Renée Zellweger as Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain
Best Supporting Actress at the 76th Annual Oscars (2003)
“Every piece of this is man's bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land but they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say, ‘Shit, it's raining’!”
During the U.S. Civil War, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), a preacher’s daughter in Cold Mountain, NC, waits for her lover Inman (Jude Law) to make his way back to her from serving in the Confederate Army. But Ada needs help taking care of her farm in the meantime, and help arrives in the form of Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger).
Ruby Thewes bursts into this film almost a third of the way in, and immediately rips the head off of a live rooster, cementing her place as one of my favorite characters from this column so far. Ruby is incredible. She’s brash and no-nonsense, and wields that attitude in an insightful, protective way. Perhaps the best thing about Ruby is her irreverence. Whether trampling through a climactic love scene to tell everyone that their declarations of ardor are keeping her awake, or decrying her alcoholic father as being so full of manure that, “we could lay him in the dirt and grow another one just like him,” she keeps the movie from getting too self-serious.
I also love Ruby’s queer energy. Yeah yeah, I know the movie claims that she’s got a crush on some guy, but it’s clear that what she really wants is to live with Ada, and run a farm, no men necessary. All you have to do is witness the pure joy with which she wakes Ada at sunrise on her first day of employment, and then storms around the property, gleefully listing the many gardening, plowing, and re-shingling tasks that she wants to get started on. Ruby hates the war, but she loves the opportunity to run her own life that it provides. I’m not a fanfic person, but if anyone wants to direct me to an Ada/Ruby ship, perhaps I could become one …
As I said earlier, Ruby shows up almost an hour into the film, and adds so much life to a story that up to this point has mainly been two stoic characters silently moping over one another. The writing of Ruby is great, but it’s Zellweger who brings her to life, and completely sells her. First of all, she’s hilarious, I genuinely scream laughed multiple times during this movie, and it was always because of Ruby. Zellweger’s Southern accent is wonky, and pretty broad, but it doesn’t matter at all because there’s such a sense of fun about her.
Zellweger also acts with her fully body: Ruby is a very physically active character, and Zellweger does a lot of stomping around, and gritting her teeth, really showing us the way that Ruby flings herself headlong at life. And despite the fact that Ruby is often comic relief, she also brings some of the most moving parts of the film. For instance, her interactions with her father are touching, largely because Zellweger doesn’t overdo it. Ruby isn’t comfortable expressing vulnerability, and Zellweger deftly shows us that she’s holding back emotions, while still letting enough of those feelings sneak through that we can connect. It’s a great performance.
Before anything else, we should talk about the huge issue that this is a film about the Civil War that wants to avoid dealing with slavery. I don’t think a Black person speaks a line of dialogue? The creators very clearly didn’t want to wade into the complexities of slavery, which I understand, but like, maybe pick another war then? It means that there’s a gaping hole in the movie, where we refuse to acknowledge something that would be a major part of the characters’ lives. For instance, the only reason that Ruby needs to come to Ada’s assistance is that all of Ada’s slaves are gone, and neither Ada nor the movie every reckon with our lilywhite protagonist being a former slave owner.
With all that said, because life is complex and multi-faceted, Cold Mountain is totally racist, and it’s also an incredibly well-constructed, engaging movie. It’s fun to watch, there’s so much emotion, and humor, and intensity. The set-up is absolutely fantastic, the film feels epic in scope, and it looks gorgeous. I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet – just go in knowing that it’s got a major blind spot.
Was the Oscar deserved?
Yes, this is a perfect example of an amazing supporting performance.