When Brittany Murphy unexpectedly died in 2009, it was a shock to everyone. But in the days, months and years that followed, the cause of her death only became more mysterious and compounding despite the coroner stating that actresses died of pneumonia. In the two-part, HBO Max docuseries, What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, many of the conspiracy theories and subsequent investigations into her death are revisited and debunked by officials involved at the time with several people closest to her indicating that her untimely demise could have been prevented. Among the many theories about her death are drug overdose, poisoning, mold in her house, or a mysterious murder and coverup by her husband, Simon Monjack.
Sadly, the accusation of taking too many drugs (illegal or prescribed) was a result of Murphy’s own physical transformation in front of the press. According to the docuseries, the actress, despite becoming a hit thanks to Clueless and Girl, Interrupted, was told that she wasn’t skinny enough to be taken seriously as a leading star, which led Murphy to lose a lot of weight. This then led the press to think she had an eating disorder while Perez Hilton accused her of being on pills. At the time of her death, it was revealed that there were dozens and dozens of prescription bottles on the nightstands on either side of Murphy’s bed. Despite this, retired medical examiner Dr. Lisa Scheinin, who handled the actress’ autopsy, didn’t find any illegal drugs in her system and ruled that any prescribed drugs in her system were secondary to the main cause of death.
After Monjack died five months later under wildly similar circumstances, another popular theory emerged: that visible mold in the house was responsible for both deaths. It was one that Murphy’s mother, Sharon, was convinced was responsible for the loss of her daughter and son-in-law. While the symptoms of ingesting mold spores matched what Murphy and Monjack experienced, the medical examiner “didn’t see any evidence of mold in her lungs or any other organs.”
Later, Murphy’s estranged father, Angelo Bertolotti, made allegations that his daughter was poisoned, likely by her mother or husband, slowly over time. His claims were based on a previously unseen report that found a high concentration of various metals in Murphy’s hair. He even went as far as hiring forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht to investigate the possibility. But as Wecht reveals in the docuseries, the metals were from her hair and never absorbed into her blood. In fact, they came from hairsprays or dyes, because of Murphy changing her hairstyle so many times. Wecht’s conclusion was backed up by Scheinin, who determined there was no evidence of poisoning.
Many people quickly became suspicious of Monjack following Murphy’s death, going as far to claim he had something to do with it, especially after it was revealed he didn’t want to have an autopsy performed on her body. Despite the internet sleuths' distrust of Murphy’s husband, the police did not investigate him for murder and found no evidence of foul play. But those closest to Murphy before she met and married Monjack do hold him responsible for her downfall in the years leading up to her untimely death.
Following her marriage to Monjack, friends and colleagues, like Lisa Rieffel, King of the Hill co-star Kathy Najimy and Across the Hall director Alex Merkin, said that she became a different person and started acting erratically on set. Rieffel claims that Monjack changed all of Murphy’s phone numbers while Najimy says that he was quickly making all her business and financial decisions and even driving her to and from set. And whenever he was around, Merkin says, Murphy’s behavior became difficult to deal with. Celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak claims that Monjack hired him to work with Murphy, but when she came into his gym, she “was for sure under the influence of something.”
It was eventually discovered that Monjack was a fraud, with legal issues following him all around the country. Not only did Pasternak stop working with him due to a large, unpaid balance, but his claims about being a billionaire and coming from a wealthy family were all lies. When director Gary Fleder discovered this, he went to the National Enquirer and tried to expose him. While Murphy’s friends held an intervention and tried to get her out of the relationship, the actress and her mother refused. And it wasn’t until after Monjack died that Sharon discovered that he spent $3 million of Murphy’s money on false investments, like fake jewelry and non-existent real estate deals.
Despite all the accusations made against Monjack, his mother, Linda, and brother, James, came forward and spoke out for the first time in the docuseries. Linda says that her son had an extremely high IQ and could easily manipulate people from an early age. She also notes that after Monjack's father died when he was just 16 years old, something in him changed. From that moment on, he became more “unreal.” That said, she believes that Monjack and Murphy were in love. She also said Monjack never stole money and that she often gave him what he needed.
In the end, it seems that Murphy’s death, even by pneumonia, could have been prevented if she was just taken to a doctor or hospital in the days or weeks prior. Given that the coroner found that the actress was severely anemic, there’s no reason that she should not have gotten professional medical help in the time leading up to her death. “Any decent doctor would have her in the E.R.,” Scheinin said.
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is now streaming on HBO Max.