Brittany Murphy obituary

From the age of five she was determined to be a Hollywood star

It has become something of a rite of passage for any young actress fresh on the Hollywood scene to be pencilled in to play Janis Joplin. Brittany Murphy, who has died unexpectedly aged 32, was one of several performers over the years who were attached to one 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. It certainly was not much of a stretch to imagine her evoking the gusto and vulnerability required for that part.

Murphy was no run-of-the-mill star. In her first substantial role, as a greenhorn mentored by the coolest girl in school in the 1995 hit Clueless, she proved herself an inventive exponent of comedy. She demonstrated her versatility in dramatically intense films such as Girl, Interrupted and 8 Mile. She claimed to draw no distinction between the various characters she played, describing them as "all using my tears and snot and sweat and bruises, just in different contexts … There are probably 800 people living inside of here, so they all pop out in different ways. It's like me, myself, and I."

She was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and after her parents divorced she moved with her mother, Sharon, to Edison, New Jersey. By the age of five, she was a member of a school of dance and theatre. Later she claimed to have spent most of her youth cajoling her mother into decamping with her to Hollywood to further her career, but when Murphy began notching up advertising jobs after auditions in New York, mother and daughter did indeed move to Los Angeles.

At 14, Murphy became a regular on the sitcom Drexell's Class (1991-92), about a white-collar criminal who makes a new start as a teacher. More television and advertising work followed before she was picked to play Tai, the new girl at a Beverly Hills high school, in Clueless. Amy Heckerling's witty, well-received film, based loosely on Jane Austen's Emma, was a charmer which regarded its often superficial characters with genuine warmth; it was also a surprise box-office success, launching the careers of several of its youthful cast (Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd and Donald Faison).

A film career did not follow immediately for Murphy. For a while, she worked in theatre (including a Broadway production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in 1997) and television. She was wonderfully funny voicing the character of LuAnne Platter, the promiscuous "born-again virgin" in more than 200 episodes of the animated sitcom King of the Hill.

However, in 1999 she began a run of high-profile movie roles, starring in the beauty-pageant "mockumentary" Drop Dead Gorgeous, and holding her own among the largely female powerhouse cast of Girl, Interrupted, set in a 1960s psychiatric institution.

Other films during this busy period included Alan Rudolph's light-hearted mystery Trixie, the teen horror Cherry Falls (both 2000), and the self-conscious "issue movie" Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), which she described as "one big contraceptive of a movie".

Murphy returned to the psychiatric ward in the 2001 thriller Don't Say a Word, which she stole from under the nose of its star, Michael Douglas, before joining the ensemble cast of the quirky, drugs-related comedy-cum-drama Spun (2002), with its interlocking narratives exposing the seamier, drug-hazed side of Los Angeles life.

When she starred opposite Eminem in 8 Mile (also 2002), it appeared to be a career turning point. Though transparently a vehicle for the controversial rapper, the film was nonetheless of high calibre, directed by Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) and poetically shot by the Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros). Murphy brought pathos and grit to a routine love-interest part, and easily matched Eminem for charisma and toughness. But few of the roles she took in the wake of 8 Mile gave her the opportunity to capitalise on that picture.

There were ditzy comedies, including Just Married (2003), opposite her then partner Ashton Kutcher, as well as the violent graphic-novel adaptation Sin City (2005). She sang on Faster Kill Pussycat, a 2006 track by the producer-DJ Paul Oakenfold, and her singing could also be heard in the computer-animated penguin musical Happy Feet (2006).

After her recent premature departure from the lead in the supernatural mystery The Caller, Murphy's representative denied accusations of unprofessional behaviour, insisting that "creative differences" were to blame. Among Murphy's final completed films, to be released posthumously, are the thriller Something Wicked and the action movie The Expendables, in which she is one of the few female faces among a rogues' gallery of ageing action stars.

She is survived by her husband, the British screenwriter and producer Simon Monjack.

• Brittany Murphy, actor, born 10 November 1977; died 20 December 2009


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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