"Wow, I really am up here. Well hi, everybody, it's nice to see you. Y'all look pretty good, 17 years later. Thank you to the HFPA for inviting me back to the family reunion, especially with all these extraordinary ladies this year."
So Renée Zellweger began her Golden Globes acceptance speech last month, acknowledging right off the bat the fact that she's been away for what in Hollywood is considered a very, very long time.
On Sunday, as expected, she won the Oscar for Best Actress, finishing her clean sweep of all the top awards season prizes and punctuating what has been a remarkable return to the spotlight since descending from her perch at the top of the Hollywood food chain in order to focus on basically all other aspects of her life aside from acting.
It was an only-in-the-movies twist, really, that this one role propelled her right back to the mountaintop.
Judy has made about $24 million domestically and reviews of the film were actually mixed, but the one juggernaut of an opinion was that Zellweger gave an Oscar-worthy performance as doomed entertainer Judy Garland. She meticulously recreated Garland's signature gestures and inflections and did her own live singing, while a crackerjack hair and makeup team iced the bittersweet-nostalgia cake (and earned the film's other Oscar nomination for their efforts).
So, there was Zellweger, who took a six-year break from acting and made only four other films throughout the 2010s, accepting the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama. Then she won the Critics Choice Award, the SAG Award, the BAFTA Award and an Independent Spirit Award.
Then last night, at an Oscars ceremony where the acting categories were already in the bag but the surprise Best Picture win for Parasite and Best Director for Bong Joon Ho sent pleasant shock waves through the Dolby Theater and (most of) the Internet, Zellweger's phenomenal comeback was complete.
"Judy Garland did not receive this honor in her time," said the actress, whose previous win was for Best Supporting Actress for Cold Mountain in 2004. "I am certain that this moment is an extension of the celebration of her legacy that began on our film set. And is also representative of the fact that her legacy of unique exceptionalism and inclusivity and generosity of spirit, it transcends any one artistic achievement.
"Ms. Garland, you are certainly among the heroes who unite and define us and this is certainly for you. I am so grateful. Thank you so much."
Maybe at one point the native Texan and longtime L.A.-area resident, didn't see it in the cards for herself, but there are very few things Hollywood loves more than a comeback—and the movie business duly rewarded her devotion to craft above all else with its biggest prize.
Up until she needed to get out there and do press for Bridget Jones's Baby in 2016, Zellweger didn't have all that much to say about why she decided—after carving out a place on the America's sweetheart shelf, after winning an Oscar, after making a vat of money—to just stop.
But one could guess that her personal life—including a high-profile relationship with Jim Carrey and an annulled marriage to Kenny Chesney—had made one too many headlines for her taste; that the obsession above all else with her weight gain for Bridget Jones's Diary was disheartening; and then, once she'd been off the radar for a few years, the unfortunate commentary about how she seemed to look different from the Renée everyone knew from Jerry Maguire and Chicago had her re-retreating for the hills.
"Nothing like international humiliation to set your perspective right!" she quipped to Vulture in September, recalling the onslaught. "It clarifies what's important to you. And it shakes off any sort of clingy superficiality … that you didn't have time for anyway. One of the fears that maybe, as artists, we all share—because we have this public experience of being criticized not just for our work but as human beings—is when it gets to be too much, when you learn that your skin is not quite as thick as you need it to be, what is that gonna feel like?
"Well, now I know. I got the hardest kick. And it ain't the end."
Zellweger can rest assured she handled those kicks awfully gracefully at the time, too—even more so in hindsight, since she hadn't yet returned to the scene with a hit movie or a slew of award nominations.
"I'm glad folks think I look different," she told People after her appearance at the 2014 Elle Women in Hollywood Awards sparked some very surreal chatter about her appearance. "I'm living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows. My friends say that I look peaceful. I am healthy.
"For a long time I wasn't doing such a good job with that. I took on a schedule that is not realistically sustainable and didn't allow for taking care of myself. Rather than stopping to recalibrate, I kept running until I was depleted and made bad choices about how to conceal the exhaustion. I was aware of the chaos and finally chose different things."
She also wrote an op-ed for Huffington Post that October titled "We Can Do Better" that called out the tabloids' unhealthy, often malicious focus on women's appearances and stated, "Not that it's anyone's business, but I did not make a decision to alter my face and have surgery on my eyes. This fact is of no true import to anyone at all, but that the possibility alone was discussed among respected journalists and became a public conversation is a disconcerting illustration of news/entertainment confusion and society's fixation on physicality."
But rest assured, Zellweger told Vulture, "I had a good five-year period when I was joyful and in a new chapter that no one was even aware of."
By 2014 she was also tiptoeing back into her day job. She filmed the legal thriller The Whole Truth with Keanu Reeves that summer in Louisiana, but due to various delays and it just not being very good, it didn't come out until 2016—a month after Bridget Jones's Baby, hoping to ride the coattails of Zellweger's resurgence. Same went for the little seen drama Same Difference as Me, also shot in 2014 and not released until 2017.
"When I stopped making films, it was because it became more depleting than rewarding," she told American Way in 2016. "It was because of the way I was living my life, and I don't think you can be good in a creative medium if you aren't grateful for the opportunity to participate. I started to miss it and I felt ready."
