Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Brittany Murphy Story (LeGrand Productions, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday night I watched the “world premiere” of a Lifetime TV movie called The Brittany Murphy Story, more or less based on the life of actress Brittany Murphy (1977-2009) — predictably, its accuracy has been challenged on various online fora — who got her start at age 13 doing commercials while she (Amanda Fuller) and her mom Sharon (Sherilyn Fenn) were living in Edison, New Jersey. She pressured mom to relocate to Los Angeles so she could crack Hollywood and worked up the 1990’s version of the ladder to stardom, starting with guest roles in TV sitcoms (her non-commercial debut was in an episode of Murphy Brown and, predictably, she regarded the title of the show as a good omen) up to semi-regular parts on long-forgotten shows like Drexell’s Class, Almost Home and Sister, Sister. Then she cracked the big screen in a supporting role in the film Clueless, followed by Girl, Interrupted and 8 Mile — but none of these were vehicles for her, and instead they propelled their featured performers (Alicia Silverstone, Angelina Jolie and Eminem, respectively) to stardom. Unwilling to relegate herself to playing the heroine’s perky brunette sidekick, she dyed her hair blonde, lost weight and cultivated a “sexy” image — only to spark rumors that she was doing drugs (as Murphy’s stand-in, interviewed in the Behind the Headlines “documentary” Lifetime showed right after the movie, noted, every time a young woman in Hollywood suddenly loses weight everyone in the business assumes she’s either doing drugs or is anorexic) — which snowballed when a so-called “blind item” on a Hollywood Web site (a “blind item” actually dates back to Walter Winchell and his rivals in the 1930’s — it’s the sort of thing that asks, “What Hollywood star just … ” and, by not naming a specific person, not only avoids the risk of a libel suit but keeps the industry’s people guessing as to who it is) called her the “Jordache Junkie,” saying that some woman had not only been doing drugs at a party honoring the Jordache jeans label (a blessedly forgotten 1980’s and early 1990’s phenomenon that provoked the unforgettable retort from comedienne Elayne Boozler: “Why would you pay all that money just to have some French guy’s name on your ass?”) but had had a quickie sexual encounter with a “cater waiter” inside the stairwell of the building. The item was actually about a newly hired Jordache model, but since Murphy had just been hired to do a series of ads for Jordache much of Hollywood thought it was about her — and though the original site on which it was published eventually retracted it and said it wasn’t about Murphy, the damage was done. The film touches on the highlights and lowlights of Brittany Murphy’s career, including her brief romance with actor Ashton Kutcher (ironically, the producers got an actor to play Kutcher, Adam Hagenbuch, whom I thought was even hotter than the real one!) — it was really a rebound from the failure of Kutcher’s controversial marriage to Demi Moore (who was a generation older than he — when Kutcher’s first feature film, The Butterfly Effect, was released, it failed at the box office, partly due to an ill-advised tacked-on ending that turned it silly but also because critics seemed more interested in reviewing Kutcher’s marriage than his movie!) and a result of the fact that the film they’d made together, Just Married, cast them as newlyweds.

According to this film, though, Murphy and Kutcher broke up because he wanted to be a Hollywood party boy and she was more studious and wanted to stay home more and develop her craft — though the next scenes in the script by Peter Hunziker and Cynthia Riddle show Murphy becoming more irresponsible and diva-ish by the day, as she gets fired by her agents over the “Jordache Junkie” rumor, spirals down into lesser parts in more forgettable genre movies, and ultimately hooks up with a British photographer turned screenwriter turned wanna-be “producer” named Simon Monjack (Eric Petersen, who not surprisingly has a bearish charm — the real Simon Monjack was a fat schlub and an odd companion for a still strikingly beautiful woman) who promises to help her rebuild her career. Only she gets warned against him by a woman who comes up to her while she and her mom are dining in a restaurant and tells Brittany her fiancé owes $500,000 in unpaid legal settlements, is being investigated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for being in the U.S. illegally on an expired visa, and has bilked so many people out of so much money he really should be called “Simon Conjack.” But Brittany Murphy remembers Simon Monjack as a photographer who was kind to her in the early days, when she did her first red-carpet walk at the premiere of Clueless — back when the paparazzi and the gossip-mongers from the tabloids were still on her side instead of smelling blood in the water as her career unravels (for reasons Hunziker, Riddle and director Joe Menendez don’t really make that clear) and she’s reduced to making a cheap movie in Puerto Rico from which she’s almost immediately fired after she shows up for work in a drug-soaked haze, can’t remember her lines and insists on “mandatory breaks.” At least that’s the version in the TV-movie; the one in the documentary is considerably more ambiguous and comments on the lack of sanitation on the location (as in no running water or flush toilets) and the overall horrible conditions that led Murphy either to walk or get let go after the first day. (Both the movie and the documentary carefully leave this production unnamed, but the Wikipedia page on Brittany Murphy said it was called The Caller and was completed with Rachelle Lefevre in the role originally intended for Murphy, though the film wasn’t released until February 22, 2011 — over a year after Murphy’s death — and judging from the synopsis it sounds like it could be a pretty good, if derivative, movie: “Troubled divorcee Mary Kee is tormented by a series of sinister phone calls from a mysterious woman. When the stranger reveals she's calling from the past, Mary tries to break off contact … .”)

