In ‘Uptown Girls,’ Brittany Murphy Gave Us a Different Cool Girl

When you’re a kid or teenager, it’s impossible to not have those film or TV characters that you aspire to be like. Whether it’s the effortless chicness of Carrie Bradshaw, the mystery of Marissa Cooper, or the irreverent, girlboss candor of Euphoria’s Maddie Perez, everyone has a character that they secretly or proudly wish they could be more like. Since I was six, there has always been a little part of me that wishes I was like Molly Gunn (Brittany Murphy) from Uptown Girls. The opening montage of her running around her huge New York apartment, throwing on a glitzy dress strewn over a mirror, using a candle lid as a hair clip, and coming out looking like a painting; yeah, I wanted that. But it goes so much further than the natural beauty of Brittany Murphy. Molly Gunn is a multifaceted and complex character. On the exterior, she’s your obvious cool girl, the nepo baby princess at the center of fabulous New York parties, surrounded by close friends and admirers. But, much like Murphy’s other characters, she has an inherent vulnerability behind the parties and affluence. She’s funny, a little weird, cringe, and downright embarrassing sometimes. And to see that in someone as fabulous as her, made me feel that I could one day be a cool girl. 20 years later, I am still in awe of Molly Gunn, and the boundless talents of the actor who brought her to life.


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What Is ‘Uptown Girls’ About?

Molly and Ray riding the subway while looking at the camera in Uptown Girls.
Image via MGM

For those who need a refresher of the plot of Uptown Girls, it follows Molly Gunn, the 22-year-old party girl who lives in a messy but opulent New York City apartment, sleeps until 10 pm but is ready for a party in seconds, and has a pet pig. But Molly’s glamour and thrill-seeking are under the shadow of the tragedy that led her to live this way. She’s been an orphan since she was eight, her rockstar father and her mother were killed in a plane crash, a trauma that she still hasn’t fully processed. She was left millions from her father’s estate, and has lived life to the fullest without a consideration for financial security — she grabs cash for a night out from her freezer. But her whole lifestyle comes crumbling down when the financial adviser her parents left her runs off with every last cent, leaving her completely broke. In order to make her own way in the world, she becomes the nanny to the precocious Ray (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of a music mogul and extremely negligent mother, Roma (Heather Locklear).

The way Brittany Murphy plays Molly is what gives Uptown Girls its eternal charm. Molly is a cool girl, just not the obvious type. She’s the belle of the ball, has friends who adore her, and as her friend Ingrid says, she can have any man she wants. In lesser hands, Molly could have been a vapid nepo baby (despite this film predating the term), another airhead daughter of a famous person who has everything she wants but nothing to say. But Brittany Murphy always informed her characters with such a gut-wrenching sense of humanity. Molly’s body turns to jelly when she sees her love interest Neal (Jesse Spencer) for the first time, falling completely under his built-in charm of being a musician. She clumsily vies for his attention outside the club and awkwardly jumps and hugs him when he hears good news about his career despite him barely knowing her name. Molly is a cool girl, but she’s also… kind of a loser. And I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s a testament to Murphy’s acting. Murphy’s characters are a lot of things, but they are never one note.

Brittany Murphy Always Played Multidimensional Characters

Brittany Murphy in Drop Dead Gorgeous
Image Via New Line Cinema

I revisited one of the most underrated comedies of all time recently, Drop Dead Gorgeous. Murphy plays a supporting part but is still one of the more compelling characters. Lisa Swanson is a hyper, giggly, and awkward teenager who seems a bit too obsessed with her Broadway star brother. She brings him up any time she can and has co-opted his interest in musical theater. She knows she has no chance of winning the beauty pageant so in the end, she lends her costume to Amber (Kirsten Dunst) and forfeits the competition. It’s a minor moment, but it completely turns the whole film around, as it’s the first genuine moment of kindness and selflessness we see.

The people of Mount Rose prove that they will go to any lengths to get what they want, even murder. Amber, despite her being the hero we root for, has no problem using others’ misfortune to get what she wants. Among all this greed, plotting, and selfishness, is Lisa, who simply wants to cheer on her brother’s success and see Amber win. And it’s Murphy’s sincerity that makes Lisa such a stand-out character. Lisa really is played for laughs, she nonchalantly explains to Amber that her parents only had her because her brother needed a new kidney (hence the obsession). But Brittany Murphy’s style of comedy, as hilarious and pitch-perfect as it is, was always accompanied by an apparent layer of vulnerability. Yes, Drop Dead Gorgeous is a bizarre comedy, and nothing is really meant to be taken seriously. But because of Murphy, Lisa is a tragic character; hilarious, but still harboring something darker.

Molly Gunn From ‘Uptown Girls’ Is a Different Type of “Cool Girl”

Brittany Murphy as Molly Gunn in Uptown Girls
Image Via MGM

Back to Uptown Girls, Molly isn’t such a far cry from Lisa. When Molly finally gets a date with Neal who has been avoiding her at all costs, she’s not the sexy, demure cool girl that cinema leans toward. She talks too much, laughs too hard, and isn’t afraid to use every single muscle in her face. Some may think it’s overacting, but it’s true to the excitement one feels when they’re finally sitting opposite the person of their dreams. Despite this being a comedy, the themes of childhood trauma are central to the plot. Molly has not gotten over her parents’ death, and her fear of being abandoned again is seen in her relationship with Neal. One second, she’s on the phone with Ing, telling her she’s going stir-crazy with Neal staying with her. But as soon as he tries to leave, she’ll do anything to make him stay. It may be played for laughs but look deeper, and you’ll see a lonely and terrified young woman who still hasn’t grown up because her childhood was so traumatically cut short.

Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning Have Great Chemistry

Uptown Girls Brittany Murphy Dakota Fanning
Image via MGM

Uptown Girls really shines when it focuses on the developing relationship between Molly and Ray. The two could not be more different, from their clothes to their taste in music to the way they view the world. Ray walks like the Hulk through Central Park, ignoring Molly joyfully (and terribly) trying to perform ballet. Molly nearly breaks a tooth trying to eat Ray’s porcelain scones of her tea set while Ray looks on in disgust. If chalk and cheese came to life, it would be them. But they have more in common than either would care to admit. While Molly is still reeling from the tragic deaths of her parents, Ray won’t acknowledge her own grief. Her father has been in a coma for some time, and she protects herself from the heartbreak by pretending he doesn’t exist. Molly’s openness about how terrified she is to walk through life without a guardian makes Ray see the importance of acknowledging one’s anxieties, and she starts to visit her father’s bedside. Even when her father does pass away, it’s because of her connection with Molly, someone who genuinely knows what’s she going through, that she knows she can get through it. These moments of pathos and openness are just as important as the hilarious scenes of head-bunting and fighting the two have. While it’s hilarious to watch an 8-year-old and a 22-year-old go at each other’s throats, it’s the moments when they bond over their shared fears and grief that elevate Uptown Girls beyond being a run-of-the-mill comedy.

One of the most pivotal moments in the film is when Molly sells her father’s guitar collection. At Christie’s, Molly is utterly heartbroken at the turnout for the very last part of her father’s legacy. In particular, there’s the original guitar that he wrote and performed his seminal song with, which is about Molly. We know these guitars mean everything to Molly, as when Neal starts to sing the song earlier in the film, Molly goes from lovesick to near tears in a matter of seconds. When a phone offer comes in to buy the entire collection for $75,000, Molly is insulted by how little it is. But the stoic, cold auctioneers tell her it’s the best she’ll get. Murphy’s signature huge brown eyes glaze over with tears, as she whispers to both herself and the men, “This is my Dad,” pleading with them to understand how painful this is for her. After all the slapstick and cringe humor, this scene brings the film back to its exploration of what grief looks like on different people. Molly forces herself to snap out of the moment and demands coolly that they “get rid of them” before walking away. It’s another mind-blowing example of how Murphy was equally good at making us howl laughing as she was in these introspective moments of heartache. It’s Murphy’s devastating acting here that makes the film end with a bang, as Ray and Neal put on a performance just for Molly, revealing that he bought her father’s guitars for her. As sad as this scene is, it’s still my favorite from Brittany Murphy’s filmography for how effectively it shows off how versatile a performer she was.

Brittany Murphy Will Always Be an Icon

Brittany Murphy as Molly in Uptown Girls
Image Via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I still remember renting the DVD of Uptown Girls when it was finally released and watching it with my siblings on a Friday night. The second I woke up that Saturday morning, I put that DVD right back in and watched it all over again. I was just so entranced by Murphy’s Molly, and I understand why now that I am a few years older than Molly. I was so delighted to see who I deemed a cool girl as funny, clumsy, and a little cringy at times. She wasn’t esoteric or passive, if you called her names behind her back she’d have you on the floor in seconds. Even if it’s blatantly obvious the guy she’s seeing has lost interest, she calls time and time again, the 2000s equivalent of checking his story every three minutes. But she still stood up for herself, had a moral center, and looked out for those she loved. She was everything I wanted to be, and still want to be.

When I think of Brittany Murphy now, whether it’s her work in Uptown Girls, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Clueless, or, 8 Mile, I’ll always recall the sense of warmth and resonance her performances always offered me, but I think Uptown Girls best represents what a talent she was. Her huge, glossy brown eyes never let a moment pass to add another layer to Molly’s character. Looking back at it 20 years later reminded me, more than anything, of the sheer talent of Brittany Murphy as both a comedy and dramatic actor. She found such a perfect balance of humor and pathos, glamour and vulnerability, and clumsiness and earnestness, forming a character that still stands the test of time two decades later. It makes me wonder what type of characters Murphy would have excelled at as her career progressed. Unfortunately, we’ll never know, but we will always have Uptown Girls, and I will always have Molly Gunn, the cool girl who would have let me sit with her.

The Big Picture

  • Brittany Murphy always nailed her portrayal of multidimensional characters, such as Molly Gunn in Uptown Girls and Lisa Swanson in Drop Dead Gorgeous.
  • Murphy’s performances always had a gut-wrenching sense of vulnerability, making her characters more compelling and memorable.
  • The bond between Molly and Ray in Uptown Girls is highlighted as a key aspect of the film, showcasing the chemistry between Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning.

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