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From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Renée Zellweger was on top of the world. After breaking through in 1996’s Jerry Maguire with Tom Cruise, she found herself alongside Meryl Streep in One True Thing, Jim Carrey in Me, Myself & Irene and in the pitch black comedy Nurse Betty (check it out if you haven’t seen it, it might be her best work) that earned the actress her first Golden Globe nomination and win in 2001.
Zellweger’s star continued to rise, landing the first of her three Oscar nominations in 2002 for Bridget Jones’s Diary, a film that was initially hit with what now would be considering a non-backlash at her casting; an American playing a Brit from a huge bestseller (the film was a massive success). She lost to Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball that year, as did one of her co-nominees, Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! which was a modest hit and heralded yet another ‘return of the movie musical.’ That film’s success gave way to a movie version of Chicago that had been brewing in Hollywood for decades with everyone from Liza Minelli to Madonna to Goldie Hawn to Charlize Theron attached to the film at some point. When the dust settled, television director Rob Marshall tapped Zellweger to star as Roxie Hart and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly. The film was a giant hit, earning over $170M at the box office. Zellweger won the Screen Actors Guild award for Female Actor in a Leading Role (against her last year’s competition, Nicole Kidman in The Hours) at a time when a win there was as strong a precursor as one could have going into the Oscars (Chicago also won the Cast award, making Zellweger the first person to win both). Then the Oscars happened. While Chicago won Best Picture, Zellweger lost to Kidman and if you watch the announcement of that you can see a wave of discomfort, unease and what feels like a deep question of confidence in Zellweger’s face. She respectfully claps for the announcement of Kidman’s win but there is unmistakable disappointment. This was supposed to be her win. She had paid her dues. She led the first musical to win Best Picture in over 30 years. This was supposed to be her win.
The next year would find Zellweger healing her wounds with the delicious Doris Day/Rock Hudson throwback comedy Down With Love (which was a huge bomb but with a title song that showed us a glimpse the future) and Cold Mountain, the adaptation of Charles Frazier’s best-seller from Academy Award-winner Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and starring Jude Law and, again, Nicole Kidman. This time, things were different. Zellweger, possibly energized by her loss the year before, was a campaign firestorm. She was present. Everywhere. And she won. Everywhere. Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA, all went her way. Her supporting turn as Ruby Thewes emerged as her Oscar vehicle, one she drove all the way to the stage of the Academy Awards in 2004. It’s fascinating to watch her response as Chris Cooper announces her nomination and then her win. Still nervous, looking down, unsure but with a bit of a sly grin and then a genuine expression of surprise that yes, she had won.
Normally, this type of recognition puts an actor into the stratosphere. For Zellweger it began a decade of major misfires, straight to video releases, a failed marriage to Kenny Chesney that last just four months.
Her post-Chicago films mostly left a lot to be desired, and seen. While she had Cinderella Man – a modest hit and minor awards contender, and Miss Potter – a Golden Globe nomination, the late 2000s and early 10s were littered with a slew of critical and box office failures like New in Town, My One and Only and Case 39. In 2010, My Own Love Song, co-starring another Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker, didn’t even received a US release and went right to home video. It was at that point that Zellweger took a long break from acting, six years to be exact. She disappeared from view, from the spotlight, from everyone. There were times when people thought she would simply disappear forever and become an old Hollywood recluse clinging to her Oscar like Norma Desmond clinging to her past glory.
Unfortunately, after a much-needed respite, Zellweger returned in 2016 with three strikes in a row including the third in her Bridget Jones series, Bridget Jones’s Baby.
But the thing that’s probably plagued Zellweger the most, at least within the media circus, has been her face. Just check out the headline-grabbing titles when you Google that. For most of her career Zellweger was teased, mocked and memed about her squinty appearance and pursed lips, like she was constantly sucking on lemon candies. It made her an easy target for gossips, for the wide swath of internet goblins that make a living off shredding the looks of any female stars. For Bridget Jones, she put on 20 lbs to play the unskinny protagonist (which was seen as “brave,” where when actors do it it’s “committed,”) and then lost it for Chicago and went back as she churned out the first Bridget Jones sequel (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), constantly giving gossip rags something to chime about.
In 2014, Zellweger hit the red carpet of Elle magazine’s Women In Hollywood Awards with a dramatic new look. Not only had she lost weight but her face had opened up. Her eyes were wider, her mouth not pursed. Rumors, drama and gossip swarmed her insisting on knowing her surgery details. Zellweger refused to discuss surgery rumors and instead of focused on the personal work she had done on herself since being out the limelight. “People don’t know me in my 40s,” she said at the time. “Perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older?! Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.”
The Oscar-winning actress went on to say “I think a woman only gets more interesting as she gets older. Youth and superficial beauty have their place and that is, understandably, celebrated to a degree. But that’s so fleeting and it’s only for a moment in your life.”
This week began the principal photography of Zellweger’s new film, Judy, about the final 1968 London shows of the legendary Judy Garland. It has an untested feature film director (but then, so did Chicago) and is being produced by Pathé, Calamity Films and BBC Films but is not currently attached to a studio for distribution. The first official look was impressive and I think it gave people a twinge of hope that Zellweger might be on the road to a real comeback, one that she richly deserves. Now, the film may end up going nowhere (it could be more Grace of Monaco than La vie en Rose) but it’s only March and it sort of swept up the internet consciousness for at least enough time to know that she’s back, come rain or come shine.