’t exactly Amy Winehouse either. It could have been an intimate record – like Joni Mitchell. And I think that was the problem. It was that versatility, and that massive amount of expectation and potentiality that stopped it short. Because it wasn’t a simple answer.”

“I feel like there was pressure from Hollywood to have a certain look and a certain way you had to be in order to be a star. I always missed the way that she looked when we were shooting” – Amy Heckerling, Clueless director

Malicki-Sanchez would lose touch with Brittany as her career ascended – not for any dramatic reason, but down to her gradual embracing of a transient life full of press junkets, public appearances and erratic shooting schedules. Outside of something like Jonas Åkerlund’s gonzo tweaker hit Spun, Brittany’s movies around this time were often nowhere near as interesting as her post-Clueless work, but she’s still brilliant in them.

She demonstrates an airy fragility alongside Dakota Fanning in the sleepover touchstone Uptown Girls, spooked most of America with her frazzled delivery of “I’ll never tellllll” in the Michael Douglas thriller Don’t Say a Word, and sourced genuine nuance in a potentially dull role in the generational classic 8 Mile. Thanks to Brittany, the character of Eminem’s quietly narcissistic love interest Alex Latourno burns with a fascinating stubbornness, unapologetic when it comes to her sexuality, her choices or her aspirations in life. Together the pair create an electric chemistry.

In As If!, Jen Chaney’s oral history of Clueless, several participants talk of this period in Brittany’s life as something vaguely bleak, as if she got lost in the Hollywood machine and changed herself at the behest of others. “I feel like there was pressure from Hollywood to have a certain look and a certain way you had to be in order to be a star,” said director Amy Heckerling. “I always missed the way that she looked when we were shooting (Clueless).”

But Brittany did indeed want to be a star. She privately told friends that all of the recognition and fame truly meant something, not only because it afforded her and her mother a lifestyle worlds away from the one they inhabited back home in Edison, but because it meant people were finally listening and paying attention to her talent.

In truth, it was more the world around her that changed. Brittany hit her career peak in an era in which celebrity coupledom became its own form of currency, wherein the glossy, groping bodies of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck spilled over every tabloid cover, cutesy portmanteaus became a gossip editor’s raison d’etre, and any man within spitting distance of Brittany Murphy was an eligible would-be lover. Her relationships with Eminem and Ashton Kutcher would be prime gossip fodder throughout the early 00s, but would eclipse much of her actual work.

And that sudden flush of attention went dark tragically fast. In the era of her widest fame, we weren’t just entitled to the ins and outs of Brittany’s personal life, but also her body and soul. Tabloids endlessly reported on her weight and appearance, while her giggly, hyper demeanor, once spoken of so charmingly, was suddenly approached with faux concern. Nasty rumours circulated via blind items and tabloid reports, denials were issued by pressed publicists, and Brittany was forced to answer ugly questions about her health and well-being. And as much as she and her team tried to combat it all, the rumour mill had decided she was a liability. Sin City, released in early 2005, would be her final studio movie.

But if the Harvey Weinstein stories of the past month have taught us anything, it’s that many of the narratives that surround famous women, particularly the ones so often described as “crazy” or “difficult”, are engineered by crusty white men in positions of power. And it’s the women themselves who are then expected to answer demeaning questions and pick up the pieces. Actresses including Rosanna Arquette and Mira Sorvino have spoken of calls going unanswered, doors being slammed shut and work drying up off the back of idle gossip. Gretchen Mol wrote about the cruel rumours that have dogged her for two decades via blind items and innuendo. In the New Yorker, Annabella Sciorra said: “From 1992, I didn’t work again until 1995. I just kept getting this pushback of ‘We heard you were difficult; we heard this or that.’ I think that that was the Harvey machine.”

“She had so many distractions that were in her own mind. I think a lot of it was fear” – Robert Allan Ackerman, The Ramen Girl director

At a time when Star Magazine ruled all, the negativity, however it was sourced, took a toll on Brittany, picking at the boundless confidence that years prior had convinced her mother to entirely uproot their lives in the pursuit of fame. On the Tokyo set of The Ramen Girl in late 2006, Brittany nervously told her director Robert Allan Ackerman that “she’d only ever been cast to be either cute or crazy,” and would not be able to deliver anything else.

