[Essay] Jennifer Aniston: Breaking the Typecast — Melissa Roberts

“You’re a shoe, you’re a shoe you’re a shoe you’re a shoe… but what if I don’t want to be a shoe?” Looking back now, I find that this joke from the pilot of ‘Friends’ carries a lot more weight, 20 years after it was first said. Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel foreshadowed the rest of her career within the first ten minutes of her big break.

What I have always found funny about Hollywood is its ability to champion a star’s determined worth over their talent. The more famous someone becomes, the less we seem to care about whether or not they are good at their job. Sure, maybe we will go to the cinema, watch their film and come out announcing “Oh, that was a load of crap” but it is always the film’s fault and those within it are just victims of poor direction and script.

Stars will continually be glorified even if they have an occasional flop or sell out feature, because we have invested in the star image that is shown to us through their work and publicity. These stars operate within the set frame of their star image: the Action babe, the girl next door, the all American, or the quirky bohemian. Within the money-making operation of Hollywood this makes sense, the star becomes a categorised commodity that can be streamlined into specific genres.

But what happens when the star says, “but what if I don’t want to be a shoe?”

After and during the ten year run of ‘Friends’, when you went to see a Jennifer Aniston film you were paying to see an incarnation of Rachel contained in a variable but predictable Rom-Com plot. Picture Perfect (1997) and The Object of My Affection (1998) both exemplify this. Now, I am not saying that this is a bad thing, but it does feed into the mass culture theory that we are being culturally neutered by Hollywood. Perhaps that is why it is so exciting when the actor or actress breaks the trend, allowing us to see them as humans with a talent, rather than a famous personality to place on a pedestal.

Jennifer Aniston’s latest film ‘Cake’ is a deviation from the norm that made me reminisce and think about one of my favourite Aniston movies: ‘The Good Girl’. This low budget, small 2002 film was not necessarily “good”, but it was different. I felt that I was watching Jennifer Aniston as an actress playing a character and not simply a version of herself that was favourable for her star image.

In the film Aniston plays Justine Last, a store clerk trapped by her life both at work and her home. When the film was released, she had portrayed fresh faced, funny Rachel on television for around eight years. Justine, however, is the antithesis of Rachel and most of the powerful and sexualised women that Aniston is famous for playing. There is something powerfully accessible about her tired, shallow and dull life. It is this accessibility that makes us celebrate when she has an affair with the young and troubled stock boy Holden (played by an equally young Jake Gyllenhaal). Despite it being an immoral decision it is the only good thing in her life, and we feel that we cannot condemn that.

The Good Girl” is primarily a sad film, it is not something that fans of the carefully cultivated image Jennifer Aniston embodies would expect or necessarily enjoy. However, I get the feeling that it potentially was something that she enjoyed as she was already a household name and earning more than enough money from ‘Friends’. It saddens me to think that Hollywood frames stars within an inescapable image with which they must conform in order to be a profitable commodity. I have great respect for Jennifer Aniston being a powerful and successful woman; however, I do criticise the industry that pigeon holed her success and actively transformed her from a human being into a simply beautiful image that we associate with a certain genre of film.

This is why the concept of the star image, while favourable for the finances of Hollywood and the stars, is damaging to the cultural spectrum of society. The people who have the greatest influence on many individuals are depicting lives that show no differentiation, distinctive or relatable qualities. For years Aniston has been and will be referred to as “Brad Pitt’s Ex”, an implication that his supposed infidelity was her fault rather than implicating her as the successful woman that she is. Fans and the studios have created an expected role for stars that traps them within the confines of a particular genre.

The cinema is a place of escape, however, we have also constructed it to be a place where some actors are irrevocably trapped within a role we demand them ceaselessly to reprise.

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