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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is Brittany Murphy a tragic symbol of what Hollywood does to women?

I’ve been racking my brain for the last 12 hours, since I heard about the death of actress Brittany Murphy, for the best way to talk about her death, or, indeed, whether I should even mention her at all. Is there anything here worth talking about beyond the — let’s be honest — generic sorrow that springs from learning of the passing of someone, anyone, who was a stranger to you, but who was just too young to be dead already?

Murphy was not a great talent. What promise she showed as a cute, bubbly teenager in 1995’s Clueless was never capitalized upon, and her career descended into a tabloid nightmare, as Defamer summarizes so sadly:

In the final years of her too-short life (which ended with cardiac arrest late Sunday) Murphy was all saucer eyes and nervous energy, a toothy grin on the arm of one shady movie industry boyfriend after another. After multiple called-off engagements, she settled on Simon Monjack, the screenwriter husband and accused con man now raising eyebrows for trying to block her autopsy. Celebrity publications charted her weight fluctuations, speculated about eating disorders and drug use, and documented red carpet disasters and plastic surgery slip-ups.

For whatever reason, Murphy did lose a dramatic amount of weight off a frame that was already perfectly fine, which transformed her into a terribly thin and frail-looking woman. Of course, that’s when she started getting the “big” roles… albeit in terrible films: the preposterous 2001 thriller Don’t Say a Word, 2003’s excruciating Uptown Girls, and 2004’s downright monstrous Little Black Book. The latter two are particularly egregious examples of the disdain in which Hollywood holds women, framing us as vapid, idiotic, vain, and worse… and yet these are meant to be “cute” portrayals in “light” movies.

So here’s the question: Is Brittany Murphy a tragic symbol of what Hollywood does to women? Or is she just a tragic but individual example of how unfair life can be for anyone?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Rob

    I always thought Brittany Murphy was fantastic in Girl, Interrupted.

  • Georgemh

    R.I.P Brittany Murphy ..
    That’s all you need to say.. and if she was taking drugs, or having eating disorders is not of your business , and you don’t have to say about her movies “terrible”, or saying that she was having eating disorders when she got the big roles .. Shame On You !!! and the question of the day is : What the hell is happening to the press?

    And By the Way , it’s the press (YOU) that makes the life of celebs hell on earth by your paparazzi , articles (Like this one) , and tons of other activities..

  • Jennifer

    R.I.P Brittany Murphy .. I Liked her very much in Just Married with Ashton

  • As recently as two weeks ago, she was satirized on Saturday Night Live as a space cadet.

    I think she is one of many Hollywood types – a fragile person who is/becomes extremely fragile physically. She was convinced that it only mattered what she looks like.

    Also, some of this could be related to Robin Williams’ old joke, “Cocaine is God’s way of saying you have too much money.” If it turns out that she did have illicit drugs in her system, I can’t say it would be a surprise.

  • Brittany Murphy got some bad roles, but I would say she did have potential, possibly a future if she took care of herself, which is the sad part. She showed she could sing in HAPPY FEET. And in a rather morbid twist of fate, she was actually quite good in THE DEAD GIRL, in which, yes, she played the title character. So there was dramatic potential, not just bad comedies. Going down a bad path in life may not necessarily warrant saying she was not a great talent — I think the talent was there, just not channeled correctly, and now will never get the chance.

  • Mary

    She was very good in Girl Interrupted.

  • LaSargenta

    Is there anything here worth talking about beyond the — let’s be honest — generic sorrow that springs from learning of the passing of someone, anyone, who was a stranger to you, but who was just too young to be dead already?

    Well, not for me.

    and @ Georgemh: I don’t exactly understand your anger at MAJ. She wasn’t commenting on any possible eating disorders (as were speculated on in Defamer, an ugly site as one can find) as strokes against Ms. Murphy but as further evidence of the screwed up “aesthetic” of mainstream film casting requirements.

  • JoshDM

    She’d have made a great “Harley Quinn” in a Batman sequel.

