Murphy was performing from childhood, and the amateur footage of her acting as a tween shows her ability to naturally exist in front of a camera. She quickly moved from television pilots to television shows like Sister Sister, to her star-making role in 1995’s Clueless. That movie’s director Amy Heckerling, one of the many prominent Hollywood people whose presence gives the film gravitas, remembers that Murphy seemed to actually embody the sincere awkwardness of Tai, the outsider of Clueless, while other aspirants seemed to be trying too hard.
We hear about Murphy’s dedication to her craft, and how she delivered the iconic line “You’re a virgin who can’t drive” with a memorable attitude. Her acting opposite Angelina Jolie in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted made many take notice of her.
One of the major points that emerges is that, as Murphy came up in the industry, the limited beauty standards of aughts Hollywood made it difficult for her to find a lane. Her talent wasn’t in question, and the film highlights it. The director of 2001’s Don’t Say a Word recalls how Murphy effortlessly segued from her screen test to an actual scene with Michael Douglas, seamlessly recalibrating her performance from less dramatic to more intense to fit in with the film’s rhythms.
But she was told by an agent that she was “huggable but not fuckable” and was deeply affected by these kinds of comments. Costar Kathy Najimy recalls how she remade herself, losing weight and dyeing her hair blonde. Her management was trying to slot her as a leading lady, and she played opposite Eminem in 2002’s 8 Mile before vying for rom-com relatability with Ashton Kutcher in 2003’s Just Married.
Part of what’s uncomfortable about watching this film is that Murphy seemed to be a private person. While she dated both Eminem and Kutcher, there’s an unwillingness to play the celebrity game that comes off even in the very brief snippets we get of her. The Maxim covers and quotes from her interviews, where she replies to rumors of eating disorders, paint a startling portrait of vulnerability.
Yet even in her lifetime, it’s not as if she were the kind of star who turned her life into fodder for the tabloids or gave endless interviews. And the film suffers from not having more of her perspective in it.
Instead, in indulging the public’s desire to know, the film tramples over her to focus on the husband who has been pointed to as the Svengali behind her demise: a shady, unemployed British screenwriter named Simon Monjack.
Their 2007 marriage is, per the film, the start of her downfall. The film highlights theories from People magazine, and reporters from Radar Online are trotted out to speculate about Murphy and Monjack’s relationship with “it was widely believed,” “we all thought,” etc. In this way, the film is able to have its cake and eat it too: both speculating about uncomfortable things while avoiding getting its hands too dirty.
The documentary convincingly paints Monjack as a predator and con artist with a history of fabulism, unpaid debts, and a tendency to attach himself to women. There is evidence that he encouraged her to lose weight and to get plastic surgery. Some images he took of her at night, one of them featuring her in a muzzle, are eerie and haunting. The director of one of her last films recalls how she seemed worse, and less professional, when he was around.