Personally; I always think it’s a difference if you play an over-the-top character or if you play a normal character and then act over-the-top in some scenes (like Susan Hayward). The second option can be entertaining but also incredibly wrong and the first option is extremely difficult to pull off – an actress needs a lot of confidence and careful attention to her own work to be larger-than-life all the time without becoming a caricature or simply becoming unbearable. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard or Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie are wonderful examples of successes in that second option. And while I would certainly not put Renée Zellweger on the same level as these two, I still think that she, too, succeeded in this second option – her Ruby is loud, over-the-top, big and, yes, almost a caricature. But only almost. Just one tiny inch before it would have become ridiculous, Renée Zellweger stopped and that way was able to craft a believable and scene-stealing character who brings a huge amount of needed new energy into Cold Mountain. The first 50 minutes of Cold Mountain basically only exist as a waiting time until Ruby finally appears and Renée Zellweger easily steals the whole show and makes the movie suddenly interesting.
Zellweger’s Ruby is unique and a real original. Everything about her is just…extreme and Renée Zellweger could have lost the battle against herself at every moment. Ruby could have been extremely annoying but Renée Zellweger stopped one step before that and made her likeable, she could have been very distracting but Renée Zellweger stopped one step before that and made her an integral part of the story, she could have been very confusing but Renée Zellweger stopped one step before that and made her very funny.
Ruby is the kind of character that seemed to have been written with Oscar in mind since everything about her is destined to turn her into the center of attention. Renée Zellweger adds to this with her unusual characterization and her domineering performance – but again, it always works. Who can forget her ‘Number one…number two…number three’ or the scene with the rooster?
But I also want to appreciate the other moments in Renée Zellweger’s performance – the quiet, touching ones in which she shows that there is more to Ruby than first meets the eye like watching Ada play the piano (followed by another funny scene in which she sells it for sheep) or listening to her reading Wuthering Heights. Renée Zellweger beautifully shows that Ruby’s tough behavior is very often just a masque to hide her true feelings, especially when it comes to her father. Here, Renée Zellweger shows a warm and loving side in Ruby and at the end of Cold Mountain, she has done a complete characterization of a very difficult character.
Yes, I can understand why many people don’t like the performance – but that doesn’t mean that I can’t love it!