  • Lisa

    They say a lot of weight loss can give you heart arryhthmia maybe some people are not meant to be that thin.

  • Brian

    Tabloid articles about famous women are the entertainment media’s way of sublimating the body-image paranoia that contemporary culture drills into women – and that Hollywood clearly drills into its actresses. The damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t mentality of the celeb media with regard to weight is particularly disgusting. One month it’s “OMG, she has cellulite!” Six months later it’s “OMG, she’s skin and bones!”

    Ms. Murphy herself wasn’t really on my radar screen, because I don’t follow the celeb media, and I wasn’t interested in watching most of her movies. But the story of a famous actress finding both casting success and extreme media scrutiny when she drops a significant amount of weight – or makes other alterations in the name of fitting a narrow idea of sex appeal – is all too familiar. Whatever the circumstances of her death, it looks like her life was already more than tough enough. And it didn’t have to be.

  • Billy Joe

    Who the fuck are you to judge someone. The press does this shit to people. I used to wish I had a more glamerous life, but now as we approach 2010, I wouldnt give a million dollars to be a celebrity. You press jerks put people though hell on a daily basis just so you can write a story, half of which is usually made up bull-shit anyhow. Like Goergemh said, if it was because of drugs or eating disorders what business of yours is it to even discuss it. I am sure her family is going through enough hell right now. My grandfather has been battling illness for about the last two years and all I can think of lately is what it would be like without him, a vision of which I did not like one bit. Do you in your small little pea brained mind think her family was having thoughts like this? Not a chance because something like this does not usually happen to someone as young as her. Her family is going through complete hell and all you choose to do is talk about how bad her movies where and how she was not a great talent. What gives you the right to write this garbage anyway. In your who I am section you should include thoughtless moron.

  • Brian

    @Georgemh and Billy Joe – Please cite any specific instance in the article above in which MAJ passes judgment upon Brittany Murphy. You’re not reading critically at all.

  • First and foremost my thought’s go out to the family who will understandably struggle to cope with this sad unexpected loss at such a cruel time and so deserve the right to privacy as well respect as they come to terms with the loss.

    Now to the question in hand, personally I don’t see Brittany Murphy and her death as a tragic symbol of what Hollywood does to women. Yes her weight fluctuated and maybe she did dabble in drugs and other things, that was her business. But I can walk into town and pick a handful of men and women who’s weight equally fluctuates and may have dabbled in drugs. There is no difference except Brittany was a public figure. So for me it’s just a sad, tragic death of someone taken from this world at a young age and in being tragic is a wake up call to all of us that life needs to be lived because we don’t know how long we’ve got.

  • tomservo

    I love when media outlets have stories discussing body image problems women face then reinforce those images almost simultaneously through advertising and celebrity obsession. It almost seems hopeless.

  • tramp848861

    In trying to place blame for someones death, regardless of how they died is a useless as tits on a bull. It serves no purpose, accomplishes nothing and arouses suspicion as well as increasing the sales of the tabloid papers. Hollywood is not to blame nor are we, the fans. (Jodie Foster, Oprah Winfrey, Kim Cattrell, Madonna) have all been trashed or had lies printed about them, they have all at one time or another had to add some weight or lose some weight to get a part. One only needs to look at oprah’s sruggles. Remember Charlize Theron in Monster, the weight she gained then subsequently lost afterwards. Jodie Foster has been acting for so long now and has had many crazy things happen from deranged fans. Yet she is still acting and not looking like she has been on a coke run for 5 or 6 days. Therefore, my answer to the QOTD is no Hollywood is not responsible, there is too much evidence to prove otherwise. Also, everybody knows when they sign on the dotted line they have just sold their soul

  • Muzz

    Just still on the acting for a moment; it was in those second fiddle or smaller roles that you really noticed her wasn’t it.
    Happy Feet as some have said, Girl Interrupted. I’d also say she was one of the few that seemed in synch with the heightened stylised tone of Sin City (her, Nick Stahl and Mickey Rourke are the only ones that spring to mind in fact. They seemed to ‘get it’, or so my lingering impression goes. It’s been a while since I saw it).

