Rene Zellweger: there is so much more to her than Bridget Jones | Observer profile

After a six-year absence, the actress returns to our screens this month as cinemas highest profile singleton. But dont mistake the much-analysed star for the character she plays

When a barefoot Rene Zellweger was photographed in 2005 on a Caribbean beach, marrying the country singer Kenny Chesney, reaction in Britains popular media was straightforward.

Chesney, said the Mirror, was saving the film star from becoming a real-life Bridget Jones. It was just a flip line, but it deliberately missed the whole point not simply of Helen Fieldings resplendently resilient comic creation, but also of Zellwegers own wildly successful life, as she pursued her lucrative and acclaimed career in the Hollywood Hills. That point: she really did not need saving.

Zellweger, who is Texas-born but has since been almost adopted by Britain after portraying Jones on screen with such gusto and with such a good English accent, has endlessly been compared with the hapless singleton she played in two hit films in 2001 and 2004.

Even Vogue, commenting this summer on the swift annulment of her marriage to Chesney and also on her split, five years ago, from actor Bradley Cooper, judged: One gets the sense that, like Bridget, Rene may have had her fair share of Saturday nights in front of the television. And it makes her all the more lovable.

When an actor inhabits a part as well as Zellweger has, she cannot avoid being closely identified with it. Yet in truth, the only thing this fictional character seems to share with the woman who plays her is that public responses to both function like a monitor of our changing attitudes to lone women. The plots of the previous films, in which the gaffe-prone Bridget stumbles towards love and marriage with her ideal man, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), have also been combed over for clues as to where modern heterosexual relationships may be heading.

Now, 12 years later, Bridget and Rene are back, in a third film, Bridget Joness Baby, released on 16 September, and the fate of this fictional heroine, born to a witty columnist in the Independent in the 1990s, is being weighed once again against the social values of our times.

Fieldings Jones is lucky to be played by a performer as skilled and subtle as Zellweger, thinks Beeban Kidron, who directed the second film in the series, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Rene is not only a great comedienne but also a heartbreakingly touching actress. Which is why she is able to channel Bridget with all the impossible contradictions that she holds contradictions that women all over the world identify with.


figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> Watch the trailer for Bridget Joness Baby.

Zellwegers real love life, rather like Jennifer Anistons, is still repeatedly targeted for analysis. Perhaps because they are both famous for playing friendly, approachable women, their relationship histories are cheerfully decoded by strangers, despite the ample supply of alternative single/divorced celebrities in the film business.

In any case, since it is central to the Jones narrative, Zellweger handles all personal inquiries gamely and honestly. Im not single, Im busy. Thats my line, she was wont to reply when asked about her prospects of settling down. This summer, reportedly now happily dating an old Texan pal and musician, Doyle Bramhall II, she opened up once again, admitting to wondering at the maths of her parents long and happy union, in a way common to many other women of her generation.

Theyve been married 52 years! she said. Even if Id have got married 10 years ago, it couldnt happen.

Zellwegers return to the role of Jones will be her first screen appearance since 2010 and she clearly feels warmly about the character, gaining a few pounds to fill Joness boots again. Bridget is a perfectly normal weight and Ive never understood why it matters so much, she has said. No male actor would get such scrutiny if he did the same thing for a role.

Two years ago, Zellwegers face also came under intense scrutiny when she emerged from a period away from the celebrity merry-go-round. A suggestion that she had let surgeons ease her passage into her late 40s was kicked about between columnists and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic, although Zellweger denied it.

Film stars often endure this kind of invasive, intimate inspection because their faces are the tools of their craft, but it is a study that borders on the tasteless, as well as speaking of the collective western neurosis about the ageing process.

Born in the town of Katy in 1969, Zellweger was, she has said, an unadventurous child who had to wait until university in Austin to discover her love of performance. Her father, Emil, is Swiss andworked as an engineer in Britain for a while, living in Ealing, west London. Her mother, Kjellfrid, is from Norway, but she also spent time in England, working in Surrey as a governess and cook. The couple met ona ship sailing from Denmark toNorway. She was with friends and he saw her going into dinner and asked her to have dinner with him. It was a shipboard romance, Zellweger has said.

The teenage Zellweger loved music and she and her brother would listen to records by Abba or the Rolling Stones that their older cousins in Norway brought over for them. As her acting career burgeoned, so did her love of music and, as an example of cause and effect, she became close enough to Jack White, lead singer of the White Stripes, to consider marriage. But independence was important to the young Zellweger, who has spoken of wanting to travel and have her eyes opened.

I wanted to be consistently challenged and I knew I needed to be creative in some way, she said.

Early walk-on screen roles, including one in Dazed and Confused, finally led to a big break when director Cameron Crowe cast the then 26-year-old opposite Tom Cruise in the 1996 hit Jerry Maguire.

It is a film now known chiefly for two phrases still in popular use: Cruises Show me the money! and Zellwegers sweet You had me at hello. The charisma of this relatively unknown actress shone through the dubious sexual politics of the plot.

Acclaimed roles followed in quick succession, playing opposite Jim Carrey in the quirky Me, Myself & Irene (2000) and in Nurse Betty in the same year. She won a supporting role Oscar for Cold Mountainin 2003 and countless nominations and awards for Chicago. In Britain, she also won plaudits for her characterisation of Beatrix Potter in the 2006 biopic.

Since then, she has tried writing and directing, but has also deliberately dipped out in order to live like a normal non-VIP.

I dont think that, as a creative person, you have that much to contribute when your life experiences are limited to those you have while youre emulating someone else, she explains.

The third Jones film, co-written by Emma Thompson, Helen Fielding and Dan Mazer, has been mooted since 2009 and when it was finally time to get on set again in front of director Sharon Maguire, who made the original film, Zellweger prepared by spending time with the production crew on ITVs breakfast show, Good Morning Britain. Todays Bridget is supposed to be working in television news, although the actress said the stint with ITV also really helped restore her English accent.

Last month, a reminder of the old nastiness about Zellwegers face rearedits head in reactions to the release of the new films trailer. A few male film critics who have mourned the passing of the actress they recognise have been royally flamed online by feminists, fans and assorted outraged defenders.

Optimistically, we might hope that Zellweger has just had to shoulder the burden of being part of some sort of group consciousness shift. Perhaps wider society is having a final feeding frenzy, before slowly moving on, with a sense of shared retrospective guilt, from its obsession with the changing nature of a womans face.

As some actresses also begin to rebel against the pressure to field questions about their dresses on the red carpet and are even refusing to wear high heels at Cannes, maybe things are beginning to change.

Born Rene Kathleen Zellweger, 25 April 1969, in Katy, Texas, to Swiss father, Emil, and Norwegian mother, Kjellfrid. She studied English at the University of Texas at Austin.

Best of times She says her dreams came true when she got a job in a bar and lived independently, but her big film break was Jerry Maguire in 1996. She also won an Oscar for Cold Mountain.

Worst of times A difficult and consuming early relationship with co-star Jim Carrey. An 82-day troubled marriage to singer Kenny Chesney.

What they say I saw in Rene a gift few people have that she was able to straddle comedy and emotion. Sharon Maguire, director of Bridget Joness Diary and Bridget Joness Baby on deciding to cast Zellweger.

What she says Making films is an insular experience, then you pop out and talk about it because thats part of your responsibility, fly somewhere for 12 hours, put on your dress to teeter down a red carpet, before getting back on a plane a couple of hours later to learn your lines andget up and start shooting again at 4am. When you do a few projects a year, that spills over on itself; it becomes a cycle.

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