The New Documentary 'What Happened, Brittany Murphy?' Explores the Actress' Extreme Weight Loss
HBO Max just released a two-part documentary about late actress Brittany Murphy, and there are plenty of bombshells in the mix.
You may recall the shocking news back in December 2009 announcing that Murphy had collapsed in her Hollywood Hills home after dealing with flu-like symptoms for several days. It was reported that she was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, but ultimately died. She was just 32 years old.
An autopsy eventually concluded that Murphy succumbed to untreated pneumonia, combined with anemia (a condition in which someone doesn't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen to the body's tissue, according to the Mayo Clinic) and drug intoxication from prescription and over-the-counter medications, according to People.
Murphy's swift rise to fame and seemingly just-as-fast downfall before her untimely death is the main focus of the new documentary, What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, including the extreme weight loss she experienced leading up to her death. The documentary, which features interviews with actresses Kathy Najimy and Lisa Rieffel, details how Murphy came under intense scrutiny from the public and the media when she lost a noticeable amount of weight following her breakout role in the 1995 film, Clueless.
"She had lost an inordinate amount of weight, and she was dressing totally differently," one interviewee states in the documentary. Not to mention that one person who was close to Murphy also notes that an agent once told the actress that she was "huggable, but not f—kable."
In Murphy's final months, much was speculated about the actress' physical and emotional state, with makeup artist Trista Jordan stating Murphy "wasn't herself." "Her eyes were so sunken, and she just seemed so sad," says Jordan, who worked with Murphy in 2009's Something Wicked, according to People. In the documentary, the Los Angeles County coroner addresses Murphy's death, telling the filmmakers that "to develop an anemia of this nature, she was not eating," according to Rolling Stone.
Murphy's personal life is further explored in the documentary, notably the controversy surrounding her husband, Simon Monjack, who also died under similar circumstances (pneumonia and severe anemia) just months after her. Najimy, who co-starred with Murphy on the animated series King of the Hill, says Monjack "was making all of her decisions." Rieffel adds that "Simon took her away. That was it. He made sure no one could get to her." In the documentary, journalist Sara Hammel also notes that Murphy had become "increasingly insecure about her appearance," and that Monjack "encouraged" Murphy "to become addicted to plastic surgery," according to E! News.
Monjack has also been accused of being complicit in Murphy's tragic demise. "I believe that Simon Monjack — 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," says Elizabeth Ragsdale, Monjack's ex, in the documentary, according to USA Today.
And while Murphy always denied having an eating disorder, the documentary's allegations raise a lot of questions about how her physical and emotional health suffered as the result of the media pressure and seemingly toxic relationship.
"There is an ever-present message in our society about how important it is to be thin," Pamela Keel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Florida State University, tells Shape. "We get a lot of messages that food is the enemy and that it will make you fat or unhealthy, but we need food to survive." (Related: Just a Few of the B.S. Weight Loss Methods Purported On 'The Way Down,' Debunked)
Social media — which has become an increasingly dominant presence since Murphy's tragic death — and constant interconnectivity can also contribute to a person potentially having negative feelings about themselves, let alone their bodies. "Peer pressure from the use of digital technology that creates near 'perfect' images of celebrities can make someone who is struggling with body dysmorphia [in which a person cannot stop thinking about perceived flaws in their appearance, according to the Mayo Clinic] feel worse and can then drive worsening symptoms or even lead to disordered eating," Uma Naidoo, M.D., a psychiatrist and the author of This is Your Brain on Food, tells Shape. "Issues like fat-shaming and body-shaming of individuals on social media and other online platforms can impact vulnerable individuals to feel they cannot interact with others unless they are a 'certain weight' or look a 'certain way.'" (Related: Instagram Is the Worst Social Media Platform for Your Mental Health)
"People who are already struggling with anxiety or have had traumatic histories might be more likely to turn on their own bodies and absorb cultural messages that somehow the solution is not to eat," says Keel.
The documentary also explores the inner workings of the couple's marriage and how Monjack seemingly controlled several aspects of Murphy's life. "I learned that she didn't have access to her own email address," says director Alex Merkin, who worked with Murphy in 2008's Across the Hall, according to USA Today. "I learned she had no access to her own phone, and if I wanted to reach her, I had to reach her through him [Simon]."
And while it's unclear what went on behind the scenes with the relationship or Murphy's eating behaviors, additional stresses, including trouble at home, can lead to the development of unhealthy eating behaviors, Allison Chase, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders at Eating Recovery Center, tells Shape.
Also, an eating disorder "would be likely to surface in someone with some of the other risk factors, such as biological predisposition, increased anxiety or depression, focus on weight and shape, and a strong likelihood of engaging in dieting behaviors or unhealthy eating patterns," adds Chase.
What can happen, though it cannot be certain if this was the case for Murphy, "is a vicious cycle where someone is experiencing a lot of life stressors and turns to eating as a way to try to take control, [but] as they fall deeper into an eating disorder, it becomes even harder to cope," says Keel.
In a 2005 interview, Murphy said that she was "the same size [she] was in Clueless; it's just that the weight in your face changes as you grow and get older," she said at the time, according to ABC News. "This is my body. I'm proud of it. ... I'm healthy."
Experts say it's not unusual for someone to not recognize the signs of an eating disorder or the risk for one in themselves. "Most people are unaware that their eating patterns are harmful or problematic," says Hafeez. (Related: I Didn't Know I Had An Eating Disorder)
Disordered eating is a "treatable mental health condition," says Dr. Naidoo. But it "requires prompt attention from a mental health professional as well as primary care provider, as it can have highly deleterious effects on both physical and mental health," she says.
In Murphy's case, this may have been a factor in her anemia and pneumonia. Those who develop anemia, which occurs when there's too little iron in the diet, can also experience symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. And while severe or even deadly cases of pneumonia are typically only seen in young children or older adults, certain factors such as health behaviors and the environment can also play a role in someone's risk. Those with weakened immune systems are less able to fight off germs, according to Mount Sinai, and one's immune system can be weakened by poor nutrition.
Failure to get medical help can make a situation spiral to the point where someone can become seriously ill and even die of an eating disorder, says Keel. "There are signs that the body gives that it is beginning to shut down because it doesn't have enough food," she explains. "These signs can be caught by a physician if someone seeks help."
While much has been speculated about the final months of Murphy's life, the gripping documentary serves as a tragic reminder to advocate for your health and wellbeing at the first signs of a problem as well as the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive people who have your best interests in mind.
If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, you are not alone and there is hope to heal. Reach out to the Eating Disorders Helpline by calling (800) 931-2237, texting (800) 931-2237, or chatting online.