A little over three yeas ago, while I was still writing my column for MSN Movies, I spent a few hours on a Friday afternoon waiting for Brittany Murphy to arrive to discuss her new movie “The Dead Girl.” As time passed, more and more journalists would give up and head home figuring it wasn’t worth it after a busy week. I was a tad stubborn as Murphy hadn’t done any press the previous month for the monster hit “Happy Feet” and, moreover, I had an agenda. Unlike the other writers who were no doubt hoping for some random snippet about a possible “Sin City” sequel (like that’s ever going to happen), I wanted to ask Murphy about her burgeoning music career. Or, so I thought.
29-years-old at the time, Murphy was coming off a monster dance club hit with DJ master Paul Oakenfold the previous spring and summer entitled “Faster Kill Pussycat.” She then arguably provided the best singing performances by any cast member of “Happy Feet” with the tracks “Boogie Wonderland” and “Somebody to Love.” Sure, many actors tried to cross over to music careers, but Murphy had a voice. She wasn’t a studio finagled creation. And the brazen, honest performances that was evident in roles in films such as “8 Mile” and “Sin City”? You could hear that power seeping through her vocals. Take a moment and listen to Murphy’s “Somebody to Love” below.
Think Leighton Meester can pull that off? Hardly.
As the sun set the publicists insisted Murphy was on her way. Today’s excuse? Murphy was just exhausted after returning to the United States from Japan where she starred in and co-produced the indie “The Ramen Girl” (Of course, when Murphy did arrive she’d contradict the publicists and explain she’d been back in the U.S. for more than a few days). But in many ways, the whole fiasco was just a reminder that Murphy’s career really wasn’t where it should have been.
After breaking out with a number of her peers in the 1995 hit “Clueless,” the Atlanta native started to land more prominent supporting roles in films such as “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and “Girl, Interrupted.” Things got even better in 2001 when she stood out in the Michael Douglas hit thriller “Don’t Say a Word.” She then seemingly made it to the big time playing Eminem’s romantic interest in the worldwide blockbuster “8 Mile.” Another hit followed with “Just Married” alongside Ashton Kutcher (a former boyfriend), but the movie itself was nothing to write home about. However, she was seemingly on a profitable romantic comedy track and over the following year she starred in both “Uptown Girls” which did an O.K. $37 million and “Little Black Book” which was a devastating bomb with a $7 million opening and a paltry final cume of $20 million. To make matters worse, “Book” had been a buzzed about title that Sony Pictures was hoping would be a surprise hit that summer in the vein of “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” You can tell by the rest of her career track she never got out of movie studio “jail” after that one. She’d had her chance as a leading lady and didn’t even get the decency of a third strike. Then again, behind-the-scenes her reputation for being difficult and unreliable was growing by the week.
Of course, the media perception was different. Murphy was part of the star-studded “Sin City” ensemble the following spring, but only the agents and studio execs knew she was no longer being considered for major roles by the studios. Instead, she segued to a number of indie projects that never got proper distribution such as “Neverwas” with Ian McKellan and Aaron Eckhart, “Love and Other Disasters” (which should have) and “The Groomsmen.” All the while, she had recorded the voice of the penguin Gloria and a couple songs for George Miller’s “Happy Feet.” Which lead us back to the waiting game that memorable day.
When Murphy eventually showed up she certainly wasn’t tired. She was full of energy if not on something to provide it (perhaps coffee? perhaps not?). The story is no longer live on MSN, but here’s some of what she said at the time.
“I was never formally trained [but] I’ve been singing since I was born … anything from an Italian aria to an old blues song,” Murphy says. “There was a time when I was 14 when I could have veered off in two different directions and done one or the other, acting or music, and I chose acting and continued writing and doing music for myself.”
As for when fans can hear an album of original recordings Murphy adds, “There’ll be a time when I share it with others — when it feels right.”
Perhaps she should have made that album sooner rather than later. Murphy’s life soon became tabloid fodder after her shotgun marriage to screenwriter/director Simon Monjack (“Factory Girl”) in what was a very peculiar pairing. Other’s will speculate what was behind their love affair, but it was the beginning of Murphy’s true career downturn. This year, her resume is highlighted by two made for TV movies; “Tribute” on Lifetime and SyFy’s “Megafault.” Sadly, in the span of four years she’d gone from the prestige of “Sin City” and “Happy Feet” to a SyFy original movie and let’s be frank. You can’t get much lower than a SyFy original movie. To make matters worse, she’d recently been savagely mocked on “Saturday Night Live” for getting fired from a B-movie shooting in Puerto Rico (although her reps disputed that). “SNL,” a show she’d once hosted when things were looking so good back in 2002.
Now, it would be highly optimistic to say Murphy had any sort of comeback in the works. Her last feature film appearance “should” be in Sylvester Stallone’s highly anticipated action ensemble “The Expendables” next year. Unfortunately, her life’s constant craziness made her an easy target for the paparazzi and gossip sites and it was highly unlikely she would be able to regain any respectability anytime soon (yes Lindsay Lohan, this is your life).
But in that darkened Four Seasons hotel room, Murphy may have been on something, the future may not have been bright, but you could tell there was something special about her. She had that charisma that separates the stars from the also rans who fade quicker than a CW TV series. It was in her eyes, it was in her smile and that powerful voice from such a petite little frame.
Why it all fell apart was probably a combination of bad choices and just plain bad luck. Whether her death could have been prevented is another matter the police will investigate. We may never know the truth in either case.
No, she wasn’t an Oscar winner or a box office superstar, but she certainly could have been. Now, her life will be reduced to just another E! True Hollywood Story and that may be the saddest realization of all.
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