Movies & TV

The True Story of Brittany Murphy's Tragic Death

New HBO Max doc What Happened, Brittany Murphy? clears up some long-running conspiracy theories.
IMAGE GETTY IMAGES
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On December 20 2009, Brittany Murphy collapsed on the bathroom floor in the home where she lived with her mother Sharon and her husband Simon. A few hours later, around 10 a.m., she was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The Clueless actress was only 32 years old, and her sudden death shocked Hollywood and the world, prompting much speculation about her personal life, conspiracy theories about the cause of her death, and many YouTube amateur sleuth investigations in the years since. A new, two-part documentary series from HBO Max called What Happened, Brittany Murphy? premiering October 14 sets out to set the record straight.

HBO Max’s documentary posits that the talented 8 Mile and Uptown Girls actress came up during a particularly cruel time for women in Hollywood. As was widely discussed after Hulu’s viral Britney Spears doc Controlling Britney Spears came out earlier this year, the late ‘90s and early 2000s were a time of extreme misogynist scrutiny in the media, heavy paparazzi surveillance, as well as the heyday of gossip bloggers like Perez Hilton. In the series, Murphy’s colleagues reflect on her desire to lose weight and change her hair color after she was told by Hollywood executives that she was “not fuckable” enough to be cast in lead film roles. But possibly worst of all, the culture gave way to an insecurity that left Murphy vulnerable to the charms of Simon Monjack—a man revealed to be a manipulative con artist by HBO Max’s new doc.

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Monjack and Murphy in 2008.
Photo by HBO MAX.

Murphy married Simon Monjack in 2007 after a failed intervention by her friends showing her evidence of his criminal history. He moved in with her and her mom, and shortly after began isolating Murphy from her friends by disconnecting her phone lines, cutting off all access to her that did not go through him, and firing and taking on the roles of her manager, agent, and even makeup artist himself. An ex-girlfriend and mother of Monjack’s child—a child Murphy never knew about, according to the series—testifies to his abusive, controlling behavior and serial lying in HBO Max’s doc. Murphy was fired from the last movie she would ever shoot in November of 2009 after Monjack showed up to set inebriated, according to LA Weekly. The following month, on December 20, she collapsed in her home and died a few hours later.

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In the weeks that followed, Brittany’s mother Sharon and husband Simon remained living together and made a very odd appearance on Larry King Live, in which Simon expressed the needlessness of an autopsy in Brittany’s case. Their behavior roused suspicion in an already shocking event, and fueled many conspiracy theories about Brittany’s death.

The doc also highlights the strange mother and son-in-law photoshoot they did after Brittany's death.
Photo by FRAZER HARRISON/BM / GETTY IMAGES.

According to the coroner’s report, Murphy died of pneumonia with contributing factors of iron deficiency anemia and multiple drug intoxication. But over the years, fans and true crime heads have questioned the likelihood of a 32-year-old dying of pneumonia, and alleged that mold growing in Brittany’s home or perhaps even poison administered to her by her mother or her husband could have caused her death. The mystery grew when Simon Monjack died less than six months after Brittany, on May 23, 2010, from pneumonia and anemia as well. He was 39 years old.

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HBO Max’s doc largely debunks these conspiracy theories. A lab performed toxicology testing on Murphy’s hair after her father filed suit against the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office and the Los Angeles Police Department in 2012, and though they found that her hair contained dangerous amounts of lead, they determined that the lead came from her hairspray or hair dye, as no lead or mold spores were found in her system during the autopsy. The coroner, interviewed in the series, states that Brittany likely would have survived had she been brought to a hospital in the days before her death, while she was suffering from pneumonia and having trouble breathing.

Murphy in 2006 at the Happy Feet Premiere.
Photo by AB1.

Murphy’s mother, Sharon, has lived in seclusion since the death of her daughter. The documentary explains how she was left with little after Simon died, as when she attempted to sell diamond jewelry he had had made for her, she quickly learned it was all fake. Monjack spent $3 million dollars in the short few years he was married to Murphy and had control of her assets, creating fake property deeds and jewelry to assure Sharon and Brittany that he was investing their wealth smartly.

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Sharon Murphy does not appear in HBO Max’s doc. The last time she spoke publicly about the death of her daughter was in an open letter published by The Hollywood Reporter in 2013, which she wrote after Brittany’s father Angelo Bertolotti, who was not involved with Brittany when she was growing up, claimed that she was poisoned and had her hair tested for heavy metals. “Angelo has shown he only wants to trade on Brittany’s life, career and good reputation — even at the cost of putting a cloud over her memory,” she wrote. “She was my baby, and we stood together throughout Brittany’s life. Now I must stand up for her again...I want my Brittany to be remembered as the darling person she was, for the giant talent she showed the world (and left behind in her movie and TV appearances) and for the friendships and loving relationships that really were part of her life.”

FromEsquire US

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Lauren Kranc
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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