One of the sadder things to witness while compiling the preview for this holiday season was coming across Brittany Murphy’s name again and again in the direct-to-video section — not because it wasn’t good to see that she was working, but because she deserved better. Which makes today’s news that she passed away of cardiac arrest, far too young at the age of 32, doubly tragic — she never got the chance to turn things around.
Murphy always came alive on screen with a vitality few can muster, from her first major role in “Clueless” as the goofy but knowing makeover project Tai. She remade herself over the course of several indies in the late ’90s into one of the premier scene-stealing actresses, usually taking what should’ve been forgettable sidekick roles or underwritten female parts in films like “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and the noirish “Phoenix” and injecting them with her off-center charms, culminating in a heartbreaking turn in “Girl, Interrupted” as the fragile Daisy Randone.
Few filmmakers seemed to know what to do with her — Murphy’s run of romantic comedies in the early part of the Naughts were an ill fit for an actress too curious to play stupid, single-minded manhunters — but when someone was able to tap into her wavelength, they were rewarded with the mischief she brought to a rudimentary thriller like “Don’t Say a Word” or the touching humanity of her turn as a desperate mother in Karen Moncrieff’s “The Dead Girl,” an ensemble drama seem by far too few. Without a mic in “8 Mile,” she proved to be a force of nature and the only one who could stand toe-to-toe with Eminem at the height of his powers.
That this became the stuff of parody only weeks ago on “Saturday Night Live”‘s Weekend Update (when she parted ways with the production of the indie “The Caller”) was a reminder of both what a unique performer she was and, unfortunately, of her tumultuous personal life. (Mixed feelings also accompanied the news that she was replaced by Disney as the voice of Tinkerbell in their direct-to-video series last year, a role that Murphy surely would’ve excelled in, just as she brought an unmistakable sense of joy to her other voice work like Gloria in “Happy Feet” and the well-meaning Luanne Platter on “King of the Hill.”)
In recent years, she came back from a two-year absence to star in thrillers like the aforementioned direct-to-DVD titles “Across the Hall” and “Deadline,” and the 2010-bound potboilers “Abandoned” and “Something Wicked” and though other eulogies have reported a comeback in the form of a small part in Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables,” her role as Amy is said to be a “glorified walk-on,” thanks to some rewrites on the film. It is an undeniably sad end for such a dynamic actress, and although she will long be remembered for her delivery of the line “I’ll never tell,” it’s the way she told so much with so little that should be commemorated.
MTV has collected the memorial tweets for Murphy from celebrity pals and admirers. “Clueless” director Amy Heckerling surmises on Scott Feinberg’s And The Winner Is… blog, “[Murphy] could have, as she got older, been a wonderful character, too. She had ‘acting chops,’ as they say, and she could have gone on for as long as she wanted.”
[Photos: “8 Mile,” Universal Pictures, 2002; “Clueless,” Paramount Pictures,1995]