What the Hell Happened to Renee Zellweger?
Renee Zellweger has won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she was nominated twice for Best Actress and she has won three Golden Globes. For roughly a decade, she topped the A-list with both critical acclaim and commercial success. But she has been missing from the big screen for the last several years.
What the hell happened?
Zellweger started acting in TV movies like A Taste for Killing in 1992 and the mini-series Murder in the Heartland in 1993. She had uncredited roles in the zombie rom-com, My Boyfriend’s Back and the 70′s high school comedy, Dazed and Confused (pictured above) in 1993.
In 1994, Zellweger appeared in Reality Bites as one of Ethan Hawke’s girl friends. The picture above is pretty much the sum total of her part. She gives the slacker heart-throb a kiss on the porch and is never seen or heard from again. She was little more than an extra, but it was her first credited role in a Hollywood movie.
One week after the wide release of Reality Bites, Zellweger had a slightly larger role in Luke Perry’s bull-riding bio-pic, 8 Seconds. The film was Perry last grasp at transitioning from TV star to the big screen. Despite mostly negative reviews it was a small hit at the box office in relation to its modest budget.
Later that year, Zellweger starred in the Showtime movie, Shake Rattle and Roll. SR&R was part of a series of remakes of 1950′s B-movies that Showtime produced under the title Rebel Highway. The idea was to give drive-in movies a “90′s edge”. Series creator, Samuel Z. Arkoff wondered “what it would be like if you made Rebel Without a Cause today. It would be more lurid, sexier, and much more dangerous, and you definitely would have had Natalie Wood’s top off”.
The clip above includes footage from several of Zellweger’s movies from 1994 set to a song from Shake Rattle and Roll.
Just about every successful actress in Hollywood has a horror film in their early days they wish they could make go away. For Zellweger, that film is The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The low-budget sequel starred Texas natives Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey who were both unknowns at the time. Zellweger played the girl in peril and McConaughey went way, way, way over-the-top as the next generation cannibal who terrorizes her.
In spite of the presence of two future stars, The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre was terrible even by the standards of a low-budget horror sequel. It got dumped in a few theaters in 1994 and was screen at the South by South-west Film and Media Conference in 1995.
In 1997, when Zellweger and McConaughey were both rising stars, it was re-edited and released under the title Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. McConaughey actively campaigned to prevent the film from getting a wide release. And with good reason. His performance is laughable.
Reviews were almost unanimously negative. McConaughey successfully blocked the film from getting a wide release. It opened in just 20 cities in 1997 before being dumped to video.
Zellweger’s final film of the year was the independent crime drama, Love and a .45. She and Gil Bellows played a young couple on a Bonnie and Clyde-style crime spree. Zellweger was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance.
In 1995, Zellweger appeared opposite Liv Tyler, Anthony LaPaglia, Robin Tunney and Ethan Embry in Empire Records.
Empire Records follows a day in the life of the employees at an independent record store. It’s sort of like Clerks with a bigger budget and fewer Star Wars references. Zellweger played Tyler’s best friend who seduces a fading pop star played by Maxwell Caulfield (of Grease 2 infamy).
When it was released, Empire Records got mostly negative reviews and bombed at the box office. But it has developed a cult following on video.
In 1996, Zellweger starred opposite Vincent D’Onofrio in the romantic drama, The Whole Wide World.
D’Onofrio played pulp writer and Conan creator, Robert E. Howard. Zellweger played school teacher, Novalyne Price Ellis who formed a relationship with Howard and later wrote two books about her relationship with the author.
Originally, the role of Ellis was to have been played by Olivia d’Abo who appeared in the Conan sequel, Conan the Destroyer. But when d’Abo dropped out due to pregnancy, Zellweger was cast.
Zellweger used a tape of The Whole Wide World to convince her future Jerry Maguire director, Cameron Crowe, that she could convincingly play a 20-something woman. She was once again nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Later that year, Zellweger starred opposite Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Cameron Crowe’s romantic dramedy, Jerry Maguire.
Cruise played a sports agent who leaves his job after suffering a crisis of conscience. Zellweger played the single mom who follows him when he leaves. Together, they attempt to start their own agency and a romantic relationship.
