The Final Difficult Days of Brittany Murphy
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.
[Editor's Note: In Nov. 2013, Brittany Murphy's father requested a new toxicology report that suggested that his daughter may have been poisoned. In an interview on Good Morning America, he said: "I have a feeling that there was definitely a murder situation here. Yeah, it's poison. Sharon Murphy, Brittany Murphy's mother, disputed that claim in an open letter to The Hollywood Reporter."]
The following story appears in the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter on newsstands Wednesday.
When the final curtain came down for Brittany Murphy on Sunday morning, Dec. 20, 2009, the drama played out in the one room in her Hollywood Hills mansion that had become her refuge: her bathroom. This tiled, peach-colored sanctuary was where she went to get away from the mounting pressures of her life: a house she hated, a city where she no longer wanted to live, a career that was imploding and the constant burden of being a caregiver.
Even though she didn’t feel well herself, Brittany was there to care for her mother, Sharon Murphy, a breast cancer survivor suffering debilitating neuropathy, and her ailing husband of three years, 39-year-old Simon Monjack. For nearly a year, the England native had been having seizures and a month earlier suffered an apparent heart attack. When he had a seizure, his arms and legs flailing on the big four-poster bed, Brittany would rush to his side. Although weakened by anemia and gasping for breath from her own ailments, Brittany held his 300-pound body down, using a spoon to keep him from swallowing his tongue.
Simon joked that his wife’s bathroom was “her comfort zone.” He called it the “Brittany-sized room,” reflecting her diminutive 5-foot-2 stature, and recalled how she spent hours sampling the cosmetics and perfumes that crowded every inch of counter space, critically studying her body image, sometimes singing to herself or writing bits of poetry in a journal, listening to music or paging through magazines from which she would tear out pages with clothes she just had to have.
While Brittany dozed on the big bed beside him after midnight, Simon and Sharon talked about the practical aspects of their plan to move to New York. They discussed selling the big house Brittany had purchased in 2003 for $3.9 million, fully furnished, from Britney Spears, who had lived there with Justin Timberlake. Brittany always felt the tri-level Mediterranean at the top of Rising Glen Road was unlucky. She wanted to start fresh in 2010 in New York, where they could start a family, Simon would find work as a screenwriter and director and she’d star in independent films that would revive her career.That Saturday night was chilly and windy. The electric power kept going out, and the backup generator failed. They used flashlights when it went dark, afraid to light candles near the wheezing oxygen machine Simon relied on to ease his sleep apnea, bouts of asthma and frequent respiratory infections.
“She absolutely hated the Rising Glen house,” Simon told me in January 2010. “Every time we would drive up Sunset, Brit would say, ‘Please, can we stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel?’ I’d say: ‘Honey, you’ve got to be realistic. We have our house, a 10,000-square-foot home. We’re going to stay in it.’ ”
As it turned out, it was where Brittany and Simon were to die, in surprisingly similar ways, only five months apart.
I first met Brittany in 1992 in L.A., when she was 14. She had become close friends with my daughter, who was also an actress and singer. Brittany and her mother became part of our extended family in those years, often sharing dinners, holidays and birthdays. At times, Brittany turned to me as a father figure, and we talked about her life and career. She lacked higher education, but behind the giggles, Brittany was a sponge who soaked up knowledge. She educated herself and had interests ranging from politics to science to the intricacies of show business. We spent many happy times sharing thoughts.
I hadn’t seen a lot of Brittany after she married Simon in 2007, but when the news flashed of her unexpected death, I went with my wife and daughter to her house to try and comfort Sharon and Simon. I helped them deal with the media onslaught in those first days and, at their request, gave the eulogy at Brittany’s funeral on Christmas Eve.
In those first weeks after Brittany died, as Simon lay on the bed, rarely rising or bathing, he encouraged me to write an independent book about Brittany that would tell her true story. He and Sharon gave me a series of on-the-record interviews, which are quoted throughout this article. Only later would I realize that much of what Simon told me — about his family, education, marriage and career — was exaggerated or simply fabricated.
