Mindy Cohn's Diary

An undernourished casting decision dooms Bridget Jones

Renée Zellweger is America's sweetheart -- and that's just fine and dandy. But the Lone Star state's Oscar-winning waif sure ain't fat. Not even while attempting to chub up on Ben & Jerry's and Beamish Stout. Not even close. Hence, the decision to cast her in the Bridget Jones sequel is inherently fraudulent.

Consider the possibilities of an alternate-universe Bridget played by Mindy Cohn, better known to network-sitcom connoisseurs as Natalie -- a.k.a. "Fat Nat" -- from the seminal '80s girl-power hit The Facts of Life.

Cohn's ascent to Tinseltown stardom is a wonderful story: While chatting with her chumettes at a Los Angeles-area prep school, she was serendipitously spotted and tapped for the role of Natalie by veteran actress (and future castmate) Charlotte Rae. Now 38, Cohn has had few acting gigs since Facts, but she's bolstered her résumé by earning a degree at Loyola Marymount, and she recently returned to the small screen with a supporting role in the WB sitcom The Help.

Fans of the boarding- school-based Facts will readily associate the pudgy Natalie with one word: glue. With glory roles spent on Rae's stressed-out matron Edna Garrett, Nancy McKeon's proto-dyke Jo Polniaczek and Lisa Whelchel's blow-dried blonde Blair Warner, Cohn was left to provide comic relief along with Dorothy "Tootie" Ramsey, a lisping, token black student played by Kim Fields.

But unlike the one-dimensional Tootie, there lurked complexity, compassion and rage beneath Natalie's bubbly public persona. And once in a while it would rear its head onscreen when Fat Nat was called in to mediate frequent disputes between Blair and Jo or to console the flighty, manic-depressive Garrett. Cohn was good for far more than a laugh or two. She was, in short, an insightful, ebullient everywoman who was there for, well, every other woman on the show.

A cursory glance at the text of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones books reveals that this is just the sort of woman Bridget is supposed to be. Instead we get Zellweger, whose real-life efforts to pack on the pounds in the months leading up to principal photography garner more buzz than the plot-line particulars of the adaptation itself. And ask yourself this: Do regular women fuck rock stars, win Oscars and slip into bejeweled, size-zero vintage gowns for red-carpet gallops?

Cohn, meanwhile, is a card-carrying plus-size lass in the mold of vice-presidential candidate John Edwards' wife Elizabeth. She was a role model for husky teenage chicks back when she played Fat Nat, and she could be a role model for husky thirtysomething chicks if film producers had the foresight to throw her a casting bone.

This might not be as risky a proposition as it seems. A strong argument could be made that what made the first Bridget Jones flick a box-office success was not Zellweger but rather the hyper-popular, pre-established franchise itself. Zellweger has been quite good in various supporting roles but has never really been counted on to "open" (is there a dumber expression in the cinematic lexicon?) a film, and here she gets the debonair support of Hughie "Blue Eyes" Grant to help her along the way.

But even when she puffs up, she's not even in the same area code as fat. Any guy would go for Zellweger's Jones, and that's not faithful to the underdog script. These films would have far more impact if Bridget weren't punching her weight aesthetically and ascended to Grant's and good-guy Colin Firth's class based solely on chutzpah.

And who's the ideal actress to deliver such goods? Why, Cohn, of course.