Brittany Murphy 1977-2009
Clueless is pretty much my wife’s favourite film…and 8 Mile must be somewhere near the top of her list as well. So I’ve got to know Brittany Murphy’s work pretty well over the years, making it all the more shocking to see the news of her sudden death yesterday at the age of 32.
32! That’s no age at all, and it’s particularly disconcerting to realise she was younger than I am, considering how long she’d been acting. Clueless, of course, was her startling breakthrough, released when she was only 17 – the youngest of the film’s main cast and by far the most realistic teenager. Even more than Alicia Silverstone, Murphy (as the geek-to-chic new kid at school) was the comic motor that keeps things funny, her screwball ditziness grounding the film’s clever-clever “teen Austen” tag with genuine laughs.
She kept her comic prowess sharp with her brilliant voice work as King of the Hill’s Luanne (one of telly’s great airheads) but also racked up impressive dramatic work in Girl, Interrupted, Spun, 8 Mile and Sin City. But look at the roles – a self-harming mental patient, a fucked-up meth addict, Eminem’s factory lay and a harassed girlfriend. Notwithstanding how good she was in these films – intuitive, believable and utterly fearless – she was getting typecast, forever stuck on the wrong side of the tracks. Lighter roles – like the lead in rom-com Just Married – started to look like exceptions.
With the benefit of hindsight, I keep seeing parallels with 40s/50s starlet Gloria Grahame, another brilliant actress who, like Murphy, seemed capable of expressing painful life experience behind a ice-cool mask of snarky attitude. Both were beautiful but didn’t quite fit the glamorous Hollywood mould, so their soulful, sultry looks were all too often mistaken as ‘slutty’ by casting directors incapable of seeing subtlety. And both had seemingly volatile, gossip-friendly personal lives that got them the reputation for being troublesome. Although Grahame won an Oscar and lived into her fifties, there was always the sense that her on-screen career ended too soon, undervalued by Hollywood and refused the chance to shine.
Ditto Murphy, who will now never find the deserved role to truly showcase her versatility and place her at the forefront of her generation. Tragically, it’s only now, when she’s no longer with us, that we’re realising how good she was – and how great she might have been.