It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. We know this by the unanimous reaction to Jennifer Coolidge’s career renaissance at the age of 61. Her long-time fans – always of the opinion that she was one of the most underrated comic actors – couldn’t contain their glee. Warm applause and laughter (and, in collaborator Mike White’s case, tears) greeted Coolidge’s charming acceptance speech at the 2023 Golden Globes last week, where she won best supporting actress in a limited series for The White Lotus.
After putting her statuette on the floor – “I don’t work out: I can’t hold it that long” – Coolidge emotionally but not mawkishly gave a brief precis of her career. That she had hustled hard in Hollywood. That she always felt a bit of an outsider. She named a handful of writers and directors who had kept her afloat (Ryan Murphy, Michael Patrick King). She namechecked the sequels that provided steady pay cheques (“Five different sequels of American Pie. I’ve milked that to death”). Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt smiled at the kind of irreverent, eccentric wit she’s known for. But she was vulnerable, humble, almost disbelieving.
“I had such big dreams as a younger person, but they get sort of fizzled by life”, Coolidge said. “And then you get older and … Mike White” – she turned to the creator of The White Lotus – “you’ve given me a new beginning. My neighbours are speaking to me!”
Coolidge was born in 1961, and grew up in a working-class family (her dad was a factory worker, her mother a homemaker) in the tiny New England town of Norwell (population 11,000), just outside Boston, Massachusetts. One of four siblings, she played clarinet as a child and, after graduating in 1985 from Emerson College in Boston, moved to Los Angeles at 21 before enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. In 1980s New York she did a lot of coke, partied hard, was a regular at the Palladium, and waitressed alongside Sandra Bullock. Once she called in sick – but instead of, say, faking a cold she gave the excuse that someone had put a cigarette out in her eye. This is very Jennifer Coolidge.
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Her ambition was to be a dramatic leading actor, but she made her way with character roles and comedic turns. Her first television credit, aged 32, was a 1993 fifth season episode of Seinfeld in which she played a masseuse who refused to give a massage. After a few small parts in forgettable films, she landed a recurring role in the late 1990s (voicing the teacher of Brittany Murphy’s Luanne) in the critically acclaimed animated sitcom King of the Hill.
But her big break came when she was cast as Jeanne Stifler (better known as Stifler’s Mom) in the box-office college-humour phenomenon American Pie (1999). Coolidge played a hot, cool mom, the embodiment of what became known in popular culture as a Milf (a mother I’d like to… well, you know). She reprised the role in two follow-ups. American Pie led to her second-best-known turn, in Legally Blonde, a film that also cemented the reputation of Reese Witherspoon. If Coolidge had become popular with men thanks to American Pie, then her role as the sweet, supportive manicurist Paulette in Legally Blonde endeared her to women – as well as cementing her as a gay icon.
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There were near misses; Coolidge almost landed a lead in Desperate Housewives, but the role went to Felicity Huffman. And there were bum notes; the 2006 film Date Movie (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 7 per cent) springs to mind. But even in less sophisticated fare, Coolidge was often singled out for praise. She appeared in acclaimed Christopher Guest mockumentaries, including Best in Show (2000) and For Your Consideration (2006). Guest’s cowriter Eugene Levy, the comedy stalwart who also starred with Coolidge in the Pie franchise, has said that Coolidge is “her own comedic universe in or out of character”.
But she’s darker, too. Weird, even. She lives in what she describes as a haunted 19th-century mansion in New Orleans, and greets journalists while holding candlesticks – a far cry from the ditsy, sexualised blonde she’s often portrayed as (what Mike White has described as her “hump-the-furniture” roles). And she has a vulnerability and insecurity that she isn’t afraid to show. She was treated brutally during that brief first stint in Los Angeles – one casting agent told her she wasn’t good-looking enough to ever appear on screen – and her mother died of pancreatic cancer, just when she was getting some way to proving him wrong.
Coolidge credits the pop star Ariana Grande for reviving her career, which she said had been “flatlining” in the late 2000s before Grande, a big fan, asked her in 2018 to cameo in the music video for her global hit Thank U, Next. But it’s showrunner Mike White who has elevated Coolidge to Emmy and Golden Globe-winning superstar. White, a long-time friend of Coolidge and a previous collaborator on The Emoji Movie (the less said about which the better), wrote the role of the insecure but kind-hearted heiress Tanya McQuoid specifically with the actor in mind. He wanted audiences to see there was more that Coolidge could do. There’s a hilarious daffiness to Tanya, which we know Coolidge excels at – but there are layers, too.
The White Lotus – an irreverent social analysis of everything from class to race to sexuality – is the kind of prestige television that has not only won the hearts of critics and industry insiders but also crossed over to the mainstream and a dedicated fan base. The line in which Tanya shouts “These gays! They’re trying to murder me!” has inevitably become a catchphrase. But Coolidge will not be returning for a third season, namely because, after defying the odds to take out a bunch of baddies with a pistol, Tanya plunged to a watery death when trying to escape a yacht in high-heels (very on-brand for Tanya).
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So what’s next for Coolidge? She can currently be seen in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix thriller The Watcher, based on the viral New York Magazine story; and she’s wrapped the romcom Shotgun Wedding, in which she plays J-Lo’s mother-in-law (and in which she once again gets her hands on a gun). There’s another Netflix production in the pipeline: We Have a Ghost, from the same studio as Stranger Things. And Coolidge told W Magazine that there’s a rumour Mindy Kaling has written a script for a third Legally Blonde outing – but that she has no idea if it’s true.
In 2020 Coolidge delivered the commencement speech to her alma mater, Emerson College. Paraphrasing a passage from Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, she told the students: “Life is a storm, my young graduates. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, and be shattered on the rocks the next. What defines you is what you do when that storm comes.” But Coolidge is at last riding a wave of momentum, full steam ahead. – Guardian