The film leaps around — it’s actually told in strict chronology but there are a lot of jumps forward in the continuity — to Brittany Murphy’s still-mysterious death on December 20, 2009, when she collapsed in the bathroom of the Hollywood mansion (originally built by Madonna, sold by her to Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, then sold by them to Brittany Murphy and her entourage) she shared with her husband and her mom and was ultimately pronounced dead. An autopsy by the L.A. County Coroner’s office determined that the causes of death were pneumonia, anemia and multiple drug intoxication — Murphy had always denied that she used cocaine or any other “drugs,” but she seems to have had the same rationalization as Elvis and a lot of Hollywood’s other prescription drug abusers, that as long as it came in an amber bottle with a doctor’s name on it it wasn’t a “drug” and therefore it didn’t “count.” Murphy had a heart murmur she’d been diagnosed with as a teenager, she was quite possibly bipolar (at least she’s depicted as such in the movie — the “B”-word isn’t used but shortly before her death there’s a scene in which she’s shown giddy with excitement and shame-facedly admits to Simon that she’s gone off her meds), and in the scenes showing them together she and Simon are enthusiastically trading each other their prescription drugs heedless of the possible bad effects of taking someone else’s meds. The documentary claims that at the time of her death Murphy and her husband were both under investigation for “doctor-shopping” — i.e., visiting more than one physician in order to get larger amounts of abusable prescription drugs than one could legally get from just one doctor. What made Murphy’s death even more bizarre — and probably plucked this story out from the huge pile of tales of people who couldn’t handle stardom and its discontents (particularly the constant pressure to stay at the top and avoid that one wrong decision that could kill your career stone-dead — as Hollywood insiders have told wanna-bes and established stars alike for decades, “You’re only as good as your last picture”) — was that just five months after Murphy died, Simon Monjack died in the same house from similar causes (his autopsy also listed pneumonia and anemia as causes of death), sending the conspiracy-mongers into overdrive.

Brittany Murphy’s father, Angelo Joseph Bertolotti — who had broken up with her mom when she was 2 and had had so little interaction with her during her life he isn’t even a character in the TV-movie — came slamming back onto the scene, somehow obtained hair samples and had them analyzed, and claimed on the basis of that analysis that she had been poisoned. More recently he’s claimed that Brittany’s mom did it — an article on the In Touch Weekly Web site purported to be an interview of him by Diana Cooper in which he made that claim, but at the moment the story is literally lined out on the In Touch Weekly site, though the comments section survives. That’s one of those head-scratchers because, aside from the fact that no one who knew Brittany and her mom saw the relationship as anything other than mutually supportive (indeed, having your mom continue to live with you even after you get married sounds, if anything, hopelessly co-dependent to me!), what on earth would Sharon Murphy’s motive have been for knocking off her daughter and son-in-law? Brittany, even with her career in tatters, was clearly worth a lot more to her alive than dead! She wasn’t Elvis, Marilyn Monroe or Michael Jackson (all stars who also died from pharmaceutical drug abuse); she hadn’t created the kind of body of work that was going to generate a lucrative posthumous career, and as one of the interviewees on the Behind the Headlines show noted, Brittany Murphy is going to be remembered, if at all, only for her untimely demise and not for her actual work. I did a search for her on my movie blog and noted I had only two entries for films she was in — Spun, a quite good anti-drug movie from 2002 but which cast her only as the girlfriend of “The Cook” (Mickey Rourke), who makes crystal meth for virtually the entire rest of the cast; and Abandoned (2010), her next-to-last film, in which like a lot of other movies these days (including the posthumous releases of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams) the deceased star had finished his or her part while still alive but the ever-lengthening period of post-production (especially given the extensive use of computer-generated imagery these days, which creates splendid effects but also takes a very long time) meant the films could not be released until after the stars died. I quite liked Abandoned and it’s evidence that, however extensive Brittany Murphy’s talents were, they had held up to the end — it’s a damsel-in-distress thriller in which her character is caught up in an elaborate plot to embezzle money from the bank where she works as an executive; I wrote, “[W]hile it’s grimly ironic, to say the least, that the central character who evades a life-threatening situation is being played by an actress who didn’t live long enough to see the film completed and in release … Brittany Murphy turns in an excellent performance and she’s well matched by Dean Cain (who’s considerably hotter than most of the guys Lifetime itself casts in these roles) and especially by Jay Pickett (as the cop who unravels the plot and catches the baddies) … and Tim Thomerson (as the mastermind of the plot).”

All in all, The Brittany Murphy Story is a typical piece of Hollywood exploitation which presses her story — whatever it was — into the usual mold (in more ways than one since one of the more bizarre explanations for her and her husband’s deaths was that their house was supposedly infested with toxic mold — I’m not making this up, you know!): young girl with talent and ambition to burn comes to the big, bad movie capital, gets caught up in the superstar lifestyle and ultimately drinks, drugs, parties, screws or all of the above herself to death. Of course, with all the theories being thrown around as to why both Brittany Murphy and Simon Monjack died in the same house within five months of each other, I couldn’t help but come up with one myself based on a hint from the Behind the Headlines documentary from someone who knew them and noted that the health of both these chronically ill people (she’d been diagnosed with a heart murmur and he’d already had two minor heart attacks when they got together) took a major nosedive once they returned from that abortive Puerto Rican trip to make The Caller; what if both of them caught a parasitic infection there that went either undiagnosed (one part of the story that rings true was Brittany’s intense fear of seeking medical attention for anything, lest the paparazzi and tabloid columnists get hold of it, start printing deathly-looking photos of her and accompanying text suggesting she was going to croak any moment, and deal the final blow to what was left of her career) or misdiagnosed until they both died, and maybe even afterwards?