“So we developed a code,” Ackerman recalls. “We would say either C1 or C2. C1 was ‘cute’ and C2 was ‘crazy’, and I would say to her, too much C2, too much C1.”

The Ramen Girl, a romantic comedy about discovering oneself through noodles, marked what would be Brittany’s final lead role in a vaguely respectable star vehicle. But the shoot was a difficult one, with Brittany sometimes hours late to set, and expressing constant anxiety about her appearance and her reputation.

“She was very conscious of being liked and it was very hard for her to concentrate too long on any one thing,” Ackerman says. “I enjoyed the on-set relationship that I had with her. The problem was getting her to the set, and keeping her focused. She had so many distractions that were in her own mind. I think a lot of it was fear.

“She was on the one hand adorable and vulnerable and one had the feeling that you wanted to take care of her and, in a way, parent her. But at the same time, on a professional level, she could be incredibly maddening. It’s such a sad thing, because I wish she could have appreciated how good she is in (the film), and see that it eventually did find an audience. She is absolutely wonderful in it, I think. It’s just so tragic what happened to her. It’s heartbreaking.”

The last years of Brittany’s life were marked by salacious, mocking speculation about her relationship with the British screenwriter Simon Monjack, who she married in 2007. Human garbage receptacle Perez Hilton took to regularly referring to Brittany as a “kook”, joking about her marriage and her career before pulling a remarkable about-face into bullshit compassion when she died. In December 2009, Saturday Night Live had comedian Abby Elliott dress up as Brittany in a brief skit in which she appeared disoriented and confused, believing it was still 2002 and that she was the host of the episode. It was a nasty, unwarranted punch-down.

Two weeks later, Brittany was found unresponsive in the Hollywood home she shared with Monjack and her mother, and was pronounced dead upon arrival at Cedars Sinai Hospital. A coroner declared her death a result of pneumonia, anemia and multiple prescription drug intoxication. Monjack would die of similar symptoms six months later, and Sharon Murphy has since retreated from public life. Ugly conspiracy continues to swirl around Brittany’s death, exacerbated by go-nowhere lawsuits and an exploitative television movie for the Lifetime network that was a 90 minute cartoon of outrageous conjecture and bad wigs.

Like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger before her, Brittany’s death felt like a cultural gut punch – the sudden vanishing of someone we’d watched grow up on cinema screens and on TV sets, whose peaks and troughs often mirrored our own. But unlike those men, she’s often been disallowed similar dignity.

It’s difficult to talk about Brittany Murphy without pondering what might have been, of the life she still had left to live, and the roles tragically left unplayed. She seems like the sort of actress who would have had her own dark comedy on HBO, or play muse to a modern Cassavetes. She would have made one hell of a Harley Quinn. Like some of her 90s peers, the Witherspoons or the McConaugheys, she would have embraced and been entitled to her own second wind. Even if, as Bettauer says, it would have been an uphill battle.

“Look at James Franco, right? They were trying to make him the next James Dean, and now he’s a character actor,” she says. “Like he’s a leading man, but he’s also a character actor. I think women don’t get that chance as much, and certainly not a second chance. Like they’re typecast in their 20s as either this or that, and there aren’t that many roles where you can be both. It would have been nice to see her be able to shed all that ‘20s ingenue’ (stuff). I think if you can come out the other side of it, you can do such extraordinary work these days.”

Part of the tragedy of Brittany’s life is that there didn’t seem to be any sort of blind spot when it came to what she could give. She was the proverbial triple threat: possessing of the beauty and warmth of a leading lady but the grit and range of a character actor; home to an extraordinary voice, and endowed with an enviable, natural charisma on camera. But, in music and on film, there was almost too much there for the period in which she was a star, appearing like a woman perpetually out of time. And that was despite seeming like the sort of star Hollywood always wanted her to be. She was someone who had everything, but somehow never enough.

“She was always pushing people to be happy,” Malicki-Sanchez remembers. “But to be authentically so. I would say, ‘Would you like to eat something?’ And she’d say, ‘Only if it is very delicious.’ It wasn’t, ‘Is it good for me? What is it made out of?’ It was just ‘Is it delicious?’ And that was kind of the way she did things.”