Surpassing the star power of her father, soap opera actor John Aniston, and even Godfather, Telly Savalas, Jennifer Aniston is unquestionably the best-known Greek-American actor – male or female – of our time and possibly of all time.
Yet the role for which she is most recognized and cherished, Rachel Green on the iconic sitcom Friends, might be a significant if not the overriding factor about why she did not win the Golden Globe Award for best actress in a dramatic film role – for her part as chronic pain sufferer Claire Bennett in the movie Cake – and why she was not even nominated for an Oscar.
The Academy Awards Committee released their Oscar nominees shortly after we went to press last week. For Best Actress in a Leading Role, the nominees are: Marion Cottilard, Felicity Jones, Julianne Moore, Rosamund Pike, and Reese Witherspoon. With the exception of Witherspoon, none of the others even come close to being as big a star as Aniston. That alone, though, does not render a nominee unqualified or even unlikely to win. After all, few before 1939 had ever heard of Vivien Leigh, who that year for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind beat an all-star cast of competitors: Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo, and Greer Garson.
Nominating newcomers, then, is nothing new. But what this year’s nominees lack that Aniston has in droves is not only instant recognition, but a strong background in television. Three of the five nominees have no small-screen experience at all, and the other two have a scanty one. Certainly, none can compare to Rachel Green – and that’s the problem.
In the history of the Academy Awards, only one actress has made the transformation from television comedy to a dramatic Oscar. Not Lucille Ball, not Gracie Fields, not Jean Stapleton, and not Mary Tyler Moore (though she came close in 1981). It was Sally Field, who started out as the lovable Gidget in the eponymous sitcom, followed by the starring role in The Flying Nun as Sister Bertrille. After those 1960s sitcoms, Field won a dramatic Best Actress Emmy in 1977 for her role as Sybil in the eponymous TV movie, and then two Best Actress Oscars for Norma Rae in 1980 and Places in the Heart in 1985. That’s it – just one – just Sally Field. And even so, Gidget only lasted one season and The Flying Nun three. Friends, by comparison, aired for ten glory-filled years – rendering the persona of Rachel a much more difficult one to shed.
Actors often complain they are unable to rid themselves of instantly being associated with a character they portrayed. The frustration is exacerbated when there is genre gap. For instance, Shakespearean actors Fred Gwynne, Robert Reed, and Pernell Roberts often criticized the writing on their television shows The Munsters, The Brady Bunch, and Bonanza, respectively, as being sophomoric – Gwynne most of all, who was never separate himself in the public eye from the fictional Herman Munster.
A recent New York Times article titled “Putting ‘the Cloak of Rachel’ to Rest describes the “pretty, peppy Aniston” in Cake shedding her Rachel persona for “scars on her face, flab on her body, an anguished gait, and an acid tongue.” That Times article author, Frank Bruni, described Aniston as appearing resentful that somehow she hasn’t displayed her acting skills until now – referring particularly to a Guardian piece, “Cake Review – an Anti-Vanity Vehicle for Jennifer Aniston,” in which writer Catherine Shoard refers to Aniston’s “hitherto hidden acting chops.”
Aniston also described to Bruni a double standard that continues to persevere in Hollywood, in which male actors on average are still paid more than females, are not asked questions such as “why aren’t you married yet?” and “why don’t you have children yet?” and are not the object of scrutiny as their looks begin to give way to age.
On a somewhat related note, Aniston continues to deflect a seemingly endless “love triangle” media fixation among herself, ex-husband Brad Pitt, and his current wife, Angelina Jolie. She showed measured tolerance for the paparazzi angle that her quest for an Oscar would somehow give her a leg up on Jolie, who is also in contention for awards for her directing the movie Unbroken. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight following the Academy announcements – Jolie was not nominated, either – Aniston had nothing but praiseful words. “That movie is so beautiful and wonderful,” Aniston said, “and she did such a gorgeous job. I think that it’s time people stop with that petty BS and just start celebrating great work and stop with the petty kind of silliness.”
Though Sally Field is a rare exception to the rule of situation comediennes making a name for themselves on the dramatic big screen, there are somewhat less direct but nonetheless relevant success stories. Tom Hanks got his start on a TV sitcom and became a prominent Hollywood dramatic lead actor – winning the Best Actor Oscar twice. Pernell Roberts didn’t make the TV-to-films transition, but after years of brooding as Bonanza’s Adam Cartwright, he resurrected his career with the somewhat more sophisticated title role in Trapper John, MD. Other stars with eminently identifiable characters include Larry Hagman, who was the likable Major Anthony Nelson on the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie in the early 1960s, by the late 1970s had become dramatic villain millions around the world loved to hate – J.R. Ewing. Hagman’s good friend Carroll O’Connor, also an institution in his own right as the outrageous Archie Bunker on the classic sitcom All in the Family, successfully put Archie on the shelf and became Chief Bill Gillespie on In the Heat of the Night, a TV series adapted from the 1967 film, in which Rod Steiger played Gillespie and won the Oscar for Best Actor.
Though Roberts, Hagman, and O’Connor all made the transition within the television industry, they are proof (particularly the latter two) that stars known for playing characters even more famous than Rachel Green can succeed in other roles.
TIME RUNNING OUT?
Only 45, Aniston is still very much a young woman. It surely helps that she looks younger than her years, because as she pointed out about Hollywood sexism, it is difficult for women to land starring film roles as they age. Difficult, but not impossible. Katharine Hepburn, the only person ever to win four Best Actress Oscars, won her last three at age 60, 61, and 74. The oldest woman to win that award was Jessica Tandy, in 1989, at age 80. Shirley Booth won the Best Actress Oscar at age 54. A decade later, she went against the grain, making the transition from big screen drama to the zany TV comedy Hazel, in which she starred in the eponymous leading role.
Meanwhile, Aniston appreciates the thunderous support from her fans, outraged by the Academy’s failure to nominate her. “It was almost just as good to be No. 1 snubbed than to be nominated,” she told the Huffington Post.
Is this the end of the road for Jennifer Aniston’s quest for dramatic acting recognition? As Rachel might say: “Nuh-uh!”