Renee Zellweger Tribute (American Riviera Award, 2020)

Reviewed by Kimberli Wong, Santa Barbara International Film Fesitval 2020

It feels strange to write a review about any person, but especially, in my opinion, about Renee Zellweger.

In fact, how does one write a review about an interview at all?  In some ways, I imagine this is what it would be like to be a journalist, to take a question and answer session, a candid conversation, then to digest it, and most importantly, represent it in an entertaining way, say, to the public.  There is a lot of room for interpretation in that delicate translation—and a lot of responsibility, if one takes their job seriously, as they should.

Which brings me to the evening of the American Riviera Award honoring Renee Zellweger.  Renee was so earnest, so genuine, so sincere, with the clear intention of speaking to everyone in the audience as normal, fellow human beings, that it seems counterintuitive to write anything about it.  She had a conversation with us, and that conversation was for two hours, and perhaps it should be left at that.

To do so would to keep private the enormous wisdom and reflection she imparted, which I found inspiring, refreshing, and moving.  Here is a woman who has repeatedly turned in some of the best performances of our time—in Jerry Maguire, Cold Mountain, Chicago, Bridget Jones’ Diary—and now, in Judy, for which she has won every award for and is most likely guaranteed the Oscar on Sunday.  And here is also a woman whose personal journey alongside that professional one was a bit rockier, a bit more up and down, a bit more painful.  Renee was honest about that, not as someone wanting to explain, but as someone who seemed not afraid to open up and share, as one does with a friend, or family member.  To see her do that with a crowd of hundreds left me enraptured.

It was fun to hear her reminisce about her early days in Austin, doing films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and avoiding carpooling to auditions with another soon to be star, Matthew McConaughay.  It seemed eerily serendipitous that she would meet her agent—who is still her agent today—shortly after moving to L.A. and who happened to be her neighbor across the street.  And it was really refreshing to hear her talk so humbly about her Jerry Maguire experience (“I’m going to have lunch with Tom Cruise,”  “Tom Cruise is waiting for me, how ridiculous is that?!”) and to hear her laugh.  Because for Renee, it was never about the celebrity, it was never about the recognition.  As she so powerfully and simply put, she “was never trying to get somewhere.”  Renee loved being on set, she loved the creative process and the collaboration with the crew, it was her “bliss.”  When Jerry Maguire did so well, she skipped the press tour and disappeared for two years doing a small show in New York, because she didn’t want her life to change.  It was about the work.

Her life did change, though, and in the end, work became the problem.  As Renee admitted, she doesn’t really remember her 30s, most of which were a blur traveling all over the world from set to set.  When one is granted “once in a lifetime opportunities” over and over again, how does one say no?  She realized it was taking a toll on her, mentally and physically, when she stopped feeling grateful, perhaps even resentful, of the work.  Then it was time to take a break.

Many are seeing Judy as a comeback performance of sorts, but as I see it, Renee never lost anything.  She has always been an actress, and an artist, more than anything, and you don’t lose what is inside of you.  Blockbusters come and go, celebrity comes and goes, fame is fleeting, but for those that are truly great, it is about the work.  And, as Renee seemed to express, while I won’t presume to surmise her lessons for her, it is also about the life.

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