On a recent rainy Sunday, I decided to watch 8 Mile. I hadn’t seen it since my sister and I had gone to the cinema upon its release – excitedly buying our tickets the first Saturday it came out. (We also went for a Nando’s afterwards, in case you’re interested – in the days when Nando’s was kind of new and exciting.)
We are not particular fans of Eminem, or of rap as a genre in general. No, there was only one very specific reason why we were there, and with such keenness: Brittany Murphy. Watching it now, the film really stands up – I think I enjoyed it even more this time around. It’s a classic triumph-over-adversity musical, basically. And the thing that elevates it above its own doom and gloom tone, the determinedly dirgy palette – is without doubt Brittany Murphy. She is luminous, damaged, sparky and full of pathos. You’re right there with her even when – spoiler alert – she breaks hearts and double-crosses her way to grasp hopelessly at what she wants. You want it to work for her because she’s the only one in it who you really believe might be better than all that, who might make it out and be OK – and you wish fervently that she will.
It had always been the same. I’ve been a fan of hers since my friend Ali and I went to see Clueless twice at the cinema. (Ali is a tall blonde – I’ve always been the Tai.) She was funny, cute and a great actress – I don’t think it was a fluke that her career went on to overshadow those of everyone else in that breakout film, including Alicia Silverstone (the one who was branded as the one to watch at the time).
Clueless remained one of her better-known and better-loved films, but it was by no means the only good one. She was creepy in that-one-with-Michael-Douglas – ‘I’ll never teeeeeell!’. She was heartbreaking in Girl, Interrupted. She was so sweet and wonderful in Riding in Cars with Boys – another of mine and my sister’s all-time favourites. She was hilarious in Just Married, with her then-boyfriend Ashton Kutcher. And, incidentally, she cemented my love for her forever with her public response when he broke up with her and got together with Demi Moore – ‘I think it’s just wonderful – because he doesn’t care about age and she clearly doesn’t care about size’, along with a massive guffaw to show that she wasn’t mean-spirited, just messing about and being awesome.
My sister and I agreed: she was top of the list of famous gals we’d like to be friends with. Others include Claudia Winkleman and Drew Barrymore. I could imagine hanging out on the sofa with her in our pyjamas, watching crap telly and chatting, having a cup of tea and laughing until it came out of our noses.
She won loads of awards and was rightly hailed as a promising talent. Then the film roles started to get a bit more obscure – although I loved The Ramen Girl. Meanwhile, she just kept getting thinner, and blonder, and a little more eccentric. I would genuinely cringe when I saw pictures of her on mean websites, with snarky comments about her appearance, her relationships, her ‘sinking’ career. I like a gossip magazine as much as the next person – probably more, to be honest – but there are sometimes narratives that it makes me feel sick to look at: Winehouse, Britney, Whitney, Sheen. Brittany Murphy was one of them.
Who knows what was really going on with her? Whatever it was, she died when she was 32 and it was genuinely sad and shocking. My sister heard the news on the radio in her car and had to pull over; she texted me and I cried at work.
It was one of those deaths that feels horribly like it could have been avoided – a lot of bad luck and random factors stacking up. I feel the same way about Winehouse, Plath, Cobain, Phoenix. Like if they could just have got through a dicey time, they could respectively have ended up being: old and fat and still with massive hair, people still paying to hear her sing; my Nan’s age; living quietly in the country and releasing records like Neil Young; still winning awards and getting all the kind of film roles that Edward Norton does. With Brittany, it was a million tiny factors that added up together – low-level chronic illness, prescription drugs, a weakened constitution – and none of which alone should have killed her.
I don’t know what my point is, save that it’s a terrible waste and it’s bittersweet to see her old films on the screen now. I suppose there’s a type of public death that’s a special kind of sad – no better or worse, just special. I wish it hadn’t happened to Brittany Murphy, and I hope it doesn’t happen to any of the others. You know who they are. I’d name them, but that’s just too morbid.