As you all know, we lost Brittany Murphy yesterday at the all-too-young age of 32.
She was never my favorite actress, nor my least favorite. There were roles that I loved, and roles that I loathed. But her presence in Hollywood was always a joy, mainly because I matured with Murphy, born the same year as myself. She didn't start in the biz until 1991 with her first role in Murphy Brown, so I didn't grow up with her, but she was one of the few who charmed me in my high school youth and never faded away.
Perhaps I spotted her appearances on Kids Incorporated or Parker Lewis Can't Lose. Or, while I never followed Drexell's Class, maybe I saw a peek of her as Brenda Drexell. But in my memories, she has always been Molly Morgan of 1993's Almost Home -- the very short-lived Torkelsons spin-off. Murphy was spunky and charming, and had a flair that you don't usually find in Hollywood. It wasn't the one-off "quirk girl" success that found the likes of Mary Sue Torkelson and Blossom. Her uniqueness lasted, and in fact, grew once she hit the big screen with Clueless in 1995.
Tai was, of course, Murphy's breakout performance. She held her own against then Aerosmith-vixen Alicia Silverstone and carved out her own little niche of the fame as the awkward transfer, made over from slacker-plaid stoner to super-cute popular girl. She adeptly made Amy Heckerling's over-the-top world seem real, or at the very least, warmly genuine, whether it was learning the word "sporadically" or sweetly singing "Rollin' with the Homies" with that jerk El-in -- a girl after my sometimes t-deleting heart.
Yet it took another 4 years for her to find lasting fame. 1996 brought a small part in Freeway, 1997 ushered in the ignored Bongwater and Drive, and 1998 brought more gigs that few people saw, before things finally started to change as if those 3 years never even happened. 1999 brought two roles that earned Murphy solid success. First, there was Lisa Swenson in the pageant farce Drop Dead Gorgeous. But the real kicker was the film that yanked her out of comedy -- the film that revealed a talent for drama hidden beneath the depths of bubbliness -- Girl, Interrupted. As Daisy, she was given the ability to stretch the confines of her screen persona without changing it. Murphy brought the same sweetness to the role that she did in comedies like Clueless, but applied it in a new and surprising way.
The role ushered in the heights of Murphy's fame -- a 5-year span of mainstream hits and buzz that kept her on the tips of tongues. In the beginning, it had solid variety. She matched romance like Sidewalks of New York with the harshness of Spun and the wonderfully eerie pallor of Don't Say a Word and her unforgettable line: "I'll never tell." But as her fame grew, so did the wretched typecasting, pulling her from the likes of 8 Mile and shoveling her into a trio of romcoms and fluff that brought her big paychecks, but flailed before stalling her career -- Just Married, Uptown Girls, and Little Black Book. By then, Sin City wasn't enough to seem diverse or hopeful, and her films were, for the most part, shuffled straight to video. It seemed like her long-running work voicing Luanne Platter on King of the Hill was the only reliable aspect of her ongoing career.
Not that there weren't occasional bright spots. I remember the year I bought a day pass for TIFF with a friend, and sat down to schedule our 25 films before 5 PM. In the end, there was one spot open. The only remotely interesting film that was playing was Love and Other Disasters. We didn't really want to see it, recent memories of that trio of films still in our heads, but it was the best of the options. We sat in the theater stocked with romcom fans and actually found ourselves enjoying it, her charisma busting through my anti-romcom mentality and his indie filmmaker tastes.
Now that she's passed on, and rumors swirl about anorexia and drug addiction, diabetes and thyroid problems, I find myself imagining what would've been if she stuck to (or was allowed to stick to) the personality that first found her fame -- if she could have remained that unique and bubbly girl with the springing brown curls and hidden depth of the early days. She had talent, but by now it seems so hard to remember. Bit by bit, the girl we came to know and love as Brittany Murphy had peeled away -- hair straightened and bleached into an all-too-common style, a healthy body dissolving to Hollywood boniness, quirk wiped away for mainstream stereotype.
I won't presume I know who are what caused the changes in Murphy -- if it was herself and the evolving opinions of age (it's not like any of us want to remain the person we are in our teens) or personal issues, if it was the pressures of sinister studios in Hollywood, the roving eye of the paparazzi, a drug addiction... Whatever the case, Murphy rose, morphed, and quickly fell, and there's a high chance that it had something to do with the Hollywood machine.
Now she won't have a chance to fight back against the rumors of difficult star behavior, to make a comeback and bite her thumb at the comedies that made her an overused name. Maybe she never would have managed a return to form, or make a comeback with shocking talent we've never seen before, but the girl who remembers her first days dreams that it could have become a reality.
The best of her still lives on in our memories. When it comes down to it, I think her Tai was my favorite, the sing-song creepiness of "I'll never tell" a close second -- the yin and yang of a talent wasted.
What about you?
Brittany, I hope you've found peace.