On a Sunday morning in December of 2009, Brittany Murphy suddenly collapsed in the bathroom of the West Hollywood home she shared with her husband, Simon Monjack. Later that morning, the petite, doe-eyed actress was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she was soon pronounced dead. Authorities initially said that the 32-year-old died from a lethal combination of pneumonia and prescription drugs, but a new two-part documentary delves deeper into the mysterious, nefarious circumstances around her tragic death and her troubled relationship with Monjack.
Premiering Oct. 14 on HBO Max, “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” looks at how Murphy went from one of her generation’s most promising young stars, with memorable turns in films such as “Clueless” and “Girl, Interrupted,” to one of Hollywood’s darkest tragedies.
In the documentary, reporter Amber Ryland recalls getting an exclusive interview with Monjack shortly after Murphy’s death. “It was in the back of my mind, ‘Am I sitting with a murderer?’” she says. “’Could he have killed his wife?’”
Brittany Murphy was born in Atlanta in 1977. Her father was in and out of prison, and she was raised by her mother, Sharon Murphy. She started studying performance and dance at age 5. By her teens, she was a successful working actress, scoring roles on “Murphy Brown,” “Sister, Sister,” “Boy Meets World” and many other TV show of the time.
Murphy’s breakout came in 1995’s “Clueless,” playing Alicia Silverstone’s hilarious sidekick Tai. Acclaimed turns in films such as “Girl, Interrupted,” “8 Mile” and “Sin City” followed — as did high-profile romances with musicians Eminem and Fred Durst, actor Ashton Kutcher and producer Jeff Kwatinetz. But, her bright future dimmed when she coupled up with Monjack, a struggling British screenwriter seven years her senior who had money problems, sketchy past romances and a troubled relationship with the law and immigration officials.
The two reportedly started dating in 2006 and things quickly got serious. Friends and acquaintances believe the actress — vulnerable, too-trusting and eager to settle down — got bamboozled by a con artist.
“[People] were scared and freaked out. Like, who was this guy and what was happening?” Murphy’s “King of the Hill” co-star Kathy Najimy, recalls in the doc. “She wanted to marry him, and I said, ‘Honey, it’s not been long enough.’ ”
Filmmaker Allison Burnett recalls first meeting Monjack at a dinner party in 1999 where he lied about owning 17 Ferraris, dating Madonna and surviving terminal brain cancer thanks to an experimental treatment involving shark fins. It was apparent, Burnett says, that he was using the woman he was dating at the time for her money. Years later, when Burnett saw that he was involved with Murphy, he was horrified.
“I couldn’t believe that this bottom feeding sociopath had actually worked his way up the food chain to someone who’s actually a legitimate artist,” the filmmaker says in the show.
Burnett went so far as to call her agency, trying to get them to stress to Murphy that Monjack was a compulsive liar, but, he says, “The word coming back was that her manager had tried [doing that] and had gotten fired as a result.”
Despite the many concerned people, Murphy wed Monjack in 2007. Monjack reportedly went to great efforts to conceal his shady past from his new bride.
Elizabeth Ragland was engaged to him before he was involved with Murphy and says he manipulated and isolated her, claiming he had cancer so that she’d get pregnant, then refusing to get her medical help when she needed it. In the documentary, Ragland says that he threatened to take away their son if she revealed herself to Murphy.
“The stakes were a lot higher with him being married to Brittany,” she says. “He didn’t need anybody to know that I was out there with his son. I know why Brittany chose Simon. He worked his spell on her and she fell for it, like I did.”
Murphy’s once-thriving career slowed after the marriage, as rumors swirled around town that Monjack made it difficult to work with her.
Alex Merkin, who directed Murphy in the 2009 film “Across the Hall,” talks in the doc of red flags such as Monjack seeming “out of it” and Murphy exhibiting “Jekyll and Hyde” behavior.
“Brittany would come to set and be in a really good space, and then I would see her go off with Simon,” he says. “When she came back, I felt a stark change in her mood.”
Others recall Murphy, once known for her adorable rounded features, looking increasingly thin and drawn.
“She wasn’t herself. She was in so much pain,” makeup artist Trista Jordan, who worked on what would be Murphy’s final film, “Something Wicked,” says in the doc. “[Her eyes] were so sunken, and she just seemed so sad.”
“I didn’t recognize her anymore,” adds Najimy. “Brittany was cloudy and gone.”
Ragland says her weight loss may have been brought about by Monjack, who “loved anorexic women.”
Ed Winter, the coroner who handled Murphy’s case, and medical examiner Lisa Scheinin speculate that tragedy might have been avoided if someone had taken Murphy to the hospital in the days leading up to her death.
“The cause of death is not a mystery. The mystery is, why didn’t somebody catch it? Had they taken her to the doctor a few days before, she would still be alive,” says Winter, who adds that he received information that Monjack made a habit of keeping Murphy up late into the night, to devastating effect.
“She wasn’t getting enough rest and her immune system was dropping,” he says.
Ragland believes her ex is guilty.
“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,” she says.
After Murphy’s death, things got more bizarre. Monjack attempted to prevent an autopsy on her and asked his late wife’s contacts for thousands of dollars for a “foundation” in her honor.
Murphy’s mother Sharon had lived with the couple and continued living with Monjack after her daughter’s death. When Ryland visited the home, she says it appeared the two were sharing a bed and the older woman behaved quite oddly.
“She acted submissive with him, which I noticed, and it struck a chord. [I wondered] ‘What happens when no one is here, how do they act when no one is here?’” she recalls.
Then, in May 2010, just five months after Murphy’s death, Monjack died at the age of 40, also seemingly due to pneumonia — and, possibly, drugs.
“On Simon’s side of the nightstand, we found approximately 90 prescription bottles, with several different names, which is highly unusual,” recalls Winter of a subsequent investigation. “We also found prescription bottles in Brittany’s name and ‘Lola Manilow,’ [which was] possibly an alias.”
Conspiracy theories abound. Murphy’s estranged father, Angelo Bertolotti, claimed his daughter had been poisoned. At the time, Sharon attributed the young couple’s death to mold in their mansion. But medical examiner Scheinin said she saw no evidence of that being the case.
Ragland thinks Monjack might have preferred death over the truth being revealed.
She says: “He would rather be dead than to be discovered as the con artist he was.”