Brittany Murphy: a life in clips

The Clueless and Sin City actor has died of a heart attack aged 32. We look back at her key roles on film

Brittany Murphy was not one of the world's great actors. Nor, in recent years, was she even especially visible. But she was a performer of immense charm, with a knockout smile and a chuckling, bee-bop voice it was difficult not to be won over by.

For a spell in the early 90s, Murphy established herself as one of Hollywood's freshest, most engaging mainstream leads – a doll-eyed ditz with a hint of vaguely filthy goofiness. She was Scarlett Johansson a half-generation older: she shared that actor's old-school Hollywood glamour, the big curves on a little frame, and the brains behind the fluff. Both even had singing careers. But while Johansson teamed up with some solid mentors, and got films of real credibility under her belt, Murphy struggled to cement a career that, for some years, looked so promising.

Murphy didn't begin in the Marilyn mould though. She came to most people's attention on Clueless, that perky high school-set Emma update, with Alicia Silverstone as the alpha female matchmaker, Cher, who make over Murphy's gawky out-of-towner, Tai (the Harriet Smith part) – with mixed results. Murphy is beguiling: endlessly sweet, sort of stupid, a little lispy, even ("Wow, you guys talk like grown-ups.") But she could pull of sexy, as well as simple – and the role gave her a chance to prove it.

Murphy followed Clueless with an extended period amplifying that gentle kookiness into the genuinely disturbed. In Girl, Interrupted, she played a patient at one of the world's most photogenic psychiatric institutes – and was, unfortunately, upstaged by fellow sufferers Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder.

Then she was a self-harming psychotic who knows the secret combination to a safe, which psychologist Michael Douglas must coax out of her lest nefarious Sean Bean kill his wife. Don't Say a Word was a hokum thriller, and Murphy's sing-song repeated line - "I'll never tell" - became something of a cult catchphrase, but, truth be told, it was her genuinely compelling performance that elevated it out of the trash.

Then came what is – for me, at least - her definitive role: as the almost illegally flirty girlfriend of Eminem in Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile (2002), the gritty yet utterly shameless story of a white rapper struggling to make ends meet in Detroit. Murphy lent real, gregarious soul to a role that could have been token, forgettable.

There was her one really successful romcom: the guiltily enjoyable Just Married (2003), in which she co-starred with Ashton Kutcher (who she was then dating) as a couple's disastrous honeymoon in Europe.

That same year she starred in Uptown Girls, opposite child star Dakota Fanning. It was a film that ought, by rights, to have been unbearable: a spoilt It girl and a pint-sized prodigy bond over their dysfunctional upbringings – but actually Fanning's spooky talent and Murphy's irresistible mischievousness made it another weird treat.

Another romcom, Little Black Books, in 2004, was less of a success, but Murphy bounced back with what was her biggest box office success: Sin City (2005), Frank Miller's violent, stylish comic book adaptation, in which she starred as an underdressed waitress (she played a similar role, with a lot more innocence, in Ed Burns's Sidewalks of New York, five years previously). It wasn't a part that demanded much of her other than not to neglect her lipgloss, but she hit her lines and pursed her lips with aplomb.

After that, Murphy took time out of acting to try her hand at music – teaming-up with club maestro Paul Oakenfold to great returns. Their hit Faster Kill Pussycat topped the charts in US, and reached no 7 in the UK; here she is aping namesake Britney Spears in the video.Its success confirmed her appeal. And it gave an insight into just how plugged in she was to mainstream taste.

Murphy was a pin-up and proud of it (a regular fixture in lads' mags) but one who thrived in one-of-the-girls films, like Riding in Cars with Boys (2001) - another tale of blue-collar love with an auto background. She was warm but riotous good fun, someone women would want to spend a night out with too.

Murphy looked like she had a sense of humour and a striking lack of pretention – her longest running gig was voice work for US animation King of the Hill.What one heard of Murphy more recently was mainly to do with her personal life – after splitting from Kutcher she was engaged twice, eventually marrying the British screenwriter, Simon Monjack, who wrote and produced Warhol-era drama Factory Girl, in 2007. Rumours have since surfaced about problems on the set of more recent projects.

But there was little to indicate anything might have been seriously wrong. She'd won a part in Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables – another eagerly-awaited mainstream slam-dunk. And, this time a couple of years ago, little seemed amiss on Letterman.

You can see the nerves, but she's clearly a lot of fun – and it's tragic to now think someone so full of vivacity won't be back on our screens. What looked, on reflection, like a strange hiatus from film, has turned into something much sadder.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Brittany Murphy dies of heart attack aged 32

Actor starred in 8 Mile and Clueless and had big parts in Sin City and Girl, Interrupted

Ed Pilkington in New York

20, Dec, 2009 @11:10 PM

Brittany Murphy: a life

Star who appeared in Clueless, 8 Mile and Girl, Interrupted dies at 32 from a heart attack

21, Dec, 2009 @12:46 AM

Article image
Brittany Murphy obituary

US actor who achieved fame with the comedy Clueless, and went on to display dramatic intensity in Girl, Interrupted and 8 Mile

Ryan Gilbey

21, Dec, 2009 @2:06 AM

Article image
Brittany Murphy dies, aged 32
Actor best known for roles in Clueless and 8 Mile went into cardiac arrest and could not be revived, according to reports

Ben Quinn

20, Dec, 2009 @8:48 PM

Article image
That girl from Clueless – Brittany Murphy's sparky performance in the greatest of teen movies

The Guardian's film critic looks back at one of the forgotten actors of the 'noughties'

Peter Bradshaw

21, Dec, 2009 @6:00 AM

Article image
Brittany Murphy's father calls TV movie biopic 'hideous'

Ben Child: Angelo Bertolotti says Lifetime's The Brittany Murphy Story, about the late actor, is 'unauthorised and completely untrue'

Ben Child

04, Sep, 2014 @11:35 AM

Article image
Brittany Murphy toxicology tests suggest heavy metal poisoning

Father commissions reports after 2009 death of troubled 8 Mile actor initially ruled as caused by pneumonia

Andrew Pulver

19, Nov, 2013 @10:03 AM

Article image
Brittany Murphy to launch pop career?

Actress with singing aspirations could end up in the charts if the record label decide to put out her unreleased music

Sean Michaels

24, Dec, 2009 @10:34 AM

Article image
Brittany Murphy poisoning claims queried by toxicologist

New evidence presented by the father of the late star suggesting that Murphy was murdered has questioned by a leading toxicologist

Ben Child

20, Nov, 2013 @10:02 AM

Article image
Brittany Murphy movie 'a murder mystery'
Lifetime’s biopic of the actor takes inspiration from later-discredited poisoning claims made by her father

Ben Child

26, Aug, 2014 @7:48 AM