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11 January 2023

The genius of Jennifer Coolidge

In her performances – and in her Golden Globes acceptance speech – the 61-year-old actress tells us so much about sex, desire and ageing.

By Emma Garland

Fame favours the young. We covet beauty and brilliance as if these attributes are more remarkable in those who are relatively new to the world than those who have, say, clung on for decades in the face of rejection, disillusionment and the general wear and tear of living. Me? I just love an underdog – of any age – and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Hollywood player more deserving of a redemption arc than the 61-year-old industry veteran Jennifer Coolidge.

“I had such big dreams and expectations as a younger person, but what happened is they sort of get fizzled by life or whatever,” Coolidge said in a motor-mouthed acceptance speech at last night’s Golden Globes (10 January), where she took home the award for Best Supporting Actress for The White Lotus – her second nomination (the first was in 2022, also for The White Lotus) and first-ever win. “I thought I was going to be Queen of Monaco, even though someone else did it. I had these giant ideas, and then you get older…”

For a long time, the name “Jennifer Coolidge” was followed by the phrase “AKA Stifler’s mom”. Ever since her breakout role as cinema’s most iconic Milf in the 1999 teen sex comedy American Pie, Coolidge has been somewhat pigeonholed. A freshly minted 30-something with a glamorous, high femme persona and a wicked sense of humour on screen and off (in her early New York years, she’d sneak into clubs by pretending to be a fictional Hemingway daughter called “Muffin”), she was seemingly too old to play a classic love interest and too camp for “loftier” comedy roles. The industry didn’t know what to do with her. The past two decades have brought a smattering of performances – a ditzy, pure-hearted manicurist here (Legally Blonde), a zoned-out trophy wife there (Best In Show) – that, while never the lead, have always usurped the rest of the cast in terms of memorability. But Coolidge has dipped in and out of the limelight, disillusioned, offered the same parts and struggling with self-confidence. Then came The White Lotus.

Coolidge shines as Tanya McQuoid – a narcissistic wealthy heiress and desperately lonely older woman. The only returning cast member in the show’s two seasons, Coolidge infuses the character with a balance of comedy and tragedy that, alongside Mike White’s razor-sharp writing, transforms a potential “poor little rich girl” trope into an emotional tour de force. Perhaps only she could play a gravely naïve woman whose one true act of agency arrives – and here comes a spoiler – seconds before she gracelessly smacks her head on a speedboat rail and drowns in the Tyrrhenian Sea. In the same breath she’s universally wounded, uniquely self-centred and totally sympathetic – and that’s thanks to the vulnerability that Coolidge always brings to her roles. Stifler’s mom could easily have been played as a sentient Pornhub category, for instance, but Coolidge’s performance has so much warmth and intrigue that she became the heart of the whole franchise. The same goes for Legally Blonde’s Paulette Bonafonté, which sees her spin the smallest line of dialogue into comedic gold with those perpetually squinting eyes and breathless, almost alien delivery.

Always heavily made up – all lip liner and huge blonde waves – Coolidge is both walking commentary on the archetypal American sex symbol and a sex symbol in her own right. In each of her roles she has communicated something about sex, specifically in relation to age. Whether she’s the gold-digger or the mine itself, almost all of her characters are hyper-sexualised dramatisations of the completely unfair position women often find themselves in as they mature. The older you get the more desperate you become, the more desperate you seem, the less likely things are to pan out well – or so we’re told. At the centre of it all, though, is desire. All of her characters desire. They are ravenous, untempered, the definition of too much; oozing horniness with every pout and pose. She “ooohs” and writhes to an almost fantastical degree, and that’s exactly what makes her great. Despite her reputation for speaking the first incongruous thought that comes into her head, she embodies the same mystique that has underpinned every blonde bombshell from Marilyn Monroe to Pamela Anderson. A mystique typically defined by outward-facing candidness and exuberance, with a secret world of pain behind the eyes. Coolidge, more than most, is a master of making that pain visible and understood. She leans hard into every preconception about sexually forward “dumb blondes”, and subverts them at the same time. Look around the landscape of Hollywood and there are very few women of any age doing it like her.

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Coolidge’s Golden Globes acceptance speech has been celebrated for its humour and “chaos”, (perhaps the most overused word of the past few years), which probably does her a disservice. What we’re actually seeing is charisma – a dying virtue in the entertainment industries, currently propped up by Colin Farrell’s eyebrows and Emma D’Arcy saying “negroni sbagliato with Prosecco in it”. Now widely circulated, the speech captures Coolidge’s charm. In a whirlwind four minutes she goes from half-jokingly thanking Ryan Murphy for keeping her career alive for 20 years, to lots of [censored] swearing regarding the struggles of age, to making Mike White, the creator and director of The White Lotus, cry. Only a genius could communicate all of that while accepting an award for her exquisite delivery of the line: “Please! These gays… they’re trying to murder me.”

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[See also: ITV’s “Stonehouse” is a satirical caper – and weirdly timely, too]

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