Why Brittany Murphy Is Worth Remembering

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The tabloids, blogs and social networks have been all a-Twitter with speculation about Brittany Murphy, the 32-year-old actress who died Sunday morning in her West Hollywood home. Were prescription drugs the culprit or hard drugs? (No illegal medication was found in her home, but, police said, large amounts of prescription drugs were in her body.) Bulimia? Depression? Is this a Heath Ledger death or a John Belushi? Long before an official report could be issued, Perez Hilton decried what he assumed to be her reckless lifestyle. Other columnists blamed the vulturous showbiz media for not heeding her pleas, however mute, and healing her wounds. In the larger world, a tandem of reactions was typical. The first thought: Isn't that a shame... The second: Who was Brittany Murphy again?

I'll tell you: she was a talented film and TV actress who, in life, didn't win the acclaim she dreamed of and might have deserved. But above all, Brittany Murphy was the immortal voice of Luanne Platter on the Fox cartoon show King of the Hill.

She is more widely known in death than she was in life. Even now, as you type BRITT... on Google, it auto-corrects to BRITNEY SPEARS. (Type one more letter and you get "Brittany Murphy death photo." Jeez.) Reports abound of erratic behavior on her recent films: she was fired from one, and on another she seemed so addled that another character had to be hastily written in to pick up Murphy's slack. No question that she had lately achieved the wraith look, and there was apparently a volcanic side to her marriage to the English screenwriter Simon Monjack — whose most prominent credit was the script for the bio-pic Factory Girl, about Edie Sedgwick, the Warhol superstar, dead of a drug overdose in 1971. Pop psychologists combed Murphy's filmography for early presentiments of her death, and found one in Girl, Interrupted, the 1999 study of young women in a mental hospital. Murphy plays a sexually abused teen who has an eating disorder, pops pills and eventually commits suicide.

As a professional movie-watcher, I try to concentrate on what an actor does on the screen. Murphy produced a lot of fine work in the 18 years since she successfully petitioned her mother to move with her to Hollywood. She made an appealing early impression in the 1995 Clueless, Amy Heckerling's update of the Jane Austen novel Emma. Murphy played the tough, gauche kid — the title character, so to speak — who is given mentoring and a makeover by Alicia Silverstone. I liked Murphy as Eminem's girlfriend in 8 Mile and in the starring role in Uptown Girls, as a rock star's daughter who becomes Dakota Fanning's nanny. She flitted memorably through Sin City and squirmed inside the romantic straitjacket of Just Married with Ashton Kutcher (who for a time was also her beau). I confess I missed a lot of Murphy's appearances before the camera.

Her work in front of the mike was a different matter. What aspiring movie star goes into cartoon voice work? One who has the comic aptitude for it. Murphy provided the voice for Gloria the penguin, the hero's gal pal in Happy Feet, as well as Tank the Eighth Grader on the Disney animated series Pepper Ann. By the time she was 20 she'd won the role of Luanne, Peggy Hill's dizzy niece, on King of the Hill — and, just because she could, she also voiced the role of Bobby Hill's best friend Joseph (until Joseph hit puberty and his voice changed, literally). Luanne appeared in 231 of the show's 254 episodes, lasting from its debut in 1997 to its demise this year. To be sure, she was a stereotype — the dumb Texas blond — but one that Murphy and the show's writers elevated to the apex of inspiration.

She comes to live with the Hills in the first episode, when her mother stabbed her father and, in the melee, their trailer home was demolished. Wearing a tank top over her bulging bosom and a blond mane over her empty head — except in the season after her hair got singed off in the great Mega Lo Mart propane explosion — Luanne worked as a beautician and, on the side, a performer on a local cable TV station with her Christian sock puppets, the Manger Babies (one of whom was an octopus). In the early years she had a feckless boyfriend named Buckley, until he died in the propane blast. She later dated a series of jerks (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Owen Wilson, Michael Keaton) and finally married one of them (Tom Waits). But her main function was to vex her uncle, the very conservative Hank Hill (voiced by the show's co-creator, Mike Judge) — once by joining the Communist party, and mostly by having taken Hank's den as her bedroom when she moved in.

The writers provided the funny lines, as when Luanne spots a giant snake in the living room and, as it slithers her way, shouts, "It's comin' to kill me! It knows I'm a Christian!" But Murphy was the young woman's soul. Using a deep-throated, deep-fried southwestern accent (the actress was raised in Edison, N.J.), she gave Luanne a friendly but willful tone that could instantly reach hysterics of mirth or despondency. Murphy put just enough Too Much into Luanne's inane enthusiasms and her fortissimo fears. She knew that the character was deficient in self-esteem and, for all the company at the Hill house, pathetically lonely. Is Luanne a comic figure or a trailer-trash tragic one? In Murphy's superb voice work, she is both. As Luanne once told Aunt Peggy, in a blast of defiance, "I am a proud, ignorant woman, and no one is going to change that!"

So Murphy was a good and gifted actress. Now she's dead. What else can be said? I suggest that, instead of reading the bloggers, you attend to these two comments. One is from Greg Daniels, the co-creator of King of the Hill, in an e-mail to the industry web site The Wrap the day after Murphy's death: "Brittany was extremely kind, talented, funny, and in love with acting. She was a joy to be around. This is very tragic news." The other is from the actress, a while back: "I've always seen myself as one of those 'show people.' My earliest memories are wanting and needing to entertain people, like a gypsy traveler who goes from place to place, city to city, performing for audiences and reaching people."

R.I.P,, gypsy girl — and Luanne.



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