On Brittany Murphy

posted 3.3.2010

Brittany Murphy died at Christmastime last year. She was 32.

At the time, the Turner Movie Classics channel was already broadcasting its heartfelt goodbyes to recently-deceased talent. I confess that I watched the channel more often than I had reason to, that week. I kept hoping they'd re-edit the segment to invite Ms. Murphy into their Hollywood Pantheon. It was a silly hope, and a purely selfish one: the young lady was a dear friend, and a frightfully good collaborator. I miss her as I would a sister.

She was as sweet a soul as I've ever encountered.

Brittany & Frank

I only got to work with Ms. Murphy for a couple of weeks, though such a short period can feel like a lifetime in the creative cauldron of a movie set. One is, to say the least, tested by its minute-by-minute demands. We take each other's measure, learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. We get to know each other very well.

In the best cases, trust is earned. Friendships to last a lifetime form. As rewarding as my friendship with Brittany became, it always bristled with the desire to work together again.

She played my character Shellie in my and Robert Rodriguez' movie, SIN CITY. Whenever I spoke to her about her character, her brown-eyed glare mixed playfulness with rapt intensity. She loved her job, and she took it very seriously.

She never missed a chance to give every scene, every shot, her own, peculiar, laser-like focus. Nor did she ever lose her whimsy.

Whimsy, as any actor worth his salt would tell you, requires ruthless, sustained, psychic effort. Her whimsy was the product of an accelerated talent, driven hard by her own quest for catching the moment and squeezing every last value from it. Brittany was never lazy, not for a second, as she graced my Shellie with life. She brought to the screen what the finest actor does: a contribution far beyond that of the director or the writer, never betraying the intent of the scene or the script.

Actors are any movie's emotional capital. They are the sine qua non, the without which, not. Without the actor's eyes and voice and shoulder and hips, a movie does not function. And Brittany had it all, the telling wink, the lazy toss of her head, all the appeal, all the heartbreak, all the fear and humor and malice and triumph. That is what she gave us, every time we gave her the chance to show her stuff.

Brittany Murphy

But none of these virtues makes for a convenient, trashy, media slug line. And we live in trashy times.

The coverage of Brittany Murphy's death has been disgraceful.

It's awful - it's utterly revolting - to see her legacy drowned in chatter about drug abuse.

I've lost a dear friend and an inspiring colleague. And now I read of her summed up as nothing but a tired sob-story cliche, lumped like a sack of shit atop other sacks of shit, dropped into a Hollywood dumpster, branded as a drug casualty. I am disgusted.

I testify that I never saw a hint of any such drug use on the set, nor anywhere else.

And I wouldn't give a damn if every last scurrilous rumor about her were true. Brittany Murphy was a superb actress. Nothing else about her is anybody's damn business.

She deserves better than the sort of shabby media portrayal she's received, whatever the coroner found in her corpse.

Yes, Brittany was given to extremes. Dedicated artists tend to be. From the near distance of friendship, I saw how she fretted over lines of dialogue another actress might've tossed away. How she'd glance about, frantic that she had failed to convey the exact intent of her performance.

And this excess of perfectionism spilled over into her life off-set. She was unmistakably vain, self-critical of her appearance, as are most women of uncommon beauty. I suspect she was, at heart, a Utopian, always seeking a better, fairer world. She was certainly a hopeless romantic, ever in love, frequently heartbroken.

A few quick glimpses at the woman I knew:

She desperately wanted to wear a white wig on the set of SIN CITY, to make the movie better and truer to its sources. Circumstances didn't allow this, but, though she proceeded without complaint, she never forgot it.

Months later, she responded to a fire-alarm threat in Europe by automatically assuming authority over the disorganized crowd of actors, producers, reporters, and at least one director, organizing the evacuation and making sure that everyone kept the pace up, all the while wagging a finger at any woman in six-inch stilettos who might slip and fall.

She never let anybody around her stay hungry. She could always find a sandwich somewhere.

In private conversation, her advice was always plain and wise. I'm confident that I'm not the only pal who she steered away from doing something stupid. For all her cyclonic energy, her voice was calm as she kept me from losing my temper.

The chatterers and cheapeners be damned. We've lost a precious woman, and the world is now a slightly darker place.

Rest in peace, sweetheart. I'll always love you.

FM

Brittany as Shellie