It doesn’t take much to get Oscar buzz going. Sometimes, all you need is a synopsis and casting announcement. If that is accompanied by a set photograph, then the speculation can truly begin. We saw that in full gear when the first shot of Gary Oldman in his Winston Churchill prosthetics went live online. Now, the hubbub has started all over again, thanks to one eerily effective picture of Oscar-winning actress Renee Zellweger. In her latest role, she will play none other than the legendary songstress Judy Garland. In Judy, directed by prestigious theatre director Rupert Goold, Zellweger will play Garland as she arrives in London in the late 1960s to play a run of concerts. This was a dark point in Garland’s tragic life. The concerts showed Judy at her lowest, like a baby bird being crushed in the nest as she lost the support of the public. It’s not an easy story to tell, nor is it an easy part for any actress to embody one of the true icons of 20th century Hollywood. We’ve seen one picture and yet we already feel hopeful. It just feels right to see Zellweger take on the challenge.
Frankly, I’ve missed Zellweger. Between 2010 and 2016, there is a glaring 6-year gap in her filmography, where she appeared in absolutely nothing. Not even a bit-part or TV cameo. One of the early 2000s’ true cinematic stars, a striking combination of grace and goofiness, just suddenly went away. Not that I can blame her for wanting to step away from the limelight. After all, during that period of inescapable visibility and celebration, her body and face became an unsettling battleground for Hollywood’s issues with women’s beauty.
Zellweger is a silent movie actress lucky enough to be born in the age of technicolor and sound. She has the kind of features that seem to beg for the strong shadows of black and white, and a classical beauty that wouldn’t look out of place in issues of Photoplay next to Clara Bow. The versatility of her beauty made her perfect for historical and contemporary movies alike. Those cheekbones and lips seemed ideal for the 1920s as they did for the ‘typical London girl’ of today. With a quick wig change or focus of her gaze, she can go from warm and inviting to wonderfully icy. Each role comes with a specific kind of physicality, something she’s always been keenly aware of. Bridget Jones veers between shyness and a distinct lack of fucks; Roxie Hart desperately wants to exude movie-star glamour but it usually ends up looking like a temper tantrum; Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain eschews traditional femininity for the wilderness ideal of heroism. Zellweger is Bette Davis beautiful, meaning plenty of people find her stunning while others either euphemize their distaste by calling her ‘interesting’ or by simply stating they find her outright hideous.
The early 2000s of her career — that period where she reached her peak of fame, acclaim and press attention — is mired in uncomfortable dialogue about her appearance. Every forum I frequented in the mid 2000s seemed to have that cruel meme of her sucking lemons or being the face of ‘Extreme Sour Lemon Candy’. DListed referred to her as ‘Squinty Zellweger’. Others called her ‘Mr. Magoo’. Brian Moylan, formerly of Gawker, admitted his own embarrassment at making fun of her puffy cheeks. Zellweger never looked like the America’s Sweetheart mold of Hollywood attractiveness, and she never graced lad’s mags in bikinis. She didn’t do a lot of what was expected of women her age and acting type in an industry that prizes artificially short shelf lives. She could do sexy and do it well, but it wasn’t expected of her in the way, say, Reese Witherspoon or Nicole Kidman have to deal with. Neither option is particularly freeing, of course. Women can’t win either way.
Zellweger also had to deal with another endless media obsession: Her weight. Like many actors, she would put on and drop weight for whatever a role required. Usually, it’s a discomfiting phenomenon Hollywood likes to reward, and they did nominate her three times for the Oscar for roles that required various transformations. For Bridget Jones’s Diary, she was said to have gained 30 pounds, then did it again for the first sequel. The following year, after Oscar nomination number one, she went to a flapper weight to play Roxie Hart in Chicago. The media had a field day dictating which body size was the ‘right’ one for Zellweger: She was too thin, then she looked like a ‘real woman’ with curves, but then they worried that maybe she was getting too fat, then she lost the weight and suddenly she’d let all women down. It was exhausting, and honestly, I think I was as nasty about it as any tabloid at the time.
The irony is that Bridget Jones was never bigger than a UK size 14. The entire joke of her weight obsession is that it’s not a real problem, it’s just something she obsesses over in an attempt to control her life. Zellweger even pointed this out when the third movie came out in 2016, telling Vogue, ‘I put on a few pounds. I also put on some breasts and a baby bump. Bridget is a perfectly normal weight and I’ve never understood why it matters so much. No male actor would get such scrutiny if he did the same thing for a role.’
