The Final Difficult Days of Brittany Murphy

4:00 AM PST 01/11/2011 by Alex Ben Block
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Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

A year after her death, Alex Ben Block details her struggles to revive her once-promising career -- and, for the first time, shares his interviews with her late husband and mother.

Growing up in Edison, Brittany said her first words at six months, according to Aunt Debba, but didn’t walk until she was nearly 15 months. Sharon described her as an outgoing child who loved to dance and sing. She got her showbiz start in school and local theater, starring in the musical Really Rosie at age 9. After that performance, Sharon recalled, Brittany told a local TV station: “I’m going to get an agent and do commercials and work in New York. Then I’m going to move to Los Angeles, be in movies in Hollywood and then come back and do Broadway. Then I’ll probably have a huge musical career. I am going to change the world.”

And she did almost all of it. She starred on TV series; in addition to King of the Hill, she did guest roles ranging from Frasier to Nash Bridges. She was in more than two dozen movies, from her breakout role in Clueless to the romantic comedy Love and Other Disasters. She even returned to Broadway in the 1997 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. New York Times critic Vincent Canby called Brittany’s Broadway debut “exceptional.” Even when her movies got mixed notices, Brittany often stood out, as in 8 Mile, the 2002 screen debut of rapper Eminem. “It will be a shame if she becomes a star via this embarrassing siren turn,” critic David Edelstein wrote for Slate. “That said, she has it. When she turned those huge black-rimmed eyes on Rabbit, she made me think of Morris Day’s line to Apollonia in Purple Rain: ‘Your lips would make a lollipop too happy.’ ” Roger Ebert didn’t like Just Married but saw in Brittany “a rare and particular quality.” But Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday just didn’t get her, saying that after 8 Mile she should understand “her true calling is that of a bad girl, with or without a heart of gold.”

But, in fact, Brittany was more than any one thing. She could disappear into a role, as she did in Girl, Interrupted and Don’t Say a Word; the latter I believe should have earned her an Oscar nomination. Said Penny Marshall, who directed her in Riding in Cars With Boys: “Her timing was impeccable. She could be funny. She could be dramatic. She was a terrific actress.”

Time critic Richard Corliss noted shortly after her passing that Brittany was a “gifted actress” who “didn’t win the acclaim she dreamed of and might have deserved.” He was right that her work has been underappreciated, just as there is no doubt a part of her tragedy is that the potential she showed for greatness was snuffed out so early.

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The bug that would play a major role in Brittany’s passing — Staphylococcus aureus — was imported from Puerto Rico, where Brittany had gone six weeks before her death to star in The Caller, a low-budget thriller that was the latest in a series of ever-lower-budget movies she had done during the previous three years, mostly for the payday.

Brittany had arrived in San Juan with Simon, her mother and her Maltese puppy, Clara. Press reports later said she was fired after the first day and that Simon had been drunk on the set, but the movie’s producers, prodded by Simon’s lawyer, called it a mutual parting. Simon told me that Brittany had been unhappy when she realized the thriller she had signed to star in had morphed into a horror flick. “She said, ‘There’s too much Santeria in it,’ ” Simon recalled. “And it was spooky. She told me, ‘I’ve been offered lots of horror movies, and I’ve never done them. And I’m not going to start now.’”

She parted company after one day of shooting when the producers insisted on banning Simon from the set. Still, they stayed eight more days vacationing in San Juan, so, as Simon said, it wouldn’t “be a wasted trip.” But Simon and Sharon caught colds — Staphylococcus — while there. On the flight home to LAX on Nov. 28, 2009, Simon had what he described as a “mild heart attack.” Simon said Brittany administered CPR on the plane, even though Brittany was quoted as calling it an asthma attack. News reports of Simon’s medical problems and Brittany being replaced on Caller became the latest in a barrage of negative press about the couple.

He had entered Brittany’s life at a very vulnerable time. She had risen so quickly and fallen so far in such a short time that even fans had to wonder what was happening. Most of her final films headed straight to video. It was a sad chapter in what had been a career filled with promise. “She was incredibly talented,” Chris Snyder, who worked for Brittany’s first Hollywood agent, Iris Burton, told me. “There were very few people who could do what she could do in comedy. She had a Lucille Ball kind of humor. She was a force of nature in comedy, but she could also do drama, which is very rare.”

Said David Latt, who directed Brittany in one of her last productions, the cable TV movie MegaFault, “I compared her to a really great old-movie star.”

Gary Fleder, who directed Don’t Say a Word, said: “What people don’t appreciate is that she was fearless. Whatever eccentricity or vanity existed in her life, in her work as an actor there was none. She was willing to go for it, to be raw, to be ugly and to expose herself emotionally.”

A year later, Brittany’s talent and career achievements have been pushed to the background by the tabloid sensationalism that led up to her death and the many questions she left behind. What’s true is that over the years, her use of prescription drugs steadily increased as she coped with pain from the auto accident, took medication for seizures after an incident during the production of 8 Mile and coped with other health issues. That all added to her problems shortly after the return from Puerto Rico, when she caught  Simon and Sharon’s bug. She took the antibiotic Biaxin, migraine pills, cough medicine and an over-the-counter nasal spray. The day she died, she had also taken an anti-depression drug (fluoxetine, aka Prozac), an anti-seizure drug (Klonopin), an anti-inflammatory (methylprednisolone) and a beta blocker that Simon gave her, as well as Vicoprofen to ease pain from her period. But Brittany kept getting sicker, and her laryngitis during her final 10 days was the worst of her life. She was also weakened by her period — the second in a month — which was causing anemia that cut her red-blood count to a quarter of normal.

On her final night, Brittany was gasping for breath, her lips turning blue from a lack of oxygen as her lungs filled with fluid. Despite her problems, Brittany had not seen a doctor for six weeks, though she consulted by phone a few times and had talked to a pharmacist. Late Friday afternoon of her final weekend, she made a doctor appointment for Monday. She never got there.

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