If you type the word Renee into Google the first two suggested searches are “Renee Zellweger face” and “Renee Zellweger surgery” – a testament to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles, comments and think pieces that have been written about the Oscar winner, and three-time nominee’s, appearance since her return to the pop-culture conversation. This met its zenith with the release of the trailer for Bridget Jones’s Baby and Owen Gleiberman’s outrageous Variety article “Renee Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?” This is, at its heart, a hateful question to ask readers to ponder; but it is also a redundant one. The answer is, it seems to me, a resounding no. It assumes that the most meaningful component of a performance, and therefore a person, is a, very limited, view of what they should look like. Do we really expect our actors to look the same throughout their lives? If we do then we are jettisoning every single other aspect of movie acting, including charm, talent, agency, passion and craft. We are boiling down a performance to aesthetics, which is, I am aware, an aspect of why we like the movie stars that we like, but that surely gives our stars an extremely limited lifespan. If an actor dyes their hair, are they still the same actor? The answer is yes. I don’t remember anyone asking whether Matthew McConaughey was the same actor when he lost weight for Dallas Buyers Club, in fact, as with his co-star Jared Leto, his transformation was deemed as heroic and brave. The media coverage surrounding Zellweger, once again, proves that female bodies are, in 2016, still a battleground, a source of conflict, a pit into which we are allowed to shout our opinions.
The movie actually, sort of, tackles the question of physicality immediately, with Bridget’s imitable diary-entry-voice-over saying “the truth was that by now I thought I would have had a little baby to love with the chiselled jawed love of my life, but sometimes life gives you shallower compensations and at least I was down to my perfect weight.” This might sound like a superficial line, one which equates thinness with happiness, but if you look at it a little more deeply, it’s actually pretty moving. We find Bridget different, surely, but she isn’t a character who is caught up in some kind of stasis, she isn’t pining for love, or motherhood, or our cultural assumption of 40-something womanhood. For the first time, in perhaps all three movies, she is taking enjoyment in her body; we are told immediately that she has confidence, that she has control, that she has found a way to augmented her dreams for herself into a new life. It’s a neat way of explaining Bridget’s weight loss, or the loss of what Gleiberman refers to as her “slightly slovenly doughy-cuddly” appearance, but it also positions her as somebody different; no more or less worthy of audience’s time and affection. It is an adjustment but the script writers, including Emma Thompson and Helen Fielding, don’t lose sight of what makes the character one onto whom so many people have hung their emotional hat. She is wiser, dumber, braver, more scared, kinder, more selfish, more complex, shallower and more invested in her happiness than ever before; in short, she is a person – her face is not a topic of narrative discussion. If the movie is about anything, and I think it is about a lot, it is about one woman’s attempts to move on from an unworkable past in order to make it a good present and a fulfilling future. Quite what Renee Zellweger’s appearance has to do with that, is anybody’s guess.
In his review of Bridget Jones’s Baby, the critic Roger Moore writes “Zellweger shows flashes of her Oscar winning talent and is certainly not past her sell-by date, even if she’s tampered entirely too much with the packaging.” Surely any reader has to ask themselves, what exactly does that sentence add to the conversation? What is it even saying? What it really means is “Zellweger is very good in the role that garnered her an Oscar nomination and legions of fans around the world – but I want to take a dig at her appearance.” Instead of investigating the ways in which the film negotiates the interior life of a woman facing an enormous life change, the media consistently turned the spotlight onto Zellweger’s appearance, which is, it seems to me, a much more boring and less significant discussion. Part of the inherent, and enduring, appeal of Bridget Jones, as a character and as a franchise, is its willingness to reflect the fears, desires and aspirations of the generations of cinemagoers who saw themselves in her. The romantic comedy genre often gets a bad rap, but like the equally critically lambasted horror genre, it is a neat and important barometer of the cultural zeitgeist, and one which is, arguably, uniquely attuned to the thoughts and feelings of women. By changing the parameters of the conversation from “what does it mean to be Bridget Jones in 2016?” to “what does Bridget Jones look like in 2016?” internet trolls, journalists and critics did the movie, and the people who are interested in it, an enormous disservice.
Vulture recently published an article asking why the romantic comedy has largely been on the wane, and it threw up some interesting questions that are not easily answered. Perhaps the genre, which is largely aspirational, doesn’t have a place in the post-recession landscape. Our ideas of gender may be so different now that what has always been the rubric of the rom-com is not relevant, or maybe audience’s idea of a happy ending is at odds with those that the genre is selling. But, a largely ignored, aspect of it has to be the idea that some of our greatest actresses, those who understand the rhythm, the beats and the sheer warmth of the genre have been so harassed that they no longer feel they are able to fulfil the role. Meg Ryan, perhaps the queen of the rom-com, recently directed, produced and starred in a wartime movie called Ithaca; a movie which is absolutely not contingent on her looks, in fact, she deliberately places herself as a woman glued to the past and unable to take pleasure in her life. Her attempts to advertise the film have been swamped with people criticising her face; in print, online and as perpetual click-bait even when she is playing someone who is not the site of romantic or sexual interest. Sarah Jessica Parker’s imdb page, a place, apparently, for lovers of film currently has four thread entitled “horse?”, “she is just frighteningly ugly”, “how did an ugly and talentless actress like her become famous?” and “she looks so much better without heavy eye makeup” as its main topics. I don’t quite understand what the difference between that and playground bullying is – do we feel that they belong to us because, especially in the case of these three actresses, they have played characters that are so deeply embedded in our cinematic history? Bridget Jones, Sally Albright and Carrie Bradshaw are ours in a strange way that only the rom-com protagonist can be, but that doesn’t give us carte-blanche to chastise them for looking different, or better, or worse, or fatter, or thinner.
Gleiberman ends his article by arguing that Zellweger’s performance is “less vivid, less distinctive, less there” because of how her appearance had changed, 12 years, since The Edge of Reason. Unfortunately, it seems the way we write about woman hasn’t. I am happy to tell you that when I left the cinema after the opening night of Bridget Jones’s Baby, I thought about how nice it was to see the trials and tribulations of real, if admittedly outlandishly wealthy, people. I was thankful that they had written a script that took the issues of one woman seriously. I thought about how great it was to see people that weren’t twenty in a mainstream picture. If the woman next to me is any indication, who laughed so loudly that I had to move away from her, then Zellweger is still a cross between Lucille Ball and Meg Ryan; the loose limbed life and soul of the party and the romantic firecracker. Getting older is a journey that we all get to embark on, if we are lucky, and it is frightening, funny, sad and meaningful. The face you see in the mirror is not the one that was there 5 years ago, nor the one that will be there 5 years in the future. In Bridget and Mark, we have people who represent that and negotiate with it. To Glieberman I would argue that the newest version is more – more vivid, more distinctive, more there. During Mark Darcy’s declaration of perhaps-love in the original, the scene goes a little like this: Bridget “you seem to go out of your way to make me feel like a complete idiot every time I see you.. And you really needn’t bother. I already feel like an idiot most of the time, anyway.” To which Mark replies, and I am paraphrasing so forgive me, “the thing is, the thing I am trying to say, very inarticulately. Is… that, um, in fact, perhaps in spite of appearances, I like you, very much. Just as you are.” There is not caveat; there is no “I like you as long as you stay the same, frozen in time , unchanging.” Because a great part of seeing this film is seeing change. So when we write about people in future; let’s write about them just the way they are.