Renee Zellweger Makes First Post-Oscars Appearance to Accept Courage Award and Honor Publicist Nanci Ryder

The event, held at the Beverly Wilshire, raised $1.8 million for lifesaving research and featured a roof-raising performance from the Jonas Brothers.
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Renée Zellweger is flanked by Crystal Lourd and Jamie Tisch

Renée Zellweger closed an impressive and dominant awards season run Feb. 9 when she was handed an Oscar — her second — for taking on the title role in Judy as Ms. Garland. In the days since, Zellweger admits that she's caught up on sleep and taken care of an ailing dog but Thursday night, she returned to the spotlight for a cause close to her heart.

The event was called “An Unforgettable Evening” and it serves as the flagship fundraiser for Women’s Cancer Research Fund, a program of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Zellweger headlined as the evening’s Courage Award winner, an honor that came with a glass trophy and tribute from close friend Rita Wilson, a veteran honorary chair of the event. It was Wilson who explained how they settled on their selection. 

“Ultimately, we are honoring Renée, first and foremost tonight, not just for her talent, which is extraordinary, or for her charm, which is undeniable, but for her grit and grace, qualities Renée has demonstrated throughout her life in ways large and small. Renée's charitable contributions and philanthropic efforts throughout the years are too many to include tonight but [do include] Renée’s loving support of breast cancer research, especially when it came to being there for her longtime publicist Nanci Ryder, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and later ALS. Renée stood up on many occasions for Stand Up to Cancer events and has been a driving force in raising funds on behalf of the ALS Association’s Golden West Chapter rallying support as a key member of Team Nanci.”

Wilson continued: “Courage is sometimes depicted as a solitary achievement but our organization has taught us that courage is also a team effort. Tonight, we honor Renée not just for being on Nanci’s team but also for being on our team.”

She was then welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation from an audience that included WCRF co-founders Quinn Ezralow, Marion Laurie, Kelly Chapman Meyer and Jamie Tisch, BCRF president and CEO Myra Biblowit, BCRF-funded researcher Dr. Valerie Weaver, Camila Alves McConaughey, Maria Bello and fiancee Dominique Crenn, Elizabeth Chambers, Katie Couric, Cynthia Bailey, Tom Ford and Richard Buckley, Jeff and Ingrid Gordon, Nicky Hilton Rothschild, Paris Hilton, William P. Lauder, Judy and Leonard Lauder, Danielle Lauder, Monique Lhuillier, Loni Love, Chord Overstreet, Glen Powell, Kyle Richards and Mauricio Umansky, Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin, Martin Short, Destry Allyn Spielberg, Justin Sylvester, Rachel Zoe, Irena Medavoy, Kinga Lampert and others.

Actor, comedian and producer Ken Jeong (attending with wife Tran Ho, a breast cancer survivor) hosted the event and even prepared an amusing bit about being the forgotten Jonas brother, which he delivered before welcoming the only three Jonas Brothers to the stage. Nick, Joe and Kevin brought the crowd to their feet with a medley of hits to close the night, including the tracks “Only Human,” “Jealous,” “Cake by the Ocean” and “Sucker.”

In accepting her award, Zellweger paid respect to Wilson, a breast cancer survivor, by praising her grace through her cancer diagnosis and aggressive treatment protocol. “Your humor and gratitude through it all and that you chose to publicly share your experiences by not knowing how that might affect your life going forward before racing as soon as possible to rejoin your Broadway show, is an exemplary act of courage. You didn't know what the future held with your diagnosis or in sharing your story to encourage others to trust their intuition about their bodies and seek a second opinion or in returning to your very public work. In each case you leapt with faith to do what you felt was necessary anyway and I admire you.”

Zellweger then detailed an unforgettable evening of her own, a night when she and Ryder were preparing to attend the Fire and Ice charity ball for cancer research. 

"Despite being a seemingly extroverted, vivacious publicist, Nanci shuddered at the thought of public attention and would literally run from having her picture taken. Most of the photographs that I have are of Nanci’s hands holding up a magazine or a handbag to cover her face," recalled Zellweger. But when Ryder received an invitation to attend the ball, she accepted and asked her client to come along. 

"So, we agreed to meet at her house and drive together. When I arrived, Nanci was struggling with anxiety to make a beautiful new security blanket wig for the occasion sit straight on her bald head. She was upset and tugging away, and in her signature Long Island drawl, complained that she hated the wig and her dress wouldn’t fit because she was puffy from chemo and because she couldn't stop eating cookies."

Zellweger suggested that maybe it wasn't the right time for Ryder to judge her own cookie consumption. "'Maybe now is when you should allow yourself to have some cookies.' I thought this was a supportive and fair suggestion with all that she had been through, but Nancy was aghast. She yelled at me,” said Zellweger. “She said, ‘You’re only telling me to eat all the cookies because I’m sick. If I wasn't sick, you’d tell me to stop eating the cookies and to take care of myself. So stop telling me to eat cookies.’ And I said, 'Maybe you are right. Stop eating cookies and take care of yourself.’ She said, ‘Thank you. I’ll stop eating the cookies.’"

Just then, Ryder grabbed the wig and threw it across the room and said, "Let’s go.”

“With the effects of her chemo apparent for all to see, she leapt anyway. The seemingly smallest moments of defying fear reverberate and what results can change lives and our history.”