Originally, Crowe wrote the script with Tom Hanks and Winona Ryder in mind. When Hanks was unable to commit to the project, Cruise was cast. Ryder did screen tests with Cruise, but Crowe said they “looked like brother and sister”.
Several other actresses including Parker Posey, Mira Sorvino, Cameron Diaz and Courtney Love were considered for the role of Dorothy Boyd before Zellweger was cast. Jennifer Lopez was offered the role, but turned it down on the advice of her agent.
Jerry Maguire wasn’t just a hit. It became a cultural phenomenon. Even today, the catch-phrases “Show me the money” and “You complete me” are over-used. It received several awards nominations although Zellweger was shut out of the major awards.
In 1997, Zellweger appeared opposite Tim Roth in the murder mystery, Deceiver. Roth played a rich man accused of cutting a prostitute in half. Zellweger played both halves of the prostitute.
In 1998, Zellweger starred opposite Christopher Eccleston in A Price Above Rubies.
Zellweger played a young mother in a Hasidic community. When she feels ignored by her husband through an arranged marriage, she starts a relationship with her brother-in-law.
The movie got mixed reviews, though many singled out Zellweger for praise. It was not a hit at the box office.
Later that year, Zellweger appeared opposite Meryl Streep and William Hurt in the drama, One True Thing.
Zellweger played a writer who puts her busy life on hold to care for her ailing mother played by Streep. Although the movie was not a hit at the box office, it received mostly favorable reviews.
Zellweger had followed up her break-out hit with three well-reviewed art house dramas. Her mainstream movie career was in danger of cooling off. She needed a mainstream Hollywood hit.
In 1999, Zellweger starred opposite Chris O’Donnell in the romantic comedy, The Bachelor.
The Bachelor was a remake of the Buster Keaton movie, Seven Chances. The premise is kind of like Brewster’s Millions except instead of having to spend lots of money, O’Donnell’s character needs to get married in 24 hours. Zellweger plays O’Donnell’s girl friend who turns down his hasty proposal.
The movie featured a scene in which hundreds of would-be brides chase O’Donnell through the streets for a chance to marry him. The visual gag was included in the commercial and the poster. As a result, the movie came under fire for its out-dated gender stereotypes.
It got mostly bad reviews and bombed at the box office.
In 2000, Zellweger starred opposite Jim Carrey in the Farrelly brothers’ comedy, Me, Myself and Irene.
Carrey played a state tropper tasked with escorting a young woman to New York where she will face charges of hit-and-run. Carrey’s character suffers a psychotic breakdown which results in a split personality. Zellweger played the young woman, Irene.
The movie received mixed reviews. Although it was a hit at the box office, it was a disappointment given Carrey’s track record at the time. It also began a slide for the Farrelly brothers who peaked with There’s Something About Mary in 1998.
Zellweger and Carrey became romantically involved off-screen as well. At one point, the couple was engaged but the engagement was broken off.
Later that year, Zellweger starred opposite Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock and Greg Kinnear in Neil LaBute’s off-beat comedy, Nurse Betty.
Zellweger played a waitress who suffers a nervous breakdown after witnessing her husband’s murder at the hands of hitmen played by Freeman and Rock. Betty becomes obsessed with her favorite soap star played by Kinnear.
The movie is a strange mix of comedy and violent drama. Reviews were mostly positive, but audiences weren’t quite sure what to make of the film. Despite the modest box office performance, Zellweger won her first Golden Globe for Best Actress.
In 2001, Zellweger starred opposite Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in the romantic comedy, Bridget Jones’s Diary.
The movie was based on Helen Fielding’s novel of the same name. When fans of the novel heard that a skinny American had been cast as their beloved Bridget Jones, they revolted.
To prepare for the role, Zellweger put on 25 pounds and took a job at a British publishing company for a month. She worked under an alias and used her British accent. Although she was not recognized by her co-workers, some thought it was strange that she had a picture of her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey on her desk.
In order to maintain her accent, Zellweger used it throughout filming. Grant later claimed he never heard her real speaking voice until the wrap party.
