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Brittany Murphy: Actress whose versatility matched her 'jolie laide' looks

While not traditionally beautiful according to the Hollywood standards of yore, the American actress Brittany Murphy had "jolie laide" looks – big, brown eyes, a slightly disdainful mouth, a pointed chin, just-out-of-bed hair – which she used to great effect as she combined parts in ditzy comedies like Clueless and Just Married to meatier roles in the dark thrillers Girl, Interrupted and Don't Say A Word.

However, many argued she was at her best on two of the zeitgeist pictures of the noughties, 8 Mile, the Eminem biopic starring the rapper and directed by Curtis Hanson, and Sin City, Frank Miller's graphic novel transformed into a stylised film noir by the author and Robert Rodriguez.

Petite in stature, but blessed with a distinctive, husky voice, she made the most of voicing characters like Gloria the penguin in the computer-animated Happy Feet and Luanne, the Texas beauty-school hussy in the animated series King Of The Hill, Murphy was a versatile star and performer. She topped the US Hot Dance Club Play charts and made the British Top Ten as guest vocalist on the heady, infectious, anthemic "Faster Kill Pussycat" created by the DJ-turned-producer Paul Oakenfold in 2006, the year readers of both FHM and Maxim put her among their 50 Sexiest/Hottest Women lists, but was equally at ease opening the Harrods Summer Sale last year.

Her life was something of a soap opera, with tales of diva-like behaviour on and off set, and in the spotlight relationships with Ashton Kutcher, her co-star in the cliche-ridden Just Married, and broken engagements to best-boy grip Joe Macaluso and talent agent Jeff Kwatinetz, though she seemed to have found personal happiness after marrying the British screenwriter and producer Simon Monjack in 2007.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1977, she grew up with her mother in Edison, New Jersey, after her parents divorced when she was two. "I'm half Italian, a quarter Irish and a quarter Eastern Bloc country," she said when asked about her olive skin, brown eyes and dark hair. As a child, she showed great promise when taking voice and dance lessons at Verne Fowler's School of Dance and Theater in Colonia, New Jersey, and landed the occasional advertising job in New York. When she shot three commecials – for Skittles, Pizza Hut, and Honey Bunches of Oats – in one day, her mother agreed that a move to Los Angeles would be ideal for the stage-struck teenager and packed everything to go with her.

In 1991, after one appearance in the Candice Bergen sitcom Murphy Brown, she landed a part in Drexell's Class, another sitcom in which she played the daughter of a corporate raider – Dabney Coleman, the moustachioed bully boss of Nine To Five fame – who becomes a school teacher to pay his debt to society and avoid a prison sentence. Though the series only lasted 18 episodes, it helped Murphy secure further TV work, most notably appearances in Frasier and Murder One. In 1995, she played Tai, the Bronx homegirl befriended at her new school in Beverly Hills by Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, Amy Heckerling's revisiting of Jane Austen's Emma. Enjoyed as much by critics as its target audience of teenage girls, the comedy performed well at the box office but Murphy wasn't so lucky in her subsequent choice of material, including the unmemorable Freeway (1996), Bongwater (1997) and the straight-to-video Drive and The Prophecy II.

However, Falling Sky (1998), the coming of age drama co-directed by Russ Brandt and Brian J. De Palma, in which she portrayed a young girl attempting to cope with her mother's alcoholism and subsequent suicide, revealed hidden depths, as did an eight-month run in Arthur Miller's A View From a Bridge on Broadway, an unexpected move for an actress of her age. Indeed, she matched the workrate and intensity of the more starryWinona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, the demanding James Mangold drama set in a mental institution. Murphy sometimes joked that she specialised in portraying disturbed women, since the 2001 thriller Don't Say A Word, starring Michael Douglas and directed by Gary Fleder, saw her again sectioned to a mental hospital.

Even when she worked in more traditional genres, as in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), Michael Patrick Jann's beauty pageant gone horribly wrong, and Cherry Falls (2000), Geoffrey Wright's dark tale of a serial killer targeting virgins, her performances were never less than noticeable. In 1999, Murphy was attached to a Janis Joplin biopic entitled Piece Of My Heart, but the film remained in development for years and faltered over music rights. Still, Murphy made the most of the tape she had made as Joplin, and it helped her gain another high-profile role opposite Drew Barrymore in Penny Marshall's Riding In Cars With Boys (2001) based on Beverly Donofrio's autobiography.

In 2002, Murphy was excellent as Eminem's love interest in 8 Mile, while the drug-fuelled scenario of Jonas Åkerlund's Spun seemed a natural move for an actress who shone when portraying young women on the edge. "I've never done crystal meth or any drugs. Nothing like that," she said about that part. "I talked to a lot of friends regarding the side effects and how it feels. I basically grilled a bunch of people. I did some investigative reporting."

Unfortunately, Uptown Girls and Just Married, the two formulaic comedies she made the following year were cringing disappointments though Sin City restored her standing as the object of many a male teenager's fantasy. Two would-be media-savvy comedies, Little Drama (2004) and Love (And Other Disasters) (2006), fared badly and Murphy returned to the thriller and horror genres with The Dead Girl (2006), helmed by Karen Mongrieff, and Sean McConville's Deadline, due for release next year. She had also completed filming on Something Wicked as well as The Expendables, a would-be blockbuster written, directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, and reuniting Murphy with her Sin City co-stars Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis.

When asked by the New York Times in 2001 about how she picked her films and whether she had a game plan, Murphy's reply was typically frank. "No regrets, baby! I pretty much ride on my instincts, anyway."

Pierre Perrone

Brittany Murphy, actress: born Atlanta, Georgia 10 November 1977; married 2007 Simon Monjack; died Los Angeles 20 December 2009.