Jennifer Aniston is a loner. Not a loser, a loner. She gets called a loser because she seems like a loner who might rather not be alone, and I guess vacationing in Mexico with Courteney Cox doesn’t count. She gets called a loser because she married an actor who represents the most traditional ideals of male beauty, and then he left her for an actress who stands for the most extreme iteration of female sexual power. She gets called a loser because there is a persistent belief that no unmarried woman can be all that happy, no matter how much else she has. If her marriage to Brad Pitt represented the triumph of the girl next door, her divorce is the kick in the face that says “Stay in your lane.”
Getting cuckolded by Angelina Jolie is a perfect storm of female insecurities; Jolie is younger, more beautiful. She has an Oscar, even if she hasn’t done anything since Girl Interrupted that proves she deserved it. Aniston has millions of dollars, a hugely successful acting career, and great comedic timing. But she is also Jennifer Aniston, the losing point in the world’s most famous love triangle, and therefore subject to constant public humiliation about her dating prospects.
Aniston and Jolie are both second-generation actors, born into the business and raised in Los Angeles. Aniston’s father played a mobster on Days Of Our Lives, Jolie’s dad is Jon Voight. The relationship between Aniston’s and Jolie’s careers is a lot like the competitive relationship between TV and film, or comedy and drama. In marrying Brad Pitt, Aniston moved up to the A-list, where movie stars live. In getting dumped for Jolie, she was essentially getting dumped back down to television, with the other plebeian actors.
Jennifer Aniston could have sex with the USC football team on the moon and it still wouldn’t prove to anyone that she is more sexually powerful than Angelina Jolie. She can date every hot guy in Hollywood, and it still won’t stop tabloids from saying “Poor Jen.” She is damned no matter what. If she acts like she’s over it, she gets accused of repressing and lying about her feelings. If she admits she has feelings, she gets pegged as a permanent loser.
When you get dumped, it’s bad enough. When you get dumped for somebody else it is nearly impossible not to fixate on your sexual competitor. You become more enamored of your former partner in their absence, and then also consumed with winning them back. By the time you have come to grips with the fact that anyone who’d leave you is not worth winning back you are already way too far down the rabbit hole of obsession, self-hatred, and rage.
Since her divorce, Aniston has been trying to show off what exactly is superior about her: She has a great conversational sense of humor, seems basically easy-going, and never wore a vial of blood to an awards show or made out with her brother in front of cameras. But whenever she does, all the focus goes to the fact that she is trying to do it at all.
Any time she seeks to demonstrate that she is confident and doesn’t feel humiliated, the media humiliates her and tries to assassinate her self-esteem with more “poor Jen” stories. There is too much pressure on Jennifer Aniston to succeed in too many arenas; at the box office, the altar, the bathroom mirror. And she is too sensitive not to show off how affected she is by the pressure.
The turning point seemed to come earlier this year, when Aniston signed up for a Judd Apatow produced movie called Wanderlust and did a spread in Harper’s Bazaar in which she impersonated her hero, Barbra Streisand. The Streisand shoot was in stark contrast to the sexy puppy shoot she did for GQ (naked save a necktie), which really did seem desperate and try-hardish. It was as if she finally realized the difference between herself and Jolie: Aniston is funny. And like Streisand, she is less Jolie than jolie laide. And if you focus on Jolie for a while you realize she’s actually pretty jolie laide herself. Any beautiful person becomes grotesque when you stare at them long enough.
Build a show around James Gandolfini or Steve Buscemi and nobody bats an eye when they are shown bedding beautiful women.1 Build a show around Sarah Jessica-Parker and launch a billion meaningless mouth-frothing blog comments about straight guys who think she’s ugly old and gross. Who. Cares. It doesn’t make her less funny. It doesn’t make her a bad actress. SJP has a zillion dollars and she would never sleep with you, either. Because there are so few “ugly” (but actually just ethnic or nontraditional-looking in any way) famous actresses, we really cling to the few we have. There are infinite “ugly” famous actors. Nobody cares that they are not handsome, because they are great actors.
Jennifer Aniston gets a kind of public mockery and extreme level of hatred that other less talented, more beautiful actresses don’t get. Aniston gets the loud public hatred of people who care inappropriately much about the superficial beauty of talented-at-their-craft actresses and the echoed hatred of women who hate themselves because of how impossible standards of beauty are. Even those who do seem to achieve them eventually age out.
The actresses who seem beautiful into old age are the ones like Helen Mirren who don’t cling to their vanity too ridiculously much, who don’t attempt to chase their younger selves with needles forever until they become unrecognizable. They continue to seem beautiful; we fell in love with their personalities to begin with, and personalities reside in their faces. We love specific actors because they look specific.
Aniston is a punching bag for single women, for cuckolded divorcées, for anyone who’s ever had the rug pulled out from under them and then been told they should never have bought that rug to begin with because they can’t afford it. And then also the sympathetic heroine of those same women, who work for themselves and actually can afford the rug. But all of that is exactly what makes Aniston such a great comedienne. Comedians are punching bags.
On Friends and in her best film roles she is less like Barbara Streisand than Streisand’s ex-husband Elliott Gould.2 In the ’70s, when white ethnic actors became the stars of the New Hollywood, Gould perfected a kind of archetypal loser, modern antihero. More self-loathing than Dustin Hoffman, goofier than Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (and therefore less believably violent), less blatantly lecherous than Jack Nicholson. Elliott Gould has an easy loopy, stoned charisma, and so does Jennifer Aniston. Her reputation as an offscreen loser in love seems especially cruel given that on-screen she seems exceptionally capable of talking you into sleeping with her.
Jennifer Aniston should move out of Los Angeles. She should move to Berkeley or Sedona or some other haven for rich hippies, teach yoga, and scout out her own My Best Friend’s Wedding or Bridesmaids. If she could make a comedy that isn’t about weddings or even romance at all, that would be the best. She should do a well-written stoner/MILF/buddy-comedy with somebody like Martha Plimpton or Laura Linney (or both).
Jennifer Aniston needs to embrace her inner loser. She needs to do it on-screen. Instead of working overtime to show the media how full and fun her life is, she needs to stop caring so much/at all about what anyone else thinks. Her life is certainly full, but we’ll never believe that it’s fun if she keeps always trying so hard to show us how fun it is (I bet it’s pretty fun). Her best cinematic turns are in The Good Girl, Office Space, and Friends With Money in which she plays screw-ups and potheads. Her worst movies are when she gets cast as the generic, overly fussy, responsible Type A with a screwed-up love life that romantic comedies still tend to traffic in.3 As hard-working as she is, she does not seem like a Type A personality. She seems like a Type B, occasionally veering all the way into Type D.4 Playing a bitch from hell in Horrible Bosses is a perfect step. It proves she can laugh at herself, and specifically mock the pathetic sexual desperation that gets attached to her.
Things crumble. Lots of marriages meet a bad end and both exes continue living. They keep going to work. They might not feel like showing up and putting on a brave face, but they do. Jennifer Aniston has no choice but to show up, and there is no bathroom for her to cry in. And people assume she is crying when it’s more likely she’s smoking a joint. Aniston has to figure out how to work the chill offscreen Jennifer Aniston into the neurotic on-screen one. To remind us in movies why she was so compelling on TV. Or she could marry Jon Hamm. That would work, too.
Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.