Jennifer Aniston: a career profile

Andrew Collins sees the actress struggling to escape the shadow of her role as Rachel in Friends

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In May last year, the “Rachel” was named in a poll as the most requested hairstyle of all time among British women. Created for Jennifer Aniston’s character of the same name in US sitcom Friends in 1994, its endurance is astonishing. “I’ve noticed lots of beauty editors have been asking me recently for it,” said celebrity hairdresser Mark Woolley. “It’s a cut that flatters almost everyone, designed to make women look beautiful.”

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However, one woman who won’t be popping into her local salon this week with a dog-eared picture of Rachel is Jennifer Aniston. She told a women’s magazine in January, “I think it was the ugliest haircut I’ve ever seen. Let’s just say I’m not a fan of short, layered cuts on me personally.”

Look at me, talking about a haircut! How can a layered “shag” – as I believe it’s technically known – be more important than the actress underneath it? The answer: it isn’t. But the viral popularity of the “Rachel”, and its abiding legacy, 17 years later, goes some way to explaining the frustration of being Jennifer Aniston.

She’s talented, she’s attractive, she’s had the most consistent career of any of the Friends sextet since the last episode in 2004, and yet she seems trapped, perpetually playing variations of Rachel. In doggie caper Marley & Me, she’s Rachel with a labrador. In many ways, that might be enough. But it isn’t.

Pretty much unknown when she was cast as Rachel Green in NBC’s era-defining sitcom, Aniston quickly stole our hearts as the daddy’s girl and aspiring fashionista, not least through her on-off relationship with geeky Ross (David Schwimmer).

It wasn’t just the hair. She’s a totally natural comic performer, as adept with a subtle nose wrinkle as a full-on pratfall, and fluent in quick-fire patter. In fact, all six Friends seemed poised to cross over from small to silver screen, although the journey was littered with the bodies of TV icons that had failed, from William Shatner to Roseanne Barr.

Aniston made a gradual transition; while still doing Friends, she mixed modest romantic comedies like Picture Perfect with darker indie fare like Office Space (Friday Sky Comedy) and The Good Girl. In the latter, she did well as a lonely shop assistant in a one-horse Texan town and scored points with the critics.

But by the time Friends ended, she was into a lucrative but familiar groove that persists to this day. In seven years, she’s gone from playing the free-spirited, kooky salsa dancer in the life of risk-averse Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly to playing the free-spirited, kooky nurse in the life of wedding-averse Adam Sandler in Just Go with It (from Monday FilmFlex). In the latter, she has two kids. That’s as far as she’s come.

The tragedy of this is that she’s a cut above, say, Kate Hudson, when it comes to romantic comedies. But these films, aimed at a female audience yet pretty much all written and directed by men, are variations on the same plot, and require Aniston to do what she was doing in Friends, except with slightly different jobs. In the forthcoming Horrible Bosses, she plays one of the bosses, a man-eating dentist, and we should welcome this tweak in Aniston’s modus operandi. A waitress no longer!

It may be that turning 40, as she did two years ago, will actually bring Aniston some meatier roles, and the solid body of work she has under her belt will grant her the luxury to mature. That said, I’m not sure if the photoshoot she did for Allure in February in pink pyjamas, holding a teddy bear, will help her to be treated like a grown-up.

I don’t usually clog my brain with such things, but Aniston was famously once married to actor Brad Pitt and is now rumoured to be going out with actor Justin Theroux (her co-star in Wanderlust, due later this year – it’s a romantic comedy). Just as her haircut once threatened to eclipse her head, so her private life has often engulfed her professional one. But she deserves better.

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Consider Bridesmaids, currently rewriting the rulebook for romantic comedies by presenting a militantly female- centric spin on that old favourite, the wedding movie. If only Aniston had landed a feistier, ruder part in something like this, say, five years ago, it might have given her the chance to flex her muscles. That hairdo might “flatter almost everyone”, but identikit kooky roles opposite a revolving cartel of funny blokes do not.