Simon wanted the book because he was convinced — before the autopsy report on Brittany came back — that she had literally died of a broken heart caused by the shoddy way she had been treated in Hollywood. He wanted to expose the studios, producers and talent reps he believed had used rumor and innuendo — about her alleged lateness, inability to remember lines, drug use and partying — to destroy her career. “I honestly think Brittany’s life has to serve a purpose,” Simon told me. “Her true fans, and young people coming off the bus, deserve to know the bubble can burst.”
Simon was especially bitter at Warner Bros. because Brittany had been dropped as a voice actor on Happy Feet 2 after stories about illegal drug use appeared on tabloid websites. He recalled Brittany crying for hours about her stalled career. She hadn’t starred in a studio movie since 2004’s Little Black Book, and Simon believed there had been a conspiracy against her among former agents and managers. That was a major motivation to move away from Hollywood.
“It wasn’t about the money,” he told me. “She wasn’t going, ‘Oh, I’m not being offered $10 million to do a movie.’ It was: ‘I’m not getting offered anything where I can really show what I can do. I can sing. I can dance. I can do all these things I was put on Earth to show the world,’ and somehow she was being blocked from doing it.”
The irony, Simon insisted, was that Brittany literally could not do drugs. In her early teens, she had been diagnosed with a heart murmur, so Brittany knew illegal drugs could endanger her life. That fear, Sharon said, that made it impossible for Brittany to use cocaine or stimulants.
The tabloid noise had increased over the years as Brittany got thinner and blonder in a quest for leading roles in movies, which also raised the specter of anorexia, which haunts many Hollywood actresses who feel the need to be thin. Brittany was 115 pounds when she died, a healthy weight for her height, even though she looked fragile and her limbs were reed-thin. “She had curves in all the right places,” Simon said. “She was just miniaturized. She ate whatever she wanted when she wanted.”
Still, Brittany had self-image issues. “The thing she was very conscious of was her height,” said Martha Coolidge, who directed Brittany in the 2009 Lifetime movie Tribute. “She felt she was short, so one reason she controlled her weight was the thinner you are, the taller you look. She was knowledgeable about her body and what would exaggerate her height.”
In the meantime, Brittany had learned to live with physical pain: Ever since a car accident shortly after Clueless came out in 1995, she had coped with a recurring ache in her jaw. Sick or well, she struggled to keep going and keep working. She was the family breadwinner. But after becoming a name-above-the-title star in such movies as Just Married and Little Black Book, things weren’t going well with her once-promising career. In the months leading up to her death, she had seen the end of her lucrative, long-running voice role as Luanne on King of the Hill and, in addition to losing roles in Happy Feet 2 and 2008’s Tinker Bell, had been dropped from The Expendables.
“The nature of this town is exploitive,” Simon told me. “Brittany would be alive today if she was a housewife in Edison, N.J.” — where she grew up — “or a successful person in another business.” But showbiz had been her dream since she was a small child pointing to a TV screen and telling Sharon she wanted to be on television some day.
It was wonderful that Brittany never lost her childlike innocence and sense of wonder, or that infectious giggle. But what worked for her as an actress made for a troubled life: She never learned to drive or balance her own checkbook. She looked to her mother, business managers and finally Simon to care for her. It was the need for a father — her biological father was rarely part of her life — mentor, teacher and anchor that led her to Simon.
Brittany had an unusually close relationship with her mother. Sharon told me they “grew up” together. I was able to witness firsthand their unique bond. They referred to each other as “soulmates.” Ever since Brittany came to Hollywood at 13, with her mother following shortly thereafter, Sharon had dedicated herself to her daughter. In turn, Brittany had put her career on hold twice when Sharon had bouts of breast cancer shortly after the making of Clueless and again in 2003, when Brittany camped out in her mom’s hospital room and I was among the many friends she recruited to donate blood on Sharon’s behalf.
Sharon “worked hard being a single mother,” her sister Deborah “Debba” Murphy told me shortly after Brittany died. “I don’t think she forced Britty into the showbiz stuff. Britty wanted to do it.” JoAnne Colonna, Brittany’s agent or manager for a decade, recalled meeting her when she was 16 and being struck by her energy, talent and how close she was to her mother. “They were adorable together,” she said. “They finished each other’s sentences. Both were bright and bubbly, and that relationship never changed.”