Bridget Jones’ Diary received mostly positive reviews and was a big hit at the box office. Zellweger was nominated for several awards including her first Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe nomination.
In 2002, Zellweger starred opposite Michelle Pfeiffer and Alison Lohman in the melodrama, White Oleander.
White Oleander was based on a novel by Janet Fitch. The novel was selected as one of Oprah’s favorite books. If I am not mistaken, all of these books were eventually adopted into star-studded movies that ultimately failed at the box office.
Zellweger played a former actress who takes in an orphan played by Lohman. I have never actually sat through the movie myself. But when I read about Zellweger’s character’s fate on wikipedia, I laughed out loud. I may have to track this movie down. Although friend of the blog and avid Pfieffer fan Paul (of Pfeiffer Pfilms and Meg Movies) has warned me away from the film.
Reviews were mixed and the movie disappointed at the box office.
Later that year, Zellweger starred opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere in the Broadwat musical adaptation, Chicago.
Zellweger played Roxie Hart, a would-be singer who goes to prison for killing her boyfriend. Zeta-Jones played Velma Kelly, one half of a sister act who killed her sister after discovering she was having an affair with her husband. Gere played their lawyer.
Several attempts were made to adapt Chicago to the big screen. As a result, numerous actresses were attached to both of the lead roles over the years. Most recently, Charlize Theron had been cast as Roxie. But when Rob Marshall took over as director, he replaced Theron with Zellweger.
Chicago received mostly positive reviews and was a huge hit at the box office. Zellweger and Zeta-Jones were both nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, but not in the same categories. Zeta-Jones won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Zellweger won the Golden Globe for Best Actress.
In 2003, Zellweger starred opposite Ewan McGregor in the 60′s romantic comedy, Down with Love.
Zellweger and McGregor played writers who engage in a battle of the sexes in an homage to the comedies of the early 60s. Our own Daffystardust recently named Down With Love as the Best Comedy of 2003. He describes the film as “Mad Men as a frothy romantic comedy.”
Personally, I was less enthusiastic. I really wanted to like Down With Love, but eventually I grew tired of the conceit. I think you have to be a really big fan of Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies to appreciate it and I’m not there.
Critics overall were equally mixed. The box office was disappointing.
Law played a deserter from the Confederate army trying to return to the woman he left behind. Kidman played the Southern belle of his dreams whose life falls to ruins during the war. Zellweger played a simple farm girl who came to Kidman’s aid while Law was off fighting in the war.
Cold Mountain received mostly positive reviews and was a hit at the box office. It was nominated for more than seventy awards including seven Academy Award nominations. Zellweger won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
It’s probably worth noting that this is where Zellweger peaks. It’s downhill from here.
In 2004, Zellweger did voice work for Dreamworks Animation’s Shark Tale. Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Jack Black, Martin Scorsese and Angelina Jolie also provided voices for the film. Despite mixed reviews, Shark Tale was a hit at the box office.
Later that year, Zellweger returned to the role of Bridget Jones in the sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
The sequel reunited Zellweger with Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. And it is a perfect example of why comedy sequels rarely work. The first film was a delicate mix of comedy and romance. The sequel the slapstick comedy is pushed to the edge of reason. The result is a disappointing mess.
The reviews were mostly negative. But fans of the first film made the sequel a hit at the box office. Amazingly, Zellweger was nominated for another Golden Globe.
A third film in the series is planned.
In 2005, Zellweger starred opposite Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s boxing biopic, Cinderella Man.
Crowe played heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock who was called “Cinderella Man” based on his status as an underdog. Zellweger played his wife, Mae.
Cinderella Man looked like a sure-fire hit. Crowe, Zellweger and Howard were all proven box office draws. The film was also expected to be Oscar bait. Instead, the movie was a disappointment at the box office in spite of mostly positive reviews.
Theater chains AMC and Cinemark eventually offered money back guarantees to audiences to try to entice them to give Cinderella Man a try. While this strategy helped to moderately raise the box office, the movie still fell short of its production costs.
