The first song Dolly Parton ever had on the charts, back in 1966, was a Curly Putman-written tune called “Dumb Blonde.” The lyrics are addressed to a man who previously mistreated and left her, but is now trying to weasel his way back into her life. (You may be familiar with this scenario.) Dolly throws his insult — “dumb blonde” — back in his face as she asserts that she’s “nobody’s fool,” despite the cliché. It was a persona-defining introduction for a musician who would go on to become a beloved stateswoman of country music, not least because along with the message of individuality and resilience, she owned the stereotype she was mocking: “And you know if there’s one thing this blonde has learned / Blondes have more fun,” she sang.
If you had to name a woman who presents as a Dolly-like figure for Hollywood, the great Jennifer Coolidge might fit the bill. She’s a good deal younger at 59, and doesn’t have Parton’s international stature, but she’s been tirelessly crushing it for decades — often in winking “dumb blonde” mode. Once you know who she is, you’re always incredibly happy to see her. The fact is, without Coolidge’s fantastic run of airheads, MILFs, gold diggers and manicurists, we probably wouldn’t be enjoying such a robust renaissance of bimbohood across Instagram and TikTok today.
And she continues to raise the bar: Just this week, we marveled at her story of simultaneously seeing two men during a trip to Hawaii by way of sitcom-style deception: “I ended up meeting these two guys that were best friends, and I liked them both, so I told them that I had an identical twin, and I dated both guys,” she said on The Kelly Clarkson Show. “I don’t know if I would have the guts to do that now, but at the time, it was sort of a great decision because when you’re younger, you just get away with anything.”
Brilliant, bold, legendary.
There’s undeniably something about Jennifer. But what is the source of this charisma?
There’s her much-imitated voice, which can be comically orotund to match her curves or a high-pitched parody of the sex kitten whisper. Her characters always seem to be wearing loud patterns and colors that would drown out a lesser actor. Most vitally, as her twin tale reminds us, there is fearless improvisational talent behind her performance of naïveté and confusion.
Coolidge, an alumna of the Groundlings comedy troupe in L.A., is smart enough to play the slow-witted as more than merely stupid; these characters pull odd, surprising emotions and opinions from the apparent vacuity of their minds, and make unaccountable choices you can’t not love. When the folk singer characters of the Christopher Guest film A Mighty Wind all start humming in unison for a toast, there are a couple of cuts to establish general awkwardness, and then the camera finds Coolidge’s bubbly public relations ditz just singing the note, squarely open-mouthed, as if she literally has no idea what the sound of a hum is, or how to make it.
Outside of her wonderful turns in Guest’s cult classic mockumentaries (peaking with Best in Show as a spacey vixen married to a frail, rich old man but having an obvious affair with the butch woman who trains her poodles), Coolidge is best known for two other recurring roles — first as “Stifler’s Mom,” the sly cougar who takes the virginity of a high school senior at the end of American Pie, gamely fulfilling the young man’s fantasy of a sophisticated, experienced older woman. Less risqué and lower status is Paulette Bonafonté, salon worker and friend to Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde movies, a soft-spoken type who has to work up the confidence to flirt with a hunky UPS delivery man.
These were breakout appearances, even if her dialogue was limited, and it’s not hard to see why: She can finely modulate her body language and coquettishness to be at once lustful and wholesome, inappropriate yet maternal, the kind of big, all-American bombshell whose golden locks, bountiful cleavage and heavy makeup speak to an enduring national aesthetic. Paulette exclaiming to Elle that her red-white-and-blue outfit makes her “look like the Fourth of July,” which makes Paulette “want a hot dog real bad,” a confession uttered in a tone of sudden concern, is the summation of this heartwarming symmetry between innocence and innuendo.
Now, with her perfect batting average, Coolidge is a much sought-after ringer, and good luck to the casting team that needs to find someone with comparable presence or delivery. (Coolidge, however, can easily step into someone else’s shoes; few could have seamlessly joined the tight ensemble of Party Down for a couple episodes, as she did when series regular Jane Lynch was busy shooting Glee.) She’s in everything from buzzy Oscar hopefuls (Promising Young Woman) to blockbuster action romcoms (the forthcoming Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shotgun Wedding), animated shows (HBO’s The Fungies) and prestige social satire (The White Lotus, a currently filming miniseries from Enlightened creator Mike White).
It would be nice if all this work convinced someone to develop a project for her to lead, but it looks like she’s still having lots of fun on the supporting side, even on the periphery of production — one of her New Orleans homes served as interiors in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a fact that brought her no small joy.
Just like with Dolly Parton, it’s impossible to feel like we as a people deserve Jennifer Coolidge, an entertainer so wonderfully herself. She shines equally with dubious network TV jokes about masturbation and as Hilary Duff’s vain, Barbified evil stepmother in A Cinderella Story. She absolutely does not miss. And if, for some reason, you’re still not convinced she’s a genius who deserves this praise, I challenge you to watch this 8-second clip in which she speaks a single word — a single syllable — and not crack up on the spot. It’s the supreme vibe from the queen of silliness, master of inflection, a performer who has exploded her own stereotype by stretching it in every direction at once.
Treasure this, the essence of her art. Nobody else comes close.