Liz Smith: Renee Zellweger, the Sweetest Rose in Texas, Honored in Austin

courtesy Austin Film Society

And more from our Gossip Girl: Carol Channing at 90 — “larger than life” at the Tribeca Film Festival

“I’M A Star!  And the audience loves me. And I love them/And they love me for loving them and I love them for loving me, and we love each other/And that’s because none of us got enough love in our childhoods … And that’s showbiz. Kid.”

So murmurs Renee Zellweger in her dazzling musical number, “Roxie,” from the movie “Chicago.”

* * *

IN LIFE, it is always nice when somebody goes out of their way for you.

When you are a celebrity journalist, it’s just great when an actor, author, industrial giant, musician, etc., goes out of his, or her, way for you. Maybe they give you that exclusive interview or exciting invitation to some oh-so-private event. (Not that privacy plays too big a part in celebrity life, whether the star likes it or not.)

And then there is Renee Zellweger.

I’ve known the Oscar-winning, Texas-born Renee for several years.  I’ve always been impressed by her charm, sweetness and normalcy. She sends me cookies. It was Renee herself who asked that I present her award at the Austin Film Society Hall of Fame event in Austin. And I was thrilled to accept. If the event itself was lacking somewhat in the oomph and luster of past galas — this was the eleventh year of the Texas grand film fete — the star of the night, Miss Zellweger was oomphy and lustrous enough to make up for it.

Miss Z. looked delicately slim in her black strapless cocktail dress, accessorized by heels that had to be five inches high. Despite the chill in the old aircraft hangar where the Austin Film Society holds its big do, Renee didn’t shiver once. Now, that’s an actress for you!

After Renee accepted her award — only she, myself and the great Rip Torn understood the importance of being brief. The evening ended. Renee and her mother, father, brother and godmother left. I’d already bid the star adieu backstage and was soon heading back to the Four Seasons Hotel.

The hotel’s marvelous restaurant, Trio, was no longer serving. So I decided to grab a “light bite” in the lounge area. Almost as soon as I’d ordered my sliders and a margarita, Renee appeared at the other end of the room, with her family. She waved. I waved. And then she scooted across the lounge, embraced me, thanked me for my remarks and sat down to talk. And I mean, she really sat down to talk.  (Her father came over several times with the little hamburgers for Renee, making sure she ate properly.  “Thank you, Daddy!” she said sweetly after each visit.)

For over an hour, a big movie star and a gossip columnist discussed the new technological advances in science, the Internet, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, reality TV, the coarsening of the cultural landscape, the lack of civility in this cyberage, the bizarre nature of modern stardom. (Renee didn’t say it, but I did — “Who is Kendra Baskett and why is she on every magazine cover?”)

I was struck more than ever by Renee’s intelligence, but also by something else; her immense curiosity and her eagerness to learn and to listen to others. For all her adult smarts, she is very much like an eager adolescent; she jumps in her seat and gestures expansively. She is the personification of charm. I felt that in her efforts to understand the often-terrible power of the Internet — of gossip sites and a world full of people with opinions who now have the power to convey them instantly — Renee is still attempting to understand her own stardom and what it means. The press finds her a little odd. They would like her to be a victim, because she has a distinctly vulnerable quality. But she won’t go that way. And she’s not a villainess, either.

She is an actress and a woman still in search of herself, in a business that often short-circuits self-awareness. But she’s not dreary or a bore about her journey. She couldn’t be more enchanting. She is the kind of girl men fall madly in love with over dinner. She is so open and real.

Finally, we all had to get some rest. Renee gave me another kiss and said, “I want to continue this conversation when we get back to New York!”

And she meant it.

* * *

When one is 90, I guess expectations diminish, but not for the great Broadway star Carol Channing. Her two big musical hits – “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and then “Hello, Dolly!” — catapulted her to fame and continuing fame, and the world paraded through her dressing rooms.

Now none other than the distinguished Tribeca Film Festival has announced that their spotlight movies for the year 2011 will include a documentary titled “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life,” directed by Dori Berinstein. The unstoppable star who reigned from the Fifties through the Seventies – and beyond – will get a new lease on her incredible life.

This gifted “survivor” found a different way of living when she married, late in life, her childhood friend, Harry Kulijian. Their Channing-Kullijian Foundation for the Arts has become a force, and the Tribeca Festival wants to offer this documentary before it goes into mass distribution.

Carol has always been an amazing creature: beguiling, charming and behaving as if she didn’t get life’s negatives at all. Well, it has worked for her. As Broadway receded from her lexicon, she took up teaching, lecturing and conducting orchestras all over America. She is forever speaking before Congress and doing unexpected things. I have never experienced anyone quite like Carol Channing.  She remains unique!

3 comments so far.

  1. avatar Count Snarkula says:

    Hi Liz.  Thanks for coming to the Hall of Fame event here in Austin.  You were great, as always.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I agree it was sort of a lackluster event this year.  The previous years have had so much more, I don’t know, energy to them?  Never mind, you were great as was Ms. Zellweger.  She is one of the few “stars” I have met who are actually even prettier in person.  Of course, I am sure a lot of that is due to her sparkling personality.

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Carol Channing is one of those jewels in life who believes somehow in the end everything turns out right. Harry is proof positive that at least for her it does. 

  3. avatar sloan ss says:

    Liz, You looked great.