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Five moments that tell you more about Brittany Murphy than Lifetime’s debacle

Actress Brittany Murphy in 2005. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
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Lifetime’s “The Brittany Murphy Story” doesn’t think much of Brittany Murphy. The grim, made-for-cable biopic, which premiered on Saturday, depicts the singer-actress as dowdy, insecure, and codependent, ignoring her considerable talent and zeroing in on her mysterious, creepy relationship with Simon Monjack (Eric Petersen), the paparazzo-turned-screenwriter who would eventually become her husband.

Amanda Fuller, the actress tasked with playing Murphy, is handicapped not only by her lack of physical resemblance to Murphy but also by an inability to capture Murphy’s incandescence. It would’ve been a tough task for any actress. Trying to embody another, better-known performer — one whose ticks and talents are almost inimitable — presents a considerable challenge. Fuller in particular didn’t seem up to it.

There was an ineffable something about Brittany Murphy. She was fragile, her eyes ever-threatening to tear, her speaking voice often a feathery lilt, but the songs that rang out of that tiny birdlike body were unnervingly powerful. She could convincingly play psychotic, in films like “Girl, Interrupted” or “Don’t Say a Word,” but she’d also weave a bit of that wild-eyed, unhinged act into a comedy role to great effect. She was part Wendy, part-Pan, often giving interviews as though she were on holiday from a private, ominous Wonderland. All those delicate disparities, all that versatility and vulnerability, should’ve guided Fuller’s onscreen portrayal.

The real tragedy of Lifetime’s rendering is not in the sad goings-on that preceded Murphy’s death but in the complete absence of the joy and oddness and passion that made Brittany Murphy. Lifetime reduces her to a giggling, antidepressant-popper whose career is over almost as soon as it begins. While this isn’t surprising — what are Lifetime Original Movies, if not reductive and salacious? — it’s yet another way to sell short a young woman whose rumor-plagued career overshadowed her promise. Five years following her untimely passing, she still deserves better.

Because the best way to honor actors is to revisit their work when they’re gone, here are five moments, all under 15 minutes, that tell you more about Brittany Murphy than 100+ minutes of watching “The Brittany Murphy Story” did.

1. “Boogie Wonderland” (“Happy Feet”)

I saw this film in IMAX and cried during this scene. I thought, at the time, that it was because I was going through a break-up, but I watched it this weekend and my eyes welled all over again. It’s not me; it’s Gloria. The moment when Murphy’s Gloria realizes she’s in love with Mumble (Elijah Wood), and that she can sing better to the rhythm of his dancing than she can to any other smooth-voiced penguin in the tundra, is some of the finest voice-acting I’ve ever seen in an animated film. Check out the moment when she pushes the word, “Dance!” up from the pit of her stomach at 1:38 of this video. The breath she loses and catches and the pregnant pause that follows have always been the best part of that film for me.

2. “Soldier Boy” by The Shirelles (“Riding in Cars with Boys”)

I’ve always believed “Riding in Cars with Boys” would’ve been a much better film if Drew Barrymore and Brittany Murphy had switched roles. Murphy had the chops to pull off the film’s hardest dramatic beats, while Barrymore was far out of her depth. But if Brittany Murphy hadn’t played Faye, we wouldn’t have gotten this amazing, throwaway bit where she hijacks the mic at her best friend’s joyless shotgun wedding reception to sing to her boyfriend who’s headed off to war. When James Woods cuts her off and the actor playing her boyfriend yells out, while wiping away tears, “Let her finish!” you want to yell right along with him.

3. The “My Daughter’s a Tramp” scene (“Riding in Cars with Boys”)

Though intended as a vehicle for Barrymore, Murphy and her co-star Steve Zahn stole this movie in their supporting roles. Aside from Zahn’s scenes, this one is probably the best and most memorable in the film.

4. “Molly Smiles” (“Uptown Girls”)

A lot of people hate “Uptown Girls,” and I understand why they might. It’s fairly cliche. But as is the case with a lot of Murphy’s films, she was one of its better casting choices. Her role as a child trapped in a woman’s body, trying to find the right tenor of responsibility and authority, is a fantastic foil to Dakota Fanning’s controlled, tiny-adult performance. It seemed to be a role to which Murphy, who’d worked as a child actress, could easily relate. In this scene, her character has done considerable work on herself and become a surrogate parental figure to a precocious girl, while retaining her childlike sense of wonder. The film wouldn’t have worked without this ending and Murphy’s acting earned it.

5. Late Night with David Letterman

For a “starlet,” Brittany Murphy made a surprising number of Letterman appearances. Most of them were as quirky and meandering as Murphy often seemed to be, and if you watch them chronologically, you’ll notice she and Letterman developing a rapport over time. The appearance linked above, in which Letterman keeps complimenting Murphy on her return to brunette hair and then flusters her by finding a reason to touch it, is one of my favorites. This appearance, in which she mentions her mother’s breast cancer (yet another experience the Lifetime film gives short shrift) and a brief marriage engagement (one of four she would accept over the course of her short life), is also worth watching.

Whatever Murphy’s personal struggles, it’s clear that the biggest impression she hoped to bring was through her full-bodied performances. Skip the Lifetime debacle and ask anyone who was a fan of her work to name their favorite of her onscreen moments. It’s likely they’ll come up with five that are completely different than mine. For an artist who wasn’t around long enough to realize her full potential and who was often better than her material, that says far more about her talent than a shoddily made biopic ever could.