In May of 2005, Zellweger married country music singer, Kenny Chesney. Four months later, the couple announced their plans to annul the marriage. In the paperwork, Zellweger cited “fraud” as the reason for the annulment. This set off a media circus with rumors that Chesney was gay. Later, Zellweger clarified that the term was “simply legal language and not a reflection of Kenny’s character.”
In 2006, Zellweger starred opposite her Down With Love co-star, Ewan McGregor, in Miss Potter.
Zellweger played children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit. Originally, the script was developed for Cate Blanchett. But when Blanchett dropped out, Zellweger came on board and became an executive producer. She recruited McGregor with whom she had stayed in contact since Down With Love.
The film got mixed reviews and did so-so box office.
In 2007, Zellweger returned to voice work in Jerry Seinfeld’s animated feature, Bee Movie. Like Shark Tale, the movie got mixed reviews but made a lot of money.
In 2008, Zellewger starred opposite George Clooney and John Krasinski in the 1920′s football comedy, Leatherheads.
Clooney directed as well as starred as an aging football player looking to revitalize his team, the Duluth Bulldogs. To that end, he recruits a war hero played by Krasinski. Zellweger played a reporter looking to expose Krasinski as a fraud. Both men romance her in the screwball comedy tradition.
There is a lot that works in Leatherheads. Clooney and Zellweger are at their best when sparring verbally. But the tone of the movie is horribly uneven. The screwball comedy keeps getting interrupted by an investigation into Krasinski’s war record and a clichéd sports movie.
Leatherheads got mixed reviews and was a disappointment at the box office.
Later that year, Zellweger appeared in Ed Harris’ Western, Appaloosa. Harris wrote, directed and starred in the film which co-starred Zellweger, Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons.
Originally, Diane Lane was cast in Zellweger’s role. But New Line put production on hold over worries that a Western would not be successful at the box office. Production resumed following the success of Deadwood on HBO and the film 3:10 to Yuma. During the halt, Lane departed and was replaced by Zellweger.
The film got mixed to positive reviews. But it turns out the studio was right to worry about its box office prospects. It flopped.
In 2009, Zellweger starred opposite Harry Connick Jr. in the romantic comedy, New in Town. Zellweger played an arrogant city slicker who learns a little about humanity when she relocates to a small town. Reviews were overwhelmingly negative and the movie bombed at the box office.
Later that year, Zellweger starred in My One and Only which was loosely based on stories George Hamilton told about his early life on the road with his mother and brother. Although the film got mostly positive reviews, it received a limited release at the box office.
Around this time, Zellweger returned to horror in Case 39.
Zellweger played a social worker who takes custody over one of her cases, a girl named Lilith. As if that name wasn’t enough of a clue, it turns out the child may or may not be a demon. Bradley Cooper (whom Zellweger was dating) and Ian McShane show up long enough to be victims of the scary kid.
I actually sat through Case 39 for this article and let me tell you it is bad. It was originally scheduled for release in February 2008 and was pushed back four times before finally being dumped in theaters October 2010. Reviews were bad and the movie tanked in the US.
In 2010, Zellweger starred opposite Forest Whitaker in the drama My Own Love Song. Zellweger played a paralyzed former singer who goes on a road trip with her stuttering friend played by Whitaker. Reviews were mostly negative and the film failed to get a theatrical release in the US.
So, what the hell happened?
Zellweger had a pretty incredible run from 1996-2003. In seven years, she had several hits, an Oscar and three Golden Globes. But to a large extent, I think Zellweger got lucky. She got the right roles at the right time.
Often times, I think her movies were more popular than she was. For example, I don’t think all that many people went to see Bridget Jones or Chicago because Zellweger starred in them.
After Cold Mountain, that luck started to run out. The Bridget Jones sequel was a hit, but nowhere near as beloved as the first film. Cinderella Man and Leatherheads which looked like hits on paper, both turned out to be disappointments.
Once the big box office and accolades stopped rolling in, Zellweger backed away from her career. If Bridget Jones 3 is actually released in 2014 as expected, it will end a 4-year absence from the screen for Zellweger.
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Posted on February 23, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened? and tagged bridget jones, chicago, cold mountain, empire records, entertainment, jerry maguire, movies, renee zellweger. Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.