A Star’s Role
Reconsidering Renée Zellweger: Forever a Hollywood-Pretty Character Actress
The Bridget Jones actress had chops in both comedy and drama, but her presence was neutral, underwhelming, molding without fuss to fit the needs of the film and the character at hand.
It’s possible that Renée Zellweger has been in the news more in the last 72 hours than she has been over the entirety of the last decade combined. Her personal life has been analyzed, assessed, condemned, and commended from every possible angle over the last week, but Zellweger, whatever else she might be or might do, is a professional. So let’s take a moment to consider a career that has been misunderstood, even maligned, for nearly as long as she has been in the spotlight.
Renée Zellweger’s big break came in Cameron Crowe’s 1996 romantic comedy Jerry Maguire, as Dorothy Boyd, the single mom who falls in love with Tom Cruise’s titular sports agent. In Zellweger’s hands Dorothy was sweet without being a saint, perky without being a pushover. She has chemistry with Cruise, she’s a believable mom, she’s able to sell the film’s romanticism without self-consciousness. It’s a good performance, even if it’s not a revelatory one, but probably more importantly for Zellweger, it was the kind of performance that made casting her look easy.
What was clear after Jerry Maguire was that Zellweger was neither a Julia Roberts wellspring of personality, nor the counterculture alternative of someone like her Empire Records costar Liv Tyler. Instead Zellweger was a character actress who was Hollywood-pretty. She had chops in both comedy and drama, but her presence was neutral, underwhelming, molding without fuss to fit the needs of the film and the character at hand.
Zellweger could fill in the lines without pulling focus, and it didn’t take long for her to emerge as a choice lead actress for films that weren’t especially concerned with their lead actresses. After Jerry Maguire, her best performances came in films that took the film-carrying weight of stardom off her shoulders. Most notably, Zellweger made for a great foil to Meryl Streep in the family drama One True Thing, and she was a delightfully loony center to the ensemble comedy Nurse Betty.
But if Zellweger was content taking supporting roles before her big break with Jerry Maguire, after it, she was not so eager to fall back into the chorus.
For every success like One True Thing, she left in her wake awkward attempts like A Price Above Rubies or The Bachelor, forgettable films that might have been more worthwhile had their plum leading roles been occupied by a more dominant presence than what Zellweger could offer, despite her not-inconsiderable talents.
However, middling hits and middling failures aren’t a crime in Hollywood. It’s always been an industry more afraid to lose money than it is eager to earn it. Zellweger’s career might have carried on as it did through the late 1990s—a hit here, a miss there—if only it weren’t for Bridget Jones.
If Jerry Maguire was a break, Bridget Jones’s Diary was a starmaker. In Zellweger’s hands, Bridget’s voice was tart, her manner a little crude and more than a little bit funny, and not for nothing, even at a mere 130 pounds, Bridget Jones looked more like the average woman than any other woman at the box office. Internationally, and on Zellweger’s shoulders alone, the film outgrossed Jerry Maguire. Zellweger won her first Oscar nomination, and almost overnight was thrown into the big leagues.
The next several years would make up the most high profile moment in Renée Zellweger’s career. In 2002, she took a key supporting role in the high profile adaptation of the bestseller White Oleander, and was top-billed in that year’s Best Picture winner, the Rob Marshall musical, Chicago.
Chicago was a hit by every measure of the word. Zellweger earned another Oscar nomination for her troubles, and no doubt her involvement in that picture earned Zellweger her next starring role in Peyton Reed’s retro comedy Down with Love. Yet despite what appeared to be success on paper, Zellweger’s professional fate was by no means settled. Zellweger had finally earned the clout to begin to assert some personality onscreen, but what had been tart and charming just one year before in Bridget Jones was deemed sour when placed under the spotlight and the scrutiny of stardom.
We like your movies. We just don’t like you.
By the time she won her Oscar in 2003 for Cold Mountain, a moment that should have been an unquestionable career peak, Zellweger’s clout in the industry had dried up, along with the job offers. Since 2005’s Cinderella Man, her last brush with the big leagues, Zellweger’s career has ranged from disappointment to embarrassment. At the present, it has been four years since Zellweger appeared onscreen, in any capacity.
In another era of Hollywood, when studios owned stars’ contracts, when actors weren’t free to make their decisions for themselves, Renée Zellweger might not have been able to shoot for the stars the way she has throughout her career. Under a studio manager like Louis B. Mayer or Harry Cohn, Zellweger’s options would have likely been limited, managed, predetermined. Actors fought for their freedom from the studio system for this very reason, for the opportunity to pursue work that was satisfying to their artistic impulse rather than to their public image.
But the price of artistic freedom comes at the expense of professional protection.
In the studio era, Renée Zellweger might have never reached the highs of Bridget Jones, but she also wouldn’t have experienced the public embarrassments of New in Town or My One and Only. For women in Hollywood right now, there are few crimes more guileless and more harshly punished than wanting to be a movie star and not being particularly good at it. As an actress, it’s not enough to be good at acting, you also have to be your own divination rod for the industry, perfectly understanding your place without being told.
For all her good fortune, Renée Zellweger has never been able to accept that what others want from her is not the same as what she wants from herself. Can you blame her?