Happy birthday to Bridget Jones and Roxie Hart!
Actress Renée Zellweger turns 51 on Saturday. First Oscar-nominated as the title character in the romantic comedy “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (2002), she received another nod in 2003 as murderess Roxie Hart in the musical “Chicago.” Zellweger won 2004’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Ruby Thewes in the Civil War drama “Cold Mountain,” and Feb. 9 won Best Actress as Judy Garland in the biopic “Judy.”
Renée is the feminine of René, French form of Renatus, Latin “born again.” The name was created by early Christians to commemorate their symbolic rebirth in baptism.
In the fifth century, St. Maurilius was bishop of Angers in northwestern France. Maurilius legendarily resurrected a boy from the dead, baptizing him as René. Growing up to succeed Maurilius as bishop, he was venerated as St. René.
By 1300, French girls were being named Renée. In 1510, King Louis XII gave his second daughter the name.
In 1528, Renée of France married Ercole d’Este, who in 1534 succeeded his father as Duke of Ferrara, Italy. In 1536, Reformation leader John Calvin visited Ferrara and converted Renée to Protestantism.
In 1554, Renée’s Catholic husband accused her of heresy. Though she signed a recantation to save herself, she still refused to attend Mass. After Ercole’s 1559 death, she returned to France. Her estate at Montargis was a refuge for persecuted Protestants until her own death in 1574.
Despite Renée of France’s fame as a Protestant heroine, before 1864, Renée was nearly nonexistent as a baby name in the United States. Then French brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (for whom the Prix Goncourt, France’s most important fiction prize, is named) published “Renée Mauperin,” the tragic tale of a young woman who wastes away from heart disease after her beloved brother is murdered by a French nobleman. It went through several English-language editions the next 30 years.
Renee first became a Top 1,000 baby name in 1905. It got a big boost from French-born silent film star Renée Adorée (1898-1933). Adorée moved to Hollywood in 1920. She became a star in 1925’s “The Big Parade” as Melisande, a French girl loved by American soldier Jim (John Gilbert). The film, rated by critics as one of the best silents, was a box-office smash.
During the 1940s, Renee developed a sophisticated, stylish image. For example, in “Now, Voyager” (1942), Bette Davis’ spinster Charlotte Vale is mistaken for Renee Beauchamps when she takes over Renee’s cruise ship cabin and expensive clothes.
During the 1950s, Renee boomed for babies, peaking at 62nd in 1967.
Actress and writer Renee Taylor (born Renée Adorée Wexler in 1933) got a screenwriter Oscar nod in 1970 for “Lovers & Other Strangers,” and was Sylvia Fine in “The Nanny” (1993-99). O’Connor (Gabrielle on “Xena: Warrior Princess” 1995-2001), Olstead (Lauren on “Still Standing” 2002-2006) and Felice Smith (Nell Jones on “NCIS: Los Angeles” since 2010) are other Renees with TV stardom.
Opera singer Fleming (born 1959), radio journalist Montagne (1948), tennis player Richards (1934) and NASA planetary scientist Weber (1978) also contribute to Renee’s fame.
Renee left the Top 1,000 list of first names in 2018. As the typical Renee turns 53 this year, that’s to be expected. In another 40 years, Renée can be reborn again for babies.