Does art mimic life or is it the other way around? For Jennifer Aniston, it's all the same. The age-old question has new meaning when studying her movies, which are filled with eerily coincidental references to her off-screen self—particularly the ongoing drama of her relationships. The title of He's Just Not That Into You speaks for itself, but having recently re-screened 15 films from the Aniston canon, there are clear lessons for the actress in her own work.
“I haven’t wanted to seem demanding or clingy or psycho,” Beth says. So true to life that Googling “Aniston” and “clingy” returns over 23,000 results.
Before we begin, in the interest of full disclosure I must admit to being a shirt-owning member of Team Aniston. Even after logging countless hours nit-picking her work, there is no one I'd rather spend time with. To quote Jake Gyllenhaal when he presented her with the GLAAD Vanguard Award in 2007, “Everyone falls in love with Jennifer and I have to say it's always her fault.”
Caution: The following contains plot spoilers.
MOVIE: Dream for an Insomniac (1996) LESSON: LOVE YOUR FRIENDS Most of this movie takes place in the Central Perk of San Francisco. Aniston’s Allison hails from Pacific Heights (Aniston was born in Sherman Oaks) and moves to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career (Aniston moved there in 1989). When her best friend Frankie (Ione Skye) loses the love of her life, Allison consoles: "There are other fish in the sea… You wanna go shopping?" Less appropriately she offers, “Stealing a man for a living—that ain't easy. Unless, of course, he's married.” Bonus lesson from Frankie’s lover: “There are too many mediocre things in life. Love shouldn't be one of them.”
MOVIE: She’s The One (1996) LESSON: HUSBANDS CHEAT—AND BUY EXTRA BATTERIES Aniston's small role as Renee in this classic '90s love-triangle is heightened by correlations to Aniston's actual love life. "My husband has some ethics—he’s not some sort of cheating sleazebag," Renee says. Oh, but he is. Even her demands for sex didn't turn him on: "From time to time, I need to pleasure myself with a vibrator. Deal with it."
MOVIE: Picture Perfect (1997) LESSON: IT’S IMPORTANT TO BE LIKED Aniston's character Kate pretends she's engaged to an earnest wedding videographer (Jay Mohr) to secure a promotion at her advertising firm. The real takeaway seems to be that manipulation works in the bedroom and the boardroom. And when Kate’s mom aches for grandchildren, the I-never-said-I-don't-want-kids Aniston replies, "I'm looking into getting my eggs frozen." Her character's final epiphany: "I convinced myself that whatever talent I had meant nothing unless it came in this package that everyone liked."
MOVIE: The Object of My Affection (1998) LESSON: FIGHT FOR LOVE SO YOU DON'T END UP ALONE Aniston plays Nina, a social worker who gets pregnant with her boyfriend Vince (not Vaughn, played by John Pankow). But Nina decides to raise her newborn with her gay BFF, George (Paul Rudd), whose ex-boyfriend is named Joley. (It’s truly unnerving to hear that name uttered.) Capping it all off is an aging gay friend who warns her, "Don't fix your life so you're left alone right when you come to the middle of it." She gets the point. Nina's mantra? "You have to pick one person and make it work." She also tells Brad, er, George: "I want to look at you and not feel so hurt by you." Bonus: repeated (borderline obsessive) references to her nose (she's had two actual surgeries) as "a tulip."
MOVIE: Office Space (1999) LESSON: PRIVATE LIVES ARE PRIVATE It's like a lower-class Rachel Green walked out right into Chotchkie's, a T.G.I. Friday's-like restaurant where Aniston plays Joanna (her actual middle name). When confronted by her boyfriend (Ron Livingston) about her sexual history, Joanna goes on defense: "That is none of your business! How dare you judge me....Why don't you just call me when you grow up." Aniston, too, has of course complained about the prying public. "I think it's ridiculous," she told USA Today in December. "There's just this insatiable need... I feel like telling people, 'You know what? It's none of your [expletive] business.' Seriously, it's enough."
MOVIE: Rock Star (2001) LESSON: DEMAND HONESTY AND RESPECT Playing the girlfriend and manager of an amateur rocker (Mark Wahlberg), Aniston’s Emily grows tired of being overshadowed—and being called Yoko Ono. It doesn’t take much time on the road before she realizes she’s better than being a rocker’s girlfriend. “I'm not leaving you, but I am leaving this," Emily says. Or when confronting Wahlberg about his promiscuity, she pleads: "Don't lie to me. Please don't lie to me." Two words for you, Jen: John Mayer.
MOVIE: The Good Girl (2002) LESSON: SETTLE DOWN BUT NEVER SETTLE As a frustrated retail clerk, Aniston's Justine is depressed about her life and her marriage. "I saw in your eyes that you hate the world. I hate it too," she tells her new coworker played by Jake Gyllenhaal, with whom she has an affair. "My husband doesn't get me," Justine says. She repairs her marriage after getting pregnant but the notion that she settled is evident throughout the film. As Aniston told Vogue of her own marriage: "Whoever said everything has to be forever, that's setting your hopes too high. It's too much pressure. And I think if you put that pressure on yourself—because I did! Fairy tale! It has to be the right one!—that's unattainable."
MOVIE: Bruce Almighty (2003) LESSON: TRY TO HAVE FAITH In this kid-friendly blockbuster, Aniston plays Grace, the girlfriend of a goofy local newscaster played by (Jim Carrey). She wants to get engaged. Instead, Carrey’s character is given the powers of God and winds up kissing another woman. In short, the power of her prayers brings them back together. “Everything happens for a reason,” Grace says at one point. Likewise, Aniston told Vogue of her surprise kinship with John Mayer: “Love just shows up and you go, ‘Oh, wow, this is going to be a hayride and a half.’” Bonus lesson: Carrey asks, “I’m pushing 40 and what do I have to show for it?”
MOVIE: Along Came Polly (2004) LESSON: YOU CAN GO YOUR OWN WAY Aniston's Polly is the laid-back, free-spirit yang to Ben Stiller's OCD yin. She eats a Luna bar off the ground; she plays hard to get. "I'm not really big on the whole long-term commitment thing," Polly says. "I'm kind-of coming out of eight bad relationships." In one scene Polly lays out her dating philosophy: "I've been living my life! I've been in good relationships and I've been in shitty ones... I've been happy and I've been sad and I've been lonely." Aniston also echoed that in real life, telling Vanity Fair the following year: "Am I lonely? Upset? Confused? Yes. But I'm a tough cookie."
MOVIE: Derailed (2005) LESSON: JUST BE YOURSELF The black sheep in the Aniston canon, her character Lucinda is violently raped after she seduces a married man. The twisted thriller unravels from there. The film flopped and Aniston took the hint. " Derailed... kind of... derailed," she said later. "Thrillers are tough. I'm glad I did it, but I don't need to do