The Truth About Beauty

On Renée Zellweger and how we assess beauty in art.

Last week, Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman published an account of his reaction to a trailer for Bridget Jones’ Baby. Titled “Renee Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Is She The Same Actress?” in a manner suggesting a far more existential (to say nothing of mean-spirited) rumination than that found in the text, the piece is nonetheless not entirely separate from the gratuitously abrasive title. (The question it poses is not only offensive but cancels itself out of existence: Renee Zellweger, being Renee Zellweger, looks however Renee Zellweger happens to look at that moment, and being herself she is by definition the same actress.)

The most curious aspect to Gleiberman’s piece is that the very thing that inspired all this fuss is not apparent upon watching the trailer: Renee Zellweger looks like . . . Renee Zellweger. It’s been fifteen years since the first Bridget Jones movie. People – and I do hope you’re all sitting down while reading this, and have swallowed whatever beverages you might be consuming as to not do a spit take at this revelation – age.

I don’t want to spend this entire piece beating up on Owen Gleiberman, despite the weird recurring shots at Zellweger’s appearance (“slovenly doughy” is a very weird pair of words to precede “cuddly perfection” no matter how benignly one perceives one’s intent), because the fault here is not with any one individual, but in the codification of the relationship between audience and actor in society as a whole. Decades of tabloid media have given the discourse a kind of cocaine hangover cynicism about the proper way to engage with entertainers, where it’s perfectly acceptable to say horrible things about celebrities, who are perceived as designed, heightened simulacra of human beings, rather than human beings themselves. People whose jobs do not concern their physical appearance look upon people whose jobs do and are baffled by the regularity of eating disorders, drug addiction, and plastic surgery, whose prevalence spring directly from the stress of one’s physical appearance being a consumer commodity. And so idle talk that so-and-so has “had work done” and doesn’t “look like herself” – since it’s almost always a woman – isn’t just harmless chatter. It can end careers, or even lives.

Arts criticism is the contemplation of beauty, which would seem to complicate this issue, but only if performers are objectified and assessed solely as visual elements within a given work, rather than as human beings playing a role. What this means is that it’s perfectly acceptable to have opinions about whether or not a performer is attractive or unattractive, there’s a point past which factoring that opinion into one’s criticism is irrelevant to anyone other than the author. If, say, Bowen Bieberton – since we’re not picking on any one individual, let’s use this completely random name as an example – thinks that Renee Zellweger is not attractive anymore and thus ruins the unifying aesthetic of Bridget Jones Part 12 or whatever this is, that’s an assessment that can be nullified instantaneously by someone else – let’s call this random person Banny Dowes – who, sloshing their figurative martini in a state of addled argumentative dudgeon, insists “No! She looks fine! Better than ever! Every bit as effervescently Zellwegerian as always!” There’s no way to resolve this dispute, because it’s not a critical assessment, and is not grounded in craft, but in pure, ultimately indefensible, opinion.

I would suggest – since this is not an area in which one can command, however much I would like to – that the discussion of performers’ looks adhere to the principle of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Attraction is an ineffable, personal thing. Attempts at wisdom, like declarations that “all men” like this, or “all women” like that, are worthless. So, too, is context-free carrying-on about someone who flips your switch, or someone who doesn’t. What is in bounds, I would submit, is a particular moment (using film as the example here, since this is where this distinction is most relevant) when all the elements of both cinematography and the physical universe at large conspire to create moments of singular beauty. A particular shot in a film, or a particular sequence, in which the performer attains a level beyond the normal, extraordinary exquisiteness. That’s one of the most important reasons art exists. Conversely, noting that a particular performer doesn’t look great, or even worse, fails to arouse, is not a fault of the performer. Nor is it of anyone. Nothing is lost, in reviewing such a thing, in simply not mentioning one’s lack of attraction to a particular performer. This isn’t self-censorship, it’s just not being an asshole.

To return from the hypothetical and generally philosophical to specifics, I think a moratorium is in order on complaining that women, when allowed, turn forty. And that their bodies do things, like grow. There is entirely too much of this sort of thing, and in “respectable” critical discourse to boot. The isolated instances in which this type of time-wasting negativity is turned on men will be easier to eliminate, surely, and should be as well. This isn’t even a political principle – though applying it to life in general sure wouldn’t hurt anyone – but a fundamentally artistic one: we should only ever focus on the beauty that is in the frame, not pine for some imaginary alternate-universe version. Like a movie, or don’t like it, that’s fine. But raking actors over the coals for being human beings seems not only to be beside the point, but to not possess a point at all.