It’s not called an Oscar curse for nothing, as the likes of Linda Hunt, Mira Sorvino, Mercedes Ruehl, and Brenda Fricker could all tell you. But even by the dismal standards of those post—best supporting actress nosedives, nothing quite compares to the year that Renée Zellweger just had. January brought New in Town, a fish-out-of-water comedy that seemed as if it had been pulled from the Saturday Night Live rejected-sketch pile (“Bridget Jones moves to Fargo!” the television advertisements proclaimed without a hint of irony). The independently financed comedy-drama My One and Only was expected to be one of the high-profile acquisitions at February’s Berlin Film Festival, but all the major distributors passed. The film’s producers eventually struck a self-distribution deal through Freestyle Releasing, and the movie trickled into 250 theaters in August. (It arrives on DVD this month.) Zellweger’s sole commercial success of the year, the 3-D animated fantasy Monsters vs. Aliens, features her in a voice part so small that most of the reviews ignored her entirely. The horror film Case 39, which wrapped production in 2006, saw its release date changed multiple times and is now expected to open on New Year’s Day 2010—months after it premiered in places like New Zealand, Russia, and Spain (see “Cold Case”).

While it would be wonderful to say that audiences have clearly missed the boat—that the Katy-born actress continues to display the plucky, small-town charm that first made her a star in Jerry Maguire or that she continues to use her unconventional looks to slyly subvert our notions of the traditional leading lady, as she so cleverly did in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Chicago (2002)—well, take it from someone who has endured every sorry twist of this downward spiral. Her films have gone from bad to worse to unwatchable, and her performances are alternately anachronistic (note her bizarrely twenty-first-century-sounding damsel in distress in Ed Harris’s deadly 2008 western Appaloosa) and charmless (it takes considerable effort to drain Harry Connick Jr. of all his sex appeal, as she does in New in Town). Granted, she managed to score a few good notices for My One and Only, in which she plays a free-spirited fifties woman who leaves her philandering husband (Kevin Bacon) and takes off on a cross-country adventure with her two sons. (The New York Times effused, “Crinkling her eyes, smiling coyly and perambulating with seductive flounces, [Zellweger’s] Ann could be a cousin of Blanche DuBois.”) But it’s probably worth noting that Melanie Griffith also got good notices for playing basically the same insufferable part in Crazy in Alabama. Look how that career has turned out.

So how does an actress who in the early part of the decade could do no wrong—she earned Oscar nominations for Bridget Jones’s Diary and Chicago, before finally winning for Cold Mountain (2003)—see her fortunes turn upside down in just six years? Is her spot on the Hollywood A-list gone for good? Those of us who still cherish her unfussy, heart-on-her-sleeve turns opposite Vincent D’Onofrio in The Whole Wide World (1996) and Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998) would indeed love to be able to blame something other than the many dreadful choices she’s made in recent years. You can forgive her Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), a sour retread of the original film that seemed to set the title character (and the entire feminist cause) back a decade. Every hardworking artist deserves a hefty paycheck now and again. But there was no excusing the Beatrix Potter biopic Miss Potter (2006), a movie in which British people speak to one another in exceedingly gracious tones and nothing resembling a conflict emerges over the course of the film’s running time. Pair Miss Potter with Cinderella Man (2005), Ron Howard’s compelling portrait of boxer Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe), which gave Zellweger nothing significant to do, and a pattern emerges: She seemed to be choosing roles based solely on how they might be viewed by stodgy Oscar voters.

Something else went awry too: Zellweger seemed to fall out of touch with what made her an interesting screen presence. With her squinty expression, her puff pastry cheeks, and that little-girl voice with just a hint of a Texas twang, she has never been anyone’s idea of a classic Hollywood diva. What made her work in Bridget Jones’s Diary so funny and touching was her ability to telegraph that she didn’t quite belong at the center of a big-budget studio picture. In Chicago, too, she cunningly let the audience in on her pleasure at pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, onscreen and off. But the performer who displayed not a hint of vanity as a firebrand hillbilly in Cold Mountain soon started looking like just another Hollywood starlet. She lost the weight (and then some) that she famously gained for Bridget Jones’s Diary. Like many actresses of late, including Meg Ryan and her Cold Mountain co-star Nicole Kidman, she also seemed to do something to her face—whether Botox or plastic surgery or a few too many hours in the makeup artist’s chair—freezing that adorably lemon-puckered mug into an expressionless, Joker-like mask. By the time she turned up opposite George Clooney in Leatherheads (2008), glowingly lit and wafer-thin, she seemed to have lost all connection to her own persona.

After her calamitous 2009, Zellweger is hanging by a thread; one or two more mistakes and she will likely consign herself to a lifetime of bad TV pilots and barely seen indies. She’s certainly not going to turn things around by starring in “uplifting” melodramas along the lines of the already wrapped My Own Love Song (the independently financed film, co-starring Forest Whitaker as a wheelchair-bound singer who journeys to Memphis, currently has no American distributor). An even worse idea is the recently announced three-quel to Bridget Jones. Does anyone really want to contemplate the life of a pudgy singleton on the wrong side of forty? If she has any sense, she’ll study the playbook of Marisa Tomei, who spent much of her own post-Oscar exile from the A-list on the Off-Broadway stage and then reemerged with a handful of defiantly unglamorous supporting roles in movies like In the Bedroom and The Wrestler. She can go on convincing herself that audiences want her to be a Reese Witherspoon—like sweetheart or a Julia Roberts—like glamour-puss. But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who just wants Renée Zellweger to be Renée Zellweger: an appealingly modest, emotionally transparent actress who allows us to see a little bit of ourselves in the everyday women she plays.

Cold Case: Zellweger’s latest bad choice.

In Case 39—shot in Vancouver in the fall of 2006—Zellweger plays a social worker who becomes obsessed with a young girl whose parents believe she’s a demon seed. But any hope that this might be the actress’s commercial comeback should probably be set aside. For one thing, the film has languished on Paramount’s shelf for nearly three years—so long that director Christian Alvart’s subsequent film, Pandorum, has already come and gone from theaters. For another, what good film opens the first weekend in January, a notorious dead zone for new releases? Indeed, the reviews that have turned up online have been less than generous. “A workmanlike, half-way diverting occult chiller in the 70’s Hollywood Omen/Exorcist mould,” wrote the British Web site, before adding this nail in the lead actress’s coffin: “The weirdly unappealing Zellweger is the weakest link.”