This is a story of a film critic, the internet and Renee Zellweger’s face. Or probably her eyes, to be exact. The internet is currently brewing a storm that will eventually form into a mob to go after Owen Gleiberman who wrote said piece, I’m bracing myself for the “Owen Gleiberman is a sexist” think pieces coming soon to a website near you. But I really hope this is a conversation we can have without resorting to a hivemind stoning. As a fan and reader of his for almost 20 years I think I can say with some certainty: he is not a sexist. He is making an observation that he is far from alone in making. He’s making an observation that hoards of women have made in far less polite ways. Still, the internet is right for getting angry and defending Zellweger from an even bigger and even worse stoning. Your tl;dr here is that we should stop getting angry at women for doing what they feel they have to do to keep working, or doing what they want to do to feel better about themselves.
We enter a contract with our celebrities and their faces, in a way, because we see them up close in ways we usually only view lovers and children. When something happens to that face, usually their career dips or completely goes under. Think Montgomery Clift and Mark Hamill after their car accidents. If an actress or actor gains a lot of weight and it changes their face and it’s not done purposefully for the role, we simply do not forgive them.
But there is something worse going on with plastic surgery and women in America specifically. Women here are forced to have plastic surgery or they will not get work, period. This is not true, thankfully, in the UK, which is why we often must rely on British actresses to show up with their real, aging faces. But look at the actresses who don’t go under the knife and then suffer through competing with so many other out of work older actresses. I think of Daphne Zuniga. I think of Helen Hunt before she finally did the botox. I think of Annette Bening — beautiful Annette Bening — and Diane Keaton, both of whom have refused to alter their faces. Some of them work and some of them don’t. We praise those like Meryl Streep and Judi Dench who have been blessed with the kind of bone structure that can withstand age, but most still whisper about those who start to look very very old, just as they do when someone has gone under the knife or injected something somewhere. We humans see this as an act of vanity and therefore not tolerated, all the while ignoring other body-altering procedures like tattoos, working out at the gym, wearing bras, heels, or makeup.
I think Gleiberman was lamenting the loss of Zellweger’s face that he had come to love, but I also think that if we’re all contributing the fucked up film culture that doesn’t allow women to age, we have to then forgive women for doing everything they can to still work in that same film culture. It isn’t so easy for Renee Zellweger appearing in the third film of a franchise that began 15 years ago, who is competing with franchise actresses half her age. As Jack Nicholson says in Terms of Endearment: “Everybody uses whatever they have.” The alternative for Zellweger is to do what Meg Ryan has been forced to do — mostly stay out of sight because who needs the grief? We are the ones who need to get over it.
The critics who have objected to Gleiberman’s piece are right in that he doesn’t have, nor do any of us have, the right to judge Zellweger, or to hold this against her. Whether she felt pressured into it or whether it was her own choice — the fact is, she has a right to do with her face whatever she wants — we have the right to look at it, to like it, or not.
But people are wrong, I think, to try to shut down the conversation if it’s a conversation that is happening anyway. The truth of it is that people are looking at Zellweger and they are talking about her, and that includes plenty of women back in 2014 when the story and photos first broke. Should film critics be able to talk about things other people are talking about? Or are they supposed to be the good girls/guys who write about what should be, rather than what is?
Where Gleiberman went off course, I’d say, is in feeling Zellweger let him down as a fan of Bridget Jones. She doesn’t look like Bridget Jones, well that’s because we all look differently as we get older, whether we alter our faces or not. There is no point in taking it personally. Youth is like nature’s wet kiss but it’s not meant to last. We can’t stay young forever. We all heard the gasps at Kim Novak’s appearance at the Oscars in 2014 because we have a picture in our minds of what she should look like. If she looked old we would just wilt, heartbroken at life’s inevitable trajectory. If she tries to make herself look younger, we seem to see that as an invitation to shame her for her vanity.
The bottom line is this: until we can fix our fucked up sense of needing our stars to remain young and beautiful forever, until we can offer as many roles to women over a certain age as we do to those in their prime, until we stop the eternal massaging of the 13-year-old male ego, we must forgive Renee Zellweger for doing what she thought was right. And while we’re at it, let’s forgive Jennifer Grey for her nose-job and for all of the boob jobs that have come and gone in the decades since. It really isn’t our job to tell women — or anyone for that matter — what they should be doing with their own faces and bodies.
If you want to help women, especially older women, buy a ticket to their movies because in Hollywood it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that k’ching. Write think pieces until the cows come home but buy a ticket to that movie.