Originally published December 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.
Before there was "Gossip Girl," before there was "The O.C.," there was Clueless, a movie that with each passing year remains a spotless example of the drama and hijinx of the children of the exceptionally rich. Of course Clueless’ writers took a cue from Jane Austen’s novel of social positioning and class, Emma, and based the action of their Beverly Hills teens on the posturing and poison of Austen’s young English gentry.
The ersatz Emma in Clueless was Cher, the lovely daughter of a Hollywood lawyer played with vim and vigor by the hottie of the moment Alicia Silverstone (remember those Aerosmith videos?). Cher was vapid and self-obsessed, but her Valentino dresses, slang and approach were all social cues in the baroque theater of her society. She was a woman of her own milieu. The titular “clueless” character was Tai, a stand-in for Austen’s Harriet Smith. A nouveau riche who is newly installed at Cher's school, equipped with a heavy Jersey accent and entirely unaware of the ways of her new world.
Tai was played by Brittany Murphy, a young actress bursting with potential whose frantic and forthright performance whetted the viewing audience's appetite for more. It was Murphy’s first film, and like her character, she was a neophyte in Southern California, navigating what was essentially a foreign land. She was, however, a showbiz vet by then, appearing in sitcoms and in regional theater. Her star was on the rise.
Murphy died on December 20th, 2009, succumbing to cardiac arrest at her home in California. She was 32 years old. The circumstances of her death are not entirely known, but Murphy’s “erratic behaviour” and “problematic” demeanor on the sets of B-movie thrillers over the course of the last few years have caused speculation among tabloids and rumination by news organizations about the rise and fall of a young starlet.
After Clueless, Murphy shed weight, trading her cherub-faced charm for the sexiness of a slinky ingenue with half-dollar eyes, blonde hair and (surgically enhanced) pouty lips. Her Hollywood life flourished and included a high profile romance with Ashton Kutcher (after they co-starred in the 2003 Couple comedy Just Married).
Murphy displayed her grittier side opposite the rapper Eminem in the movie 8-Mile and in the comic book adaptation, Sin City.
Tai’s character, under Cher’s tutelage, attempts to make waves in the high school society. But her pursuit of the high status boy Elton (Mr. Elton in the Austen origin) proves misguided. But Tai makes her own way, falling for a grungy skater kid and finding happiness outside of the social strata of the high school gentry.
Murphy’s life seems to fit the arch of the troubled starlet, but unlike the descent of some of her contemporaries, Murphy always worked, lending her voice to animated features and finding roles regularly. And as details come in from sources like TMZ (she had flu-like symptoms for days before she died, she was taking many prescription drugs and began vomiting uncontrollably before her death) it seems like foul play or a drug overdose were not the specific cause.
It is hard to speculate what went wrong. But there is a palatable shock and grief among Hollywood observers and especially for those of us who remember Murphy more for her effervescence than for her vixen-dom.
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