The untimely passing of 32-year-old Brittany Murphy reminded me of another diabolically talented actress who also burned out at an early age. Like Murphy, a victim of cardiac arrest, the legendary Jeanne Eagels, dropped dead in a doctor’s office at 39, as a probable result of intense alcohol and heroin abuse. And, like Murphy, Eagels was a petite, delicate beauty of part-Irish descent who threw herself into her roles with an electrifying intensity that could sear a hole into the screen. For proof, one has only to look at the 1929 early talkie version of W. Somerset Maugham’s THE LETTER, in which Eagels seethes with a barely contained fury that is absolutely riveting until her final volcanic explosion at her loathed cuckold of a husband, shrieking that his entire life was always all about “Rubber, rubber, RUBBAH!” Bette Davis won her first Oscar for DANGEROUS, in which she played a self-destructive actress obviously patterned on Eagels and, indeed, Davis’ trademark persona undoubtedly appropriated Eagels’ pop-eyed fervor, manically nervous gesticulations and arresting vocal delivery the younger actress must have witnessed onstage in Eagels’ epochal, long-running stint as Sadie Thompson in that other Maugham vehicle, RAIN. (That other screen original, Katharine Hepburn, also seems rather less than original, when you consider the fact that she was the Broadway understudy in HOLIDAY for Hope Williams, from whom she stole her patrician/butch forthright manner and movement.)
Murphy obviously lived hard and fast, as did Eagels, who, likewise, had a string of men in her life, the aforementioned addictions and professional lows, all copiously press-covered, like failing to appear on stage, which had Equity banning her from work for 18 months, walking out on the role of Roxie Hart in the original production of CHICAGO, after disagreements with her director, and being fired by MGM during the filming of MAN, WOMAN AND SIN for taking a vacation without informing her director. Modern professional gossip-mongers rather ghoulishly exulted in Murphy’s eccentric behavior on film sets, confidently, and, as it turned out, accurately predicting a sorry end for the actress. Eagels had her own share of oddball moments, once departing completely from the script of her play THE CARDBOARD LOVER while onstage, to the consternation of co-star Leslie Howard.
Murphy specialized in, and then became, typecast as wacky oddballs. There was her star-making appearance as Tai in CLUELESS (1995), which was a classic high school Ugly Duckling transformation turn, sweetened by the actress’ ingratiatingly innate innocence and given a suprising bite, as well, with her street-smart toughness. “You’re a virgin, and you can’t drive,” as delivered by her with funky directness to a startled Alicia Silverstone, became the ultimate putdown.
She was striking as a lesbian smack addict jailbird in the fascinating cult-ish FREEWAY (1996), which contains Reese Witherspoon’s most interesting performance as a piece of utter white trash, with no problem whatsoever in shrieking the N-word whenever it suits her, which is often. Murphy’s performance in GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) as Daisy, a victim of sexual abuse with an eating disorder and penchant for self-mutilation had a heartbreaking reality to it that felt far more authentic than Angela Jolie’s more showboating, if effective, performance as a resolute misfit.
Murphy’s full-bodied Everygirl physique soon gave way to that scary thinness so especially (and frighteningly) craved on the Left Coast. I never saw 8 MILE, as I usually avoid films starring known homophobes, and the Eminem hype was then so noxiously over the top that it had even an otherwise sensible, painfully p.c. Seattle friend of mine taking her pubescent daughter.
By the time of DON’T SAY A WORD (1991), in which Murphy played a disturbed sanatorium patient somehow implicated in a murder/theft/kidnapping plot, it seemed that the actress was beng woefully typecast and the ad campaign which had her writhing in a hospital bed, tauntingly crooning “I’ll never tell” seemed to predict an unhappy future for her as the Isabel Jewell of the Millennium. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, Jewell specialized in vividly offbeat roles which usually had one memorably hysterical scene, like her tubercular whore in LOST HORIZON, her gangster moll/whore in MARKED WOMAN, the waifish seamstress who goes to the guillotine in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, a rebellious member of a satanic cult in THE SEVENTH VICTIM, and that unforgettable piece of white trash, Emmy Slattery, in GONE WITH THE WIND.
The tabloids and other media vultures had a field day with Murphy’s off-screen eccentricity, relegating her to something of a kooky caboose to their ultimate Spears-Lohan train wreckage, and Saturday Night Live even mocked her in a recent skit. Hollywood loves a success, but it loves an easy target to snicker about and poke fun at even more, and this singular talent unfortunately found herself too easy grist for this toxically vicious mill. Substance abuse as well as rumored anorexia may have been an all too understandable, if tragic, response to this media abuse.
ABANDONED, a psychological thriller, will be released posthumously in 2010, and from the advance clips that have been released, it looks like yet another example of Brittany Murphy looking ravaged and being oh-so intense and on the edge. One thing’s for certain – it will be impossible to take your eyes off her, which was always the case with her every screen appearance. It’s a shame that we will never get to see her explore her undeniable range, with that gorgeously husky voice, as, say, Blanche DuBois, or in Shakespeare: what a Juliet she might have made and, of course, she could have played Ophelia in her sleep.