Her story was a Hollywood dream: the prodigiously talented teenager who worked her way from regional theater to big-screen blockbusters alongside Oscar nominees. But then her star power fizzled, her personal life disintegrated, and she met a grisly end.
So how do we talk about Brittany Murphy now?
In the final years of her too-short life (which ended with cardiac arrest late Sunday) Murphy was all saucer eyes and nervous energy, a toothy grin on the arm of one shady movie industry boyfriend after another. After multiple called-off engagements, she settled on Simon Monjack, the screenwriter husband and accused con man now raising eyebrows for trying to block her autopsy. Celebrity publications charted her weight fluctuations, speculated about eating disorders and drug use, and documented red carpet disasters and plastic surgery slip-ups.
There was a time, though, when Brittany Murphy's headlines were all about her promise—and until the bitter end, she fought to get back into the lead actress fold that had once seemed a given. After conquering regional acting circuits, Murphy and her mother threw themselves at the feet of Burbank's pilot season free-for-all, and the little girl from Edison, New Jersey scored one role after another, from the short-lived Drexel's Class to Blossom to Melrose Place and her breakout role in Clueless, where Murphy proved herself a talented comedian. The nervous energy was charming; the saucer eyes sweetly endearing.
But it took four years for her to deliver a successful cinematic follow up with small roles in darkly comedic Drop Dead Gorgeous and critical darling Girl, Interrupted, where Murphy demonstrated dramatic range playing an eating disordered incest victim.
One part of that character became prophetic: Shortly after Girl, Interrupted Brittany underwent a transformation from roly-poly brunette to a whippet-thin leading lady with the requisite blonde hair, heart-throb boyfriend (Just Married co-star Ashton Kutcher), and rumors about drug use and eating disorders. She steamrolled through a series of moderately successful (if generally forgettable) comedies, including Uptown Girls, in which Roger Ebert pinpointed Murphy's "divine ineptitude" (in the manner of "Lucille Ball") as the otherwise light movie's strongest suit.
It was a fine career, but it didn't sit right, and Murphy again changed tracks with roles in 8 Mile and Sin City—and a Maxim-approved "troublemaker" makeover—but her agent suddenly dropped her at what should have been a career turning point. Murphy was described as "hot and cold" and "difficult." She became a voicing staple (with leading vocal roles in Fox's King of the Hill and penguin movie Happy Feet) even as she fought for screen time in acting roles she eventually lost due to "creative differences" and being "problematic on set."
So how are Brittany's sometime detractors memorializing her now?
The Guardian's obit opens with potential unrealized:
It has become something of a Hollywood formality that any young woman actor fresh on the scene is pencilled in to play Janis Joplin sooner or later. Brittany Murphy, who has died aged 32 from cardiac arrest, was one of many performers over the years who were attached to some Joplin biopic or another.
In this case, it was Piece of My Heart, for which Murphy auditioned successfully in 1999, but which was never made.
E's Joal Ryan remembers a "rare," "erratic" career defined by what it was not: easy.
She was different. ... Different can mean "extremely difficult," as in the Murphy of a 2008 New York Post item. (According to the paper, Murphy required a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich-diagonally cut, no crusts-on the hour, every hour on the set of the just-released, if barely, thriller Across the Hall.)
Or it can mean "erratic" (per a 2004 MSNBC report on Murphy's behavior at a press junket for Uptown Girls), and "barely there" (per The Wrap on Murphy's behavior during the recently completed shoot for another thriller, Something Wicked.) ...
Or it can mean unique. As in uniquely talented.
CNN takes the euphemistic route:
Brittany Murphy, the bubbly, free-spirited actress who appeared in such films as Clueless and 8 Mile, died Sunday, apparently of natural causes...
The Atlantic's Alyssa Rosenberg remembers Clueless as a bittersweet high point:
The girls of my generation may have grown beyond their fleeting desire for knee-highs, and overalls are nowhere to be found in my wardrobe. But in a sense, Murphy never grew beyond her performance as Tai. To watch her in Clueless is to see her at her most joyful and at her funniest. ... Onscreen or off, she never quite surpassed the role that launched her career: the endearing and genuine newcomer...
But Brittany's most memorable postmortems will likely be of the tabloid variety: grisly details from the scene of her death, "sources" who come forward to say they saw it coming, speculation about "self-destruction," "enablers," and the price of fame. And so Brittany Murphy, it seems, will die as she lived: ambivalently, a public figure that no one ever quite figured out how to pin down.