It's a tragedy that Brittany Murphy's dead. Maybe not only because she was young and beautiful and had a suitcase pimp of a hubby, but because she was a mighty skilled actress, a fact that'll likely be overshadowed by her ditzy film personas. See, beyond the Clueless, Just Married and Don't Say a Word megaplex trips, and other lesser-known and unfortunate blonde-for-dollars roles, the lovely actress soared in true Tinseltown alternatives, out beyond 8 Mile.
The chirpy girl-woman with the little bug eyes and bony elbows could convey real innocence and sadness, particularly as an extremely flawed character, a street urchin like those most people rarely notice in real life. And here are two little-seen films that show how Murphy was, in fact, a gifted, intuitive actor.
The first, 2006's shockingly great and literate The Dead Girl. Murphy's a single-mom prostitute, delusional on the pipe, with an undertone of childlike innocence that's somehow kept alive despite how she has prematurely outlived her youth and beauty. The multitiered film, which involves detailed circumstances surrounding her character's death and how it changes others she couldn't possibly have known, sees Murphy (and director-writer Karen Moncrieff) humanize her character with aplomb, and without manipulating the audience with cheap tricks and clichés — you develop empathy for her as a mother, as a daughter, as a broken human being, and it sneaks up on you, peaking in the movie's final tragic moments. It's as emotionally absorbing as great fiction, and stays with you the same, for days.
The indie Spun is another thing of (wretched) beauty. This 2002 turn, alongside Mickey Rourke and Jason Schwartzman (who's really the film's weak link), actually portrays meth-heads convincingly. You can sense the unhinged grime-skinned sex drive here; that speedy madness, all rushing at 200 beats a minute. And you can practically smell the sweat, dirt and drain-cleaner. You sense that you've fallen so low so as to exist among people who'd normally repulse you, and that's where Murphy is, tied up (literally) with Rourke's meth cook. The film, in fact, was co-written by a tweaker, so nearly every grainy and purposely overlit scene (like your eyes are dilated) feels as real as a three-day bender, down to unshowered homelessness. It's said that Murphy and Rourke have never done crystal meth, so this is testament to their honed actorly skills. Yes, Spun was a tiny-budget movie directed in three weeks by a Swede known for his rock videos — and it repulsed and fooled soft and white mainstream film critics who thought it was irony — but it lives on in the underbelly with moments of truth and beauty.Brian Smith is Metro Times managing editor. Send comments to [email protected]