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    I was thinking the other day about the phenomenon of actors putting on or losing weight for roles, and wondering whether any famous woman would ever get away with going through a Raging Bull/The Machinist-style transformation. Then I remembered a spate of articles I read a few years back calling Cate Blanchett too skinny; it turned out they were all written while she was filming I’m Not There, a film which did involve her losing a lot of weight to get that correct androgynous-speed-freak frame. And it makes you think – if people won’t extend that sort of basic respect to Cate Blanchett, what hope does anyone else have?

    And yeah, RIP Brittany. I think it’s fair, sadly, to say she never quite fulfilled her potential, but she was excellent in Sin City and anyone who voiced Luanne Platter will always have a piece of my heart.

  • MaryAnn

    Going down a bad path in life may not necessarily warrant saying she was not a great talent

    I didn’t say she wasn’t a great talent because she went down the wrong path — I said she wasn’t a great talent because she wasn’t a great talent. If Hollywood would allow women to be who they are to the same degree that they allow men to be who they are, instead of shoehorning them into roles — both onscreen and off — they’re not meant for, she could likely have had a fine career as a pretty good talent.

    I frankly don’t understand the hate being directed at me by people who insist they’re fans of Murphy. I would think that true fans would be outraged that a woman who displays the kind of talent that Murphy did in *Clueless* (and *Girl Interrupted*) is forced by Hollywood to turn away from that. Whatever the cause of Murphy’s weight loss — and we learn that it had nothing whatsoever to do with her death — it is simply a fact that it was *after* she was painfully thin that she started getting headlining roles. Why are the fans raging at that, instead of raging at me for merely pointing it out?

  • I didn’t say she wasn’t a great talent because she went down the wrong path — I said she wasn’t a great talent because she wasn’t a great talent. If Hollywood would allow women to be who they are to the same degree that they allow men to be who they are, instead of shoehorning them into roles — both onscreen and off — they’re not meant for, she could likely have had a fine career as a pretty good talent.

    From how I read your original post, you posit a correlation between her going down what I referred to as the “bad path in life” and her getting crappy roles. And then what you’re saying now is that if she hadn’t gotten crappy roles, she might have had exposure for possibly good talent. So that’s how I read it from A to B to C, and it still kinda reads that way.

    Otherwise I don’t really see the point of mentioning that she wasn’t a great talent in a post where the main concern is how badly Hollywood treats their young actresses.

    I’m not being defensive, I just saw it as an odd left-field shot. “She died, but you know, she wasn’t that good anyway.” It’s obviously not what you meant, but it kinda sounds that way, which could explain the ire you’re puzzled about. I think now that you’re saying she may have been able to realize talent if the system didn’t pigeonhole her into generic roles, but to say upfront that she wasn’t a great talent implies that you may not have felt she even had the potential, even if she wasn’t steered by the system.

  • Paul

    No, Hollywood isn’t to blame for throwing money at young people and inviting them to coke parties. Nothing wrong with that at all. Taking a look at any list of screwed up child stars is enough to make anyone suspicious of Hollywood or TV’s backstage culture.

    Nor do I care for the press getting involved in movie stars’ personal lives. That old choice between fame and fortune gets easier for me every year. On the other hand, if the press nosed around for the identities of people who sold drugs to the stars, or bars that let in underage kids because they were movie stars, and published that, well, then I’d be interested . . . in reading about arrests.

    Capitalism giveth and capitalism taketh away. The trick is to get, or be born, on the right side of the equation.

  • David

    Now I didn’t read any of this discussion but I just wanted to say you should go and watch “Ramen Girl” starring Brittany Murphy to see how fantastic of an actress she could actually be.

