Review: Cynthia Hill documentary on death of Brittany Murphy

A new documentary on the life and tragic death of actor Brittany Murphy, directed by Durham filmmaker Cynthia Hill, will premiere this week on HBO Max.

Murphy’s story has been told before in a number of TV specials, but never with such depth, and never with such a careful and skillful touch.

In “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” Hill uses new interviews and archival footage to re-examine the mysterious circumstances surrounding Murphy’s death in 2009, and the death of her husband, Simon Monjack, just a few months later.

Hill gained access to many of the people closest to Murphy and Monjack (though not Murphy’s mother, Sharon, who was present when both Murphy and Monjack died), and those interviews paint a pretty complete picture of the dysfunction in the actress’s life.

Watching the trajectory of Murphy’s life play out in the film is heartbreaking.

The documentary begins with a clip of Murphy as a bubbly middle-schooler, hijacking a TV news reporter’s segment on a local fair, her joy and enthusiasm unrestrained. It follows her Hollywood career — revelatory performances in “Clueless,” “Girl Interrupted,” “8 Mile” and more — and her transformation from the “girl next door” type to the more conventional “Hollywood leading lady” look she was forced to adopt because of sexist industry standards.

But still, Murphy seemed to be holding it together. That is, until meeting Monjack. This relationship, the film shows, is where everything quickly fell apart.

The death of Brittany Murphy

Murphy died in her home on Dec. 20, 2009, at the age of 32. An autopsy report listed her death as an accident caused by pneumonia, anemia and multiple drug intoxication. Monjack, 40, died five months later, in the same room as Murphy, and with nearly the same cause of death: acute pneumonia and severe anemia.

That stunning coincidence has shrouded both deaths in mystery, with many theorizing that one or both of the couple were perhaps murdered. The film briefly considers those theories, because it must, but wisely uses most of its time to examine the toxic and ultimately lethal ramifications of Murphy meeting Monjack.

In fact, the most haunting aspect of the documentary is the careful chronicling of Monjack’s treatment of and control over Murphy. If not for his suffocating influence and control, would Murphy have died so young? The film concludes that while both deaths were accidental, Monjack’s actions make him culpable.

Hill told People Magazine last week that Monjack was “a disturbed individual who was used to conning people and Brittany was one of his last victims. There was a pattern of behavior that became very obvious the more research that we did.”

Hill has prior experience in telling the stories of abusive relationships.

Before she became the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director of “A Chef’s Life,” starring Kinston chef Vivian Howard, Hill directed the 2014 documentary “Private Violence,” which told the story of domestic abuse survivors.

Hill’s production company, Markay Media, is based in Durham.

How to watch ‘What Happened, Brittany Murphy?’

Both episodes of the two-part documentary will be available on HBO Max starting Thursday, Oct. 14.

HBO Max is a streaming service owned by Warner Media, distributing content from HBO, Warner Bros., Turner Classic Movies and more.

Learn more about subscribing at hbomax.com.

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Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and keeps track of changes in the local grocery landscape.

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