In that aspect, she’s bang on the money. When men put on weight for roles, it’s a lauded skill. Christian Bale’s made a career out of it and I doubt he’s ever faced claims that he’s letting all men down by not having the right BMI. Yet Zellweger did contribute to this mindset in earlier interviews, where she talked about packing on the pounds by eating lots of fatty foods. Keep in mind, Bridget weighs about 9 stone. The act of gaining weight for a role still carries the implicit demand for acclaim, whether the actor in question plays into it or not. Talking up the agony of not exercising and eating lots exacerbates that. Yet it’s still unbearably cruel that Zellweger seemed to become Patient Zero for this kind of scrutiny. It wasn’t just a body issue: It became a pressing matter for how women should see and bee seen. No wonder Zellweger took so much time off.
When she came back into the limelight at an Elle Magazine event in 2014, she looked different to many people, and boy did the headlines want you to know of their shock. The Daily Mail, ever kind about women’s appearances, as, ‘What HAS Renee Zellweger Done to Her Face?’ CNN, a seemingly legitimate news organization, went with, ‘Is That You, Renee Zellweger?’ The Atlantic simply has a few questions to asks, like, ‘Was it botox? Or an eye lift? Or a cheek lift? Is it unfair of me to assume it was cosmetic surgery?’ Yes, by the way. The answer is yes.
Honestly, I never thought she looked that different. Sure, it seemed obvious she’d probably had some botox, but she’s a major actress in her 40s and literally every woman in Hollywood has had some work done (except for maybe Frances McDormand). People talked of her like she’d emerged from a cave with someone else’s face sewn on top of her skull, Joker-style. It seemed inconceivable that a woman in a business where youth and beauty are fetishized would seek to avoid being ostracized for ageing. It’s not that Hollywood hates ageing so much as they hate obvious ageing that suggests the true passing of time. It’s one thing to ‘age gracefully’; it’s quite another to have actual wrinkles and sagging skin. That youthfulness must look effortless, or you’ll reveal the labour that goes into maintaining the façade that nobody truly believes. Most women in Hollywood in their 40s look more like Zellweger than the average woman who doesn’t have access to costly beauty treatments. The shock of seeing Zellweger look unlike we expected her to was a potent reminder of those smothering expectations and the cruel Catch-22 it places on women. And seriously, after that event she looked like Renee Zellweger so I’m calling it a bad make-up job more than anything truly drastic.
The thing is, if Zellweger had actually gone through major plastic surgery, I wouldn’t have blamed her in the slightest. The industry that made millions off her still threw her under the bus. The media still made her an endless target for abuse and gossip because she had a face and a body they wanted to control. People spent years mocking her ‘lemon face’ and now they’re sad it looks different? Zellweger can’t win this battle. None of us can. We’re set up from birth for defeat.
The mania surrounding Zellweger’s appearance led to a strange evaluation of her own career. Three Oscar nominations and one win in as many years meant many thought she was overrated as an actress, yet we’ve spent so long doing nothing but dissecting her looks and weight that any discussion of her craft cannot help but feel like we’re underrating her. She’s a wonderful Bridget Jones, utterly at home in the role of the messy Lizzie Bennet who can’t decide if she hates herself or thinks she’s a modern heroine. As Roxie Hart, she’s fiercely good. Not only can she dance, but she fully understands that character’s petulant narcissism and how it leads her to the depths of cruelty. The movie is way too nice to Roxie, making her heroic in the end, but Zellweger giddily works overtime to make her not only nasty but irritating as all hell, daring you to side with her. Add it all up and she could make a stellar latter era Judy Garland.
Renee Zellweger deserves her renaissance. She deserved far better than she got in her prime, and now, hopefully she can be free of those impossible constraints. We’re no less cruel to women, much less famous ones, but we have greater empathy and history in our understanding, even in our gossip. We should all be pretty embarrassed for what we put Renee through, making her the target for every false concern we’ve had about women’s beauty and ageing in the spotlight. After Judy, she has no further projects lined up, so let’s hope the industry knows what it’s been missing since she’s been gone.
(Header photograph from Getty Images).