  • doa766

    it’s funny how you mention Uptown Girls and Little Black Book as examples of how Hollywood portrays women but you don’t mention Sin City, where her role was even more misogynist, the difference is that Sin City was a good movie and the ones you mentioned sucked

    so I guess it’s acceptable for actresses to be on sexist movies as long as they’re good

    but I don’t think she would’ve made a good Harley Quinn, especially on Nolan’s universe

  • Accounting Ninja

    She was convinced that it only mattered what she looks like.

    Didn’t it, though, in the end? :(

    I’m not a follower of her work, but I trust MAJ’s observation on the correlation between her weight loss and headlining roles. That’s a damn shame. I do my part by not following misogynistic rags and gossip sites.

    I’m bracing myself for some serious slut-druggie-shaming coming. The kind that didn’t happen when Ledger died.

  • MaryAnn

    And then what you’re saying now is that if she hadn’t gotten crappy roles, she might have had exposure for possibly good talent.

    No, I think that unless a woman is extraordinary strong in a way that a man doesn’t have to be, she get shuffled off into crappy roles.

    so I guess it’s acceptable for actresses to be on sexist movies as long as they’re good

    I don’t think *Sin City* is misogynist, though: but it clearly is *about* misogynism (at least in part). Anyway, Murphy doesn’t stand out in this film, in which she was a small part of an ensemble cast. My point is that the most prominent roles Murphy was allowed to take were in shitty, shitty films.

  • Holly

    SHAME ON YOU to think a life lost is so inconsequential that she’s not worth talking about! Have you become so CALLOUSED that you can’t feel any compassion or empathy for her family and friends that still love her, not to mention people who enjoyed her acting. Brittany was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, somebody’s aunt, somebody’s friend. A REAL PERSON who is now a memory to her survivors.

    SHAME ON YOU FOR KICKING A DEAD PERSON WHO’S NOT HERE TO DEFEND HERSELF! So what if you personally didn`t like her acting or the films she starred in. Why do you have to be so mean about it. As you said, you didn’t know her so why do you slag her.

    SHAME ON YOU because you don’t understand the hate directed towards you. I feel sadness and pity for you because your opinion is in poor taste and the timing of your comments are inappropriate and you can’t even see that. Come on, Brittany is not even buried yet and you’re already dissing her.

    SHAME ON YOU because you ought to know better. Your insensitivity angered me so much that I just had to respond to your opinion. Not every actor can be a great actor or in great movies. There are many good actors with good talent that are unrecognized and the measure of success is not the same for everyone. Poor taste and insensitivity should never be used as editorial fodder for your blog or have you sunk to a new low? I would give you the benefit of the doubt but you are proving me wrong.

    I hope that you will develop compassion, empathy and sensitivity which can give you balance and a softer approach to your views. Otherwise learn how to be tactful and diplomatic.

  • Kenny

    God … Holly will you chill the fuck out? MAJ didn’t say she wasn’t worth talking about… she said that she wanted to say or ask something worthwhile. Was there an issue highlighted by this woman’s tragic early death?
    If not, then she didn’t want to write a post about her just for the sake of it…. long time readers would know that this isn’t that kind of site.

    (Also, MAJ most certainly did express compassion and sorrow for her eath.)

  • Accounting Ninja

    Add Holly to the pile of those who fail reading comprehension. Why don’t you get a clue?

    We’re saying the fact that she was in shitty movies speaks more of how Hollywood stereotypes women than Brittany’s talent. Jesus.

    She made me laugh more than once as Luanne Platter. :) It’s just that voice, it was funny by itself.

  • MaryAnn

    Yes, Murphy was often quite funny as Luanne.

    Brittany was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, somebody’s aunt, somebody’s friend. A REAL PERSON who is now a memory to her survivors.

    People’s real children, real spouses, and real friends die every day, and it is a terrible, sad thing for those left to cope with the aftermath. But that has nothing to do with discussing the public legacy of someone who was a public figure. And it isn’t the same thing, either, as public salivating over every detail of an autopsy, which isn’t what we’re doing here.

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