Brittany Murphy died at the young age of 32 in 2009. More than a decade later, a new documentary explores the mysterious circumstances that surround her death and her troubled relationship with her husband, Simon Monjack.
Premiering Thursday, October 14 on HBO Max, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? looks at how Murphy went from one of her generation’s most promising young stars, known for her roles in 1995’s Clueless and Girl, Interrupted to one of Hollywood’s darkest tragedies.
In the documentary, reporter Amber Ryland recalls getting an exclusive interview with Monjack shortly after Murphy’s death. “It was in the back of my mind: ‘Am I sitting with a murderer?’” she says. “’Could he have killed his wife?’”
Watch the trailer for What Happened, Brittany Murphy? below:
Murphy coupled up with Monjack in 2006, a struggling British screenwriter seven years her senior who had money problems, sketchy past romances and a troubled relationship with the law and immigration officials. Friends and acquaintances believe the actress — vulnerable, too-trusting and eager to settle down — got bamboozled by a con artist.
“[People] were scared and freaked out. Like, who was this guy and what was happening?” Murphy’s King of the Hill co-star Kathy Najimy, recalls in the doc. “She wanted to marry him, and I said, ‘Honey, it’s not been long enough.’”
Filmmaker Allison Burnett recalls first meeting Monjack at a dinner party in 1999 where he lied about owning 17 Ferraris, dating Madonna and surviving terminal brain cancer thanks to an experimental treatment involving shark fins. Years later, when Burnett saw that he was involved with Murphy, he was horrified.
“I couldn’t believe that this bottom-feeding sociopath had actually worked his way up the food chain to someone who’s actually a legitimate artist,” the filmmaker says in the doc.
Despite the concerns of her friends, Murphy wed Monjack in 2007. Monjack reportedly went to great efforts to conceal his shady past from his new wife.
Elizabeth Ragland was engaged to him before he was involved with Murphy and says he manipulated and isolated her, claiming he had cancer so that she’d get pregnant, then refusing to get her medical help when she needed it. In the documentary, Ragland says that he threatened to take away their son if she revealed herself to Murphy.
“The stakes were a lot higher with him being married to Brittany,” she says. “He didn’t need anybody to know that I was out there with his son. I know why Brittany chose Simon. He worked his spell on her and she fell for it, like I did.”
Ed Winter, the coroner who handled Murphy’s case, and medical examiner Lisa Scheinin speculate that tragedy might have been avoided if someone had taken Murphy to the hospital in the days leading up to her death.
“The cause of death is not a mystery. The mystery is, why didn’t somebody catch it? Had they taken her to the doctor a few days before, she would still be alive,” says Winter, who adds that he received information that Monjack made a habit of keeping Murphy up late into the night, to devastating effect. “She wasn’t getting enough rest and her immune system was dropping,” he says.
Ragland believes her ex is guilty. “Even if he did not kill Brittany Murphy, he allowed her to die because he did not get her to the doctor and get her help,” she says.
After Murphy’s death, Monjack attempted to prevent an autopsy on her and asked his late wife’s contacts for thousands of dollars for a “foundation” in her honor.
Murphy’s mother Sharon had lived with the couple and continued living with Monjack after her daughter’s death. When Ryland visited the home, she says it appeared the two were sharing a bed and the older woman behaved quite oddly. “She acted submissive with him, which I noticed, and it struck a chord. [I wondered] ‘What happens when no one is here, how do they act when no one is here?’” she recalls.
Then, in May 2010, just five months after Murphy’s death, Monjack died at the age of 40, also seemingly due to pneumonia — and possibly a drug overdose.
“On Simon’s side of the nightstand, we found approximately 90 prescription bottles, with several different names, which is highly unusual,” recalls Winter of a subsequent investigation. “We also found prescription bottles in Brittany’s name and ‘Lola Manilow,’ [which was] possibly an alias.”