The 2023 Golden Globes belonged to Jennifer Coolidge. If you haven’t watched her acceptance speech yet, then go forth with immediate effect and enjoy her perfect blend of comedy and moving sincerity. It could have been saccharine, but it wasn’t. For those who watched The White Lotus, it all felt very Tanya – disarming, funny and with a hint of melancholia. Tanya also would have been decked in Dolce with a blow-dry to rival a royal. She also may have been oblivious enough to tell everyone the ending of the show, but in a way that felt so funny it made you forget to be annoyed.
Ever since The White Lotus arrived in summer 2021, Coolidge has been enjoying a career renaissance – or 'Jenaissance' as it has been dubbed. She fast became the star of her friend Mike White’s HBO show (he wrote Tanya with Coolidge in mind); her character – a self-absorbed, needy and histrionic heiress with money to burn and a sadness in her heart – reached icon status. Her impeccably delivered lines went viral (“The gays, they’re trying to murder me!” is a stone-cold classic that will be parroted for years to come) and footage of her scurrying round that fateful Sicilian yacht has been turned into countless memes. She may not have had one drop of self-awareness, but oh how we rooted for Tanya – especially in season two. Her naivety, eccentricity and commitment to heels in the most perilous of situations made her the show’s crowning glory. No one could have played it better than Coolidge, who – while I’m sure is far nicer than her on-screen alter-ego – might have something in common with a woman embracing a second act. In different hands, Tanya’s emotional fragility and obvious loneliness could have been depressing, but Coolidge brought a comedic skill that’s been long honed. No one is that funny by accident, yet Coolidge makes it look effortless. She has become the first 61-year-old to become the It-girl of the people.
Her recent comeback wasn't entirely down to The White Lotus. Coolidge credits Emerald Fennell for casting her in the acclaimed Promising Young Woman for getting her career going again. After years of being given exclusively one-note buffoon roles, she was finally given the chance to show off her charisma, talent and experience. She was given a further boost after carrying Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series The Watcher last autumn, giving it the silly, unhinged energy it deserved. Her real skill, aside from being brilliantly funny, is bringing depth and empathy to characters that might on a surface level seem challenged. While most people previously knew Coolidge as either Stifler’s mum from American Pie or bend-and-snapping Paulette in Legally Blonde, no one is now in doubt of her comedic timing and genius. For all the ills in the world, we can all agree we are very lucky to be living through her career renaissance.
So, given that Coolidge has been working as an actress for 30 years, how did we all forget about her? It’s no revelation to say that Hollywood roles for women over the age of 35 are far from bountiful. Even rarer are those that offer a modicum of complexity. It takes a lot of fight and determination to keep going in an industry that shows little interest in having you there. Coolidge also came from a working-class family (her father worked in a factory and her mother was a homemaker), so remained exempt from any nepo baby privilege. She kept taking the little jobs and hustling in the hope that it might one day to lead to The Big One. She nearly landed a lead role in Desperate Housewives but lost out to Felicity Huffman. There were a few dud films, as well as a few praise-worthy Christopher Guest mockumentaries, including For Your Consideration. It’s fair to say it’s all been a bit of a slog for her. As Coolidge said in her acceptance speech, despite feeling “fizzled by life” (who can’t relate to having felt like that at some point?), she remained hopeful until White and The White Lotus gave her “a new beginning”. Her words were humble and emotional but without a trace of mawkishness: “My neighbours are speaking to me!” And may we all have friends as good as White – the type of people who make us "want to live longer".
Despite not always feeling welcomed by the film industry, she has remained very much herself. She lives in New Orleans in an old, dark house that she describes as haunted. She doesn’t have a fitness regime. Now her moment has come. Aged 61, she is a national treasure with an abundance of opportunities ahead of her. After a few unsettling years, Jennifer Coolidge is the witty, authentic and unconventional Hollywood hero we all need. She is also a reminder that we really don’t need to hit those life milestones at predetermined times. “I would rather end my life with some great things than to have them happen in my thirties and then have it fizzle out,” she told Rolling Stone last November. “I’d rather end with a bang than the opposite.” Success and happiness happens when it happens – sometimes, as with Coolidge, the best is yet to come.
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