A sense of shock rumbled through the media’s coverage of year-end film award nominees. The reason? Jennifer Aniston’s name suddenly began to crop up among the acting contenders for her work as a prickly chronic pain sufferer in the little-seen indie film “Cake” (it opens in limited release on Jan. 23).
She managed to sidestep such Oscar veterans as Hilary Swank (“The Homesman”), Marion Cotillard (“Two Days, One Night” and “The Immigrant”) and Amy Adams (“Big Eyes”) to claim a spot on the Screen Actors Guild’s list of female leads. Aniston also wound up on the Golden Globe roster of film actresses competing in the drama category and was one of the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s choices for best female lead in a movie.
Prognosticators soon followed, quickly making sure to place Aniston among their picks for the top-five Best Actress candidates. But the pundits who regularly cover such awards season shouldn’t have been that surprised, considering that all season long many have declared 2014 a weak year for notable female roles, a situation not helped by the fact that the race is full of male-dominated biopics. Someone was bound to take advantage of the situation late in the game and crash the lineup of likely suspects that have been bouncing around since early fall.
Others have succeeded before in pulling off such an feat. Jessica Lange, who has a supporting trophy for 1982’s “Tootsie,” after four attempts won her first and only lead actress Oscar as a military man’s unhinged bombshell wife in 1994’s “Blue Sky.” The title, mostly forgotten now, had sat on the shelf since 1991 after distributor Orion Pictures filed for bankruptcy. The buzz for Lange’s performance began after it premiered in September of that year at the Toronto International Film Festival – just as “Cake” did last fall.
That race two decades ago was also a less-than-robust one for women on the big screen. Lange’s competition? Jodie Foster in “Nell,” Miranda Richardson in “Tom & Viv,” Winona Ryder in “Little Women” and Susan Sarandon in “The Client.” Only Ryder offered any real threat.
It helps that Aniston is one of the more likable performers around ever since she won the hearts (and influenced the hairstyles) of countless fans as Rachel Green for 10 seasons on the hit sitcom “Friends,” which has just become available for viewing on Netflix. No wonder the Toronto crowd at the “Cake” premiere gave her a rousing standing ovation even before the movie was shown. Plus, she is the ultimate underdog, one who still earns sympathy for being portrayed as a victim of that media-created celebrity monster known as Brangelina.
Yes, she has done her share of subpar rom-coms (and has duly collected four Razzie nominations as a result) and should have thought twice before signing on for another round of embarrassing high jinks as a lascivious dentist in “Horrible Bosses 2” (which might lead to a fifth chance at a Razzie). But that doesn’t mean that Aniston doesn’t deserve all those “for your consideration” ads. And after topping People magazine’s Most Beautiful list in 2004 and being declared “The Sexiest Woman of All Time” by readers of “Men’s Health” magazine in 2011, that’s not just because she is stripped of all makeup, exhibits facial scars and has limp fly-away hair in “Cake.”
Aniston isn’t just a pretty woman. She is also a pretty good and even great actress when given the chance. Here are seven reasons why funny lady Aniston should be taken seriously.
1. She can spin dreck into box-office gold. Hollywood loves to reward those whose name equals money in the bank. And Aniston has proven her worth again and again. Jim Carrey might have been the main reason that her biggest hit, 2003’s “Bruce Almighty,” took in $242.8 million in ticket sales. But certainly it was her presence—and not male costar Jason Sudeikis, also in those “Horrible Bosses” movies—in 2013’s “We’re the Millers” (abetted by a highly publicized striptease scene) that caused it to overachieve at the box office to the tune of $150.4 million while becoming her No. 2 grosser.
According to Box Office Mojo, Aniston’s career box-office total is $1.5 billion for 27 films, with an average gross of $54.3 million. That tops one of her expected Oscar rivals, Reese Witherspoon in “Wild,” whose lifetime box office is $1.2 billion for 29 films, with an average gross of $41.4 million
2. Her best reviews have come from dramatic roles. A quick check of Aniston’s Rotten Tomatoes scores shows that she might be at her best – or at least more appreciated – in smaller films that rely on more than cheap laughs. She previously glammed down and impressed critics as an unhappily married small-town store clerk who engages in an affair with a coworker in 2002’s “The Good Girl.” As Todd Gilchrist of IGN Movies noted, “Jennifer Aniston searches for meaning and passion in a swirl of suburban malaise and ironically may have finally found a character who can reveal the shades of her talent.”
While Oscar voters overlooked her efforts, Aniston did get nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. In 2006, she also collected glowing reviews for her cash-strapped, pot-smoking housecleaner who relies on handouts from her well-off pals in Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money.” As Sandra Hall of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “In a low-key way, it’s a very fine performance. Poker-faced Aniston may be, but everything Olivia needs to say is right there in her eyes.”
