In 2021, you can see why the expectations for a documentary about long-past celebrity scandals might be so astronomically high.
In an entertainment landscape crowded with documentaries with real-world impacts — projects that have managed to both complicate long-accepted narratives about celebrities and raise an eyebrow outward at a complicit public — it’s clear how lofty the aspirations were for HBO Max’s new, hyper-SEO-friendly two-part documentary “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” But director Cynthia Hill’s revisit of the 2009 death of the 32-year-old actress unearths only a few new details — most of which are about Murphy’s husband, the English screenwriter Simon Monjack — and blows a thick fog of innuendo over the possibility of a connection between Monjack’s shady dealings and Murphy’s bizarre death. (Murphy collapsed in her bathroom; her cause of death was officially ruled to be pneumonia.)
Ultimately, “What Happened” fails to find a definitive new answer to the question raised in its title, and it arrives too long after its major characters have died to offer much by way of justice or even closure to anyone involved.
Many who read about Murphy’s life in tabloids at the end of the 2000s will remember Monjack’s penchant for self-mythologizing: He liked to tell people, untruthfully, that he was a billionaire and a collector of Vermeers and Ferraris and that he had been cured of terminal cancer thanks to an experimental treatment made from shark fins. Some may also recall his bizarre behavior in the weeks and months after Murphy’s death, as Monjack initially objected to an autopsy and often displayed a weirdly intimate rapport in interviews with Murphy’s mother, Sharon Murphy. For a couple often referred to by those in the documentary as reclusive and drug-addled, the particulars of Brittany Murphy and Monjack’s life were mysterious — including the fact that Monjack himself died five months after Murphy, in the same bathroom, in much the same way.
“What Happened” does uncover some sordid new details about their marriage. According to former friends and associates of the couple who were interviewed for the project, Monjack had a history of falling in love quickly with beautiful young women and leaving after he had drained their bank accounts. The interviewees also allege that Monjack was acting as Murphy’s agent, manager, driver, and even hair and makeup stylist in the final years of her career and that he often isolated his wife and undermined her confidence.
“Simon started building a wall around her,” says Roger Neal, who acted as Monjack and Sharon Murphy’s publicist after Brittany Murphy’s death. “He took charge. He took charge of the finances.”
“He was making all of her decisions,” says actress Kathy Najimy, a friend of Murphy’s. “It got more and more restrictive.”
“He made sure no one could get to her,” adds actress Lisa Rieffel, a close friend of Murphy’s from her early career.
During their marriage, the filmmakers discover, Monjack was also quietly sending financial support to not one but two secret children, with different mothers. After his death, it came to light that properties he had told Murphy and her mother he owned, assets he claimed were worth millions and investments he said he’d made were all fraudulent. After Murphy died, the film alleges, Sharon Murphy — who inherited her daughter’s estate — was left with just Brittany Murphy’s pension, whatever was left of her bank account, and her daughter’s and Monjack’s house. (Sharon Murphy, according to Neal, does not answer phone calls or emails. She did not participate in the documentary.)
Still, “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” does little more than hint that there could have been a connection between Murphy’s unscrupulous husband and her strange demise. Clips of various YouTube personalities’ speculations are interspersed between interviews, raising conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. “This shady business guy that Brittany married, something freaky happened,” says one.
“That could mean that she was being poisoned,” offers another.
“It was a plan from the beginning for both [Monjack and Sharon Murphy] to take her money after she died,” says another. “The mom got the last laugh.”
So when the film’s verdict comes in, it tacks a deflating end onto its two-hour exploration of Brittany Murphy’s death. The heavy-handed hints about murder and poisoning lead nowhere; Monjack, the film seems to conclude, simply helped create the conditions that allowed Murphy to get so sick she really did die of pneumonia.
“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,” says Elizabeth Ragsdale, an ex-fiancee of Monjack’s and the mother of one of his children. “And I believe he did the same thing to himself. Knowing he needed medical treatment, he didn’t get it and he died. He would rather be dead than be discovered as the con artist he was.”
Ragsdale’s read on Monjack is one of the most compassionate insights anywhere in the film — and it comes just after she delivers a damning testimony about how Monjack allegedly abandoned her while she was pregnant with his child and stopped answering her phone calls. Arguably, then, the saddest truth of “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” is that there are a great many people who would have liked justice for the wrongs Monjack allegedly committed against them. But the documentary itself is simply too little, too late to be of any consolation.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? (two parts) is streaming on HBO Max.