by Billy Russell
Brittany Murphy’s death is one that still makes me sad all these years later. In her life, she was underappreciated as an actor. In her death, in all its mystery, was a sleazy, salacious tabloid entry and a battle between her parents. She never got a fair shake.
She’s probably best known for her work in Clueless, which she’s great in, but to me she’ll always be Luanne Platter, the overtly-sexual niece of and foil to Hank Hill in the animated series King of the Hill. Luanne isn’t bright, but she’s such a sweet girl. She just wants to do what’s right, even if she isn’t sure what the right thing is sometimes. She might not be the best beauty school student, but she can take apart a car with expert skill if she has to.
What makes Luanne come alive is the voice acting Brittany Murphy gives her. It’s funny that Brittany Murphy, with all her big-eyed expressions, scored as an unseen voice actor. The writing on King of the Hill was usually pretty solid, but it’s the voice work that keeps the characters from slipping into…well, cartoons. Even though the series was animated, it had a depth and a delicate nuance that rivaled most live action series. Luanne may have been from a broken family from a trailer park, but she was far from trailer trash, and did her best to escape those beginnings. When it was revealed that her trailer wasn’t destroyed in a tornado, that it was still standing, she broke into tears, afraid of giving up everything she’d worked so hard for, to return to the hell she thought she’d escaped for good.
For a character like Luanne to work, we really have to care about her. If she’s simply “ditzy comic relief” what do we care if her uncle Hank doesn’t take her seriously? It’s sad, sure, on a technical level, but without the proper development we have no reason to be invested in what happens. Instead, Luanne is portrayed as being a lot deeper than she lets on. The way she deals with a crisis, whether it’s her family smoking cigarettes or her boyfriend Buckley dying in a propane explosion, says so much about her entire history of trauma. I love that, despite everything, she’s still more sad that she lost her hair than she was that Buckley died.
The role of many of the characters in King of the Hill is to hold up a mirror to Hank and reveal a dark reflection of himself. Bobby represents his failings as a father. Peggy represents his squeamishness with intimacy. Luanne, however, represents his failures in life as a whole. It’s through Luanne that Hank can see his issues with women, how uncomfortable he is with sexuality, and how his dedication to things like “family” aren’t really all that important to him other than a superficial level. It’s through her that he can realize his selfishness and finally do something for someone else, whether it’s attending her Christian puppet show or tossing some drunk into a dolphin tank for her.
I have so many favorite Luanne episodes, it’s hard to pick the best one. I mean, there’s the Manger Babies episode, where Brittany Murphy really shines as a voice actor, performing a variety of different voices for all the different animals, but all with a distinctly Luanne undertone to them. Then there’s the one where she gets dumped and she spends the better part of an entire day crying, until Hank sets her up with some dud who ends up getting handsy with her. But for my money, my favorite episode—and it’s probably one of the best episodes of the entire series—is the one where she’s visited by the angel of Buckley and makes peace with his passing and moves on to the next phase of her life.
Brittany Murphy also did the voice of prepubescent Joseph Gribble, Bobby Hill’s best friend and partner in crime. I didn’t know this until years ago because the two voices and characters are so different from each other. Younger Joseph, before puberty caused him to grow like a beanstalk and robbed him of his self-confidence, was brave in all the ways Luanne was terrified. He had a hubris to him that was totally opposite of Luanne.
Outside of King of the Hill, she was a scene-stealer, too. In Penny Marshall’s (may she, too, rest in peace) Riding in Cars with Boys, she plays Fay, the best friend of Drew Barrymore’s Bev and has this amazing exchange, in which Bev has to prepare to tell her parents the horrible news that she’s pregnant.
Fay: Okay, pretend that I'm your parents, say what you’re gonna say.
Bev: Okay, Mom, Pop?
Bev: I don't know how to say this...
Bev: I'm pregnant.
Fay: My daughter's a tramp! My daughter's a tramp! You're 15 years old, how could you do this to me? Why don't you just take my gun? Take my gun and shoot me in the head with it, tramp! I wish that you were never born! How was that?
She is the epitome of “gone too soon.” It’s impossible to know where her career would have gone or where it would have taken her, but what she did leave was a lot of great performances. She will be forever missed.