And what was she doing all that time, besides not dealing with the daily grind?
Aside from focusing on family, friends and pets, Zellweger traveled all over, wrote a lot, was a producer on a TV series she created about teen girls coming of age in 1960s-era L.A. that didn't get picked up, and took some local college courses. The University of Texas, Austin, grad once had designs on getting a degree in journalism, but instead "finished up quickly with [her] lit degree, just to see where [acting] would go," Zellweger explained to The Guardian last year.
"I needed to take care of myself," she added. "It was more about being bored with myself, bored with my performances, and drawing on the same experiences, it just felt like regurgitated life, and I needed to collect some life experiences because the well was a bit dry. And I hadn't grown in any way for years… It's just redundancy. Because while the experiences were once-in-a-lifetime, dream-come-true blessings, there's not really room for anything else. And I needed to learn something else. I needed to grow as a person. To grow up a little bit. And I needed to physically take care of myself… But I didn't stop working, I still worked, just in a different capacity. I can't be idle."
So, Zellweger prioritized "slowing down and working on building a life for myself," she said in the December 2019 issue of InStyle. "Trying to not have a relationship when I'm leaving town every two weeks. You know, getting to know somebody. Falling in love. [I wanted] to learn new things, so I worked in a different capacity in this business. Tried to create some things, produce some things, studied a little bit. I studied public policy, international law. And I traveled a lot. I went to Liberia. I spent a lot of time with my family on the East Coast."
Acting obviously went somewhere, so it would be another two decades before she had the time to log more hours in a classroom.
"I was just interested in learning a little bit more about international policy, getting a little smarter about it all, to see if it was something I had an aptitude for away from the news on the television set," she told Vulture about the college experience. "It was fantastic."
She told E! News at what turned out to be the blockbuster Bridget Jones's Baby's premiere in 2016 that she didn't know yet what the future would bring. Rather, "I'm gonna take my time and see what happens."
Let's just say, Zellweger was nothing if not cautious in her approach to accepting any offer whatsoever. In 2017 she had a supporting role in the New York-set drama Here and Now with Sarah Jessica Parker, but that was another blinked-and-you-missed-it movie.
2017 proved to be a pivotal year all the same, though, because that's also when she was first given the Judy script by Tom Edge, adapted from Peter Quilter's play End of the Rainbow.
"At first, I didn't understand why they thought of me for it," she later told the New York Times.
Well, "they" knew what they were doing, and once Zellweger felt she could do the role justice, she signed on. Principal photography began in March 2018 in London.
And though it was a physically and emotionally demanding shoot, it did not sap the actress' energy. Rather, she moved right on to make the Netflix anthology series What/If, which premiered last year, ahead of Judy.
But when the Garland biopic did premiere... the movie (or, really, Renée) received a 15-minute standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, bringing the leading lady to tears.
In addition to the major awards, she was also named Best Actress by a slew of critics groups, and the Palm Springs International Film Festival honored her with the Desert Palm Achievement Award. All in all, a mightily warm welcome, a re-entry to this atmosphere that couldn't be going better for her.
"This has been a very greedy experience, dreams coming true all over the place," Zellweger told E! News at the Judy premiere in September.
She refused to think too much about the instant Oscar buzz or anything other than being proud of her film. And her dogs.
"I just come to see my friends, you know, 'cause they're all here, and it's a nice reunion, all these little stops that we make," she shared with us. "I think about that stuff, and in the meantime I've got to take care of my dogs, make sure they're sorted, have their shots and all kinds of things that need to happen every day, so I kind of think about that stuff more than anything else."
Her ideal day at home, she told InStyle, involved "[n]o alarm. About 16 cups of tea. Sitting outside in the morning with the two dogs."
"When you distract yourself from the center of the storm for a little while, you get a little perspective," she also said on the Judy red carpet, regarding her lengthy break from the spotlight. "And yeah, just kind of shifted my priorities a little bit, made some room for humanity in the mix."
Zellweger further explained to InStyle recently, "When you're not on the radar, people don't clock who you are; you're just a person at the coffee shop ordering a coffee. You have conversations that aren't about work. And when someone is having a bad day, it doesn't change. They just have a bad day with you, and it's a funny thing to appreciate, but I do. It's nice. It's real and not edited. We meet as human beings."
She has started her own production company, Big Picture Co., and she does have designs on what she would like to do next, telling InStyle she had a project in mind. "but it may take a little bit of audacity to get it moving. We'll see."
Somehow we feel that she's not going to have too much trouble achieving liftoff now.
Meanwhile, Zellweger could now make 10 more movies in quick succession and there's at least one thing that isn't going to change.
She is no more interested in talking about her personal life now than she was when no one was asking about it—and even if they wanted to, they wouldn't have been able to get a hold of her.
"It's not difficult at all," she told The Guardian. "You just don't talk about it, you don't post it… I know it's so boring when you're trying to talk to an actress and she's being all cryptic and whatever. But I like to keep it…" She mimed zipping her lip.
"I just do. It isn't easy to be an actor who disappears when you have no mystery...I think a little mystery never hurt a girl."
(Originally published Jan. 13, 2020, at 12:42 p.m. PT)