3. She has been considered award-worthy before. Aniston already has enough honors to fill at least a shelf or two. They include a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her role on “Friends” and a Screen Actors Guild ensemble award shared by the sitcom’s cast. Even more impressive: She won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Female TV Performer four times in a row between 2001 and 2004.
And, at the end of this month, Aniston receives the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Montecito Award “in honor of her celebrated career.” Previous winners have included Oprah Winfrey, Daniel Day-Lewis, Julianne Moore and Javier Bardem – not bad company at all.
4. She makes 45 look good. The 40s tend to be an awkward period for even the most acclaimed female performers. No less than Meryl Streep struggled with finding suitable parts throughout the 1990s, trying her hand at being a mother-hen action hero in “The River Wild” (1994) or being stuck in a tepid crime-drama potboiler like “Before and After” (1996).
But Aniston has managed to stay busy without straying too far afield from her typical comedic efforts that the public continues to support – until “Cake” came along, that is. She is not shy about showing off her well-maintained assets on magazine covers and in movies (her tasteful nude stroll in 2006’s “The Break-Up” opposite former-squeeze Vince Vaughn is a keeper), yet manages to maintain an age-appropriate style.
Just as the success of his highly profitable, long-running sitcom has provided a protective shield for Jerry Seinfeld’s future pursuits, there is a sense that the moviegoers will also follow Aniston wherever she goes – whether it’s opposite a scene-stealing Labrador retriever in 2008’s “Marley & Me” or being Adam Sandler’s pretend estranged wife in 2011’s “Just Go With It.”
5. She isn’t rattled by gossip headlines. Despite having her private life turned into an ongoing soap opera ever since Brad Pitt took up with now-wife Angelina Jolie — his co-star in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” – after their divorce in 2005, Aniston has kept fairly cool and collected about it all. “I don’t find it painful,” she recently said on “CBS This Morning.” “I think it’s a narrative that follows you because it’s an interesting headline. It’s more of a media-driven topic.”
Aniston, who is engaged to actor Justin Theroux, also says she and Pitt remain cordial. “We’ve exchanged good wishes and all that sort of stuff to each other, but it is not a constant thing.” She even had the wherewithal to turn the tables on her divorced male interviewer by adding, “I mean, do you talk to your ex-wife?”
6. She hasn’t had to resort to a TV series to find substantial roles. Of all her co-stars on “Friends,” both male and female, Aniston is the only cast member to have established a truly successful film career. Courteney Cox had a good run as an opportunistic news reporter in the “Scream” franchise and Lisa Kudrow collected kudos for 1997’s “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” and as Billy Crystal’s wife in both 1999’s “Analyze This” and 2002’s “Analyze That.”
But Aniston’s cast mates have done better on the small screen, Cox is wrapping up six seasons of “Cougar Town,” currently on TBS, and Kudrow just finished her second stint on HBO’s “The Comeback.” While David Schwimmer stays busy doing voice work for the animated “Madagascar” films and occasionally directing, Matt LeBlanc headlines Showtime’s “Episodes” and Matthew Perry will executive produce and star as Felix Unger in a revival of “The Odd Couple,“ premiering next month on CBS.
Then again, Aniston already paid her TV dues early in her career, suffering through four failed sitcoms – including a misguided series based on 1986 hit comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (as the disgruntled sister originally played by Jennifer Grey) – before she did “Friends.”
7. Finally, Aniston achieved the impossible: getting great reviews in a mediocre drama. It probably won’t matter that “Cake” now stands with only a 44% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The LA Times’ Sheri Linden summed up the general sentiment about the movie: “It’s a letdown that the film itself … doesn’t take half the chances its leading lady does and is content to paddle around the shallows rather than plunge into the deep end.”
But even negative critics were impressed by Aniston’s raw portrayal of her broken woman’s struggles: “Yes, the makeup’s off, but so are almost all of Aniston’s familiar mannerisms we’ve seen in one studio comedy after another,” wrote HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood. “Aniston makes you believe in Claire’s pain. She makes you believe this character is at her lowest point and only she can pull herself out of it. There is no Oscar scene. There is no massive crying fit. It’s a complete performance from beginning to end and she deserves the appropriate accolades for it.”
As for Aniston, she recently told NPR that she isn’t necessarily seeking more outlets to show her dramatic side. “I’d love to play more dramatic roles but I love comedic roles…. But honestly, after doing “Cake,” I feel like I scratched an itch that’s been needing to be scratched.”
The actress also sounds proud of being part of a riskier film like “Cake” beyond the acclaim for her efforts. As Aniston said during her CBS chat, “We were a little teeny, weensy movie made for four dollars and we poured our hearts into it and everyone worked so hard, so that this is happening on top of that, it’s just like a huge giant juicy cherry on top.”
Her reply to all those doubters who ever dismissed her as simply being a sitcom or romantic comedy star? “A little part of me saying, ‘I told you so?’ Maybe a teensy one.”