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Renee Zellweger Looks Different — So What?

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Actress Renee Zellweger became a headline around the world this week not because of a new film, but because of her face. She appeared at an event in Los Angeles Monday looking very different. Salon writer and commentator Mary Elizabeth Williams says it's something that needs to be talked about.

MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS: We do; we need to talk about this, and I wish we didn't. I wish we lived in a culture in which individuals who are in the public eye, and in particular, women, could have their careers and live their lives and the ways in which they change over time would not be so shocking. But when the 45-year-old actress appeared Monday at the 2014 Elle Women in Hollywood Awards, she looked so dramatically different from the person we've seen in "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Cold Mountain," that the question of what had happened to effect such a radical transformation became inevitable.

Her posture and the blue of her eyes remain, but her face - smooth and a little shiny - seems thinner. And her eyes, famed for their slightly squinty character, are demonstrably wider. What has followed has been a deluge of commentary and some pretty cheap jokes. Zellweger took the explosion of stories with grace, telling People Magazine I'm living a different, happy, more fulfilling life and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows. But she added, it seems the folks who come digging around for some nefarious truth which doesn't exist won't get off my porch until I answer the door, saying perhaps I look different. Who doesn't as they get older?

And this is the bind because for most of us as we get older, we do look older. Few of us, however, become smoother or wide-eyed. And an entertainment industry that fails to accommodate that truth realistically is one that is failing everybody. When we go to movies starring actors whose expressions seem to have been frozen right off their faces, that's a problem. When we have a tabloid culture that ruthlessly picks on every perceived flaw, every sign of aging, that's a problem. And frankly, when we have performers steadfastly insist they're really just well rested, that's a problem too. It perpetuates the fiction that a radically different look is A - desirable and B - achievable by means of healthy living and not outside intervention.

I maintain the hope that maybe Hollywood, the press and audiences can embrace a different paradigm, that we can understand that beauty evolves more naturally. It would be a radical change, I know, but this one would be a welcome one.

SIEGEL: Commentator Mary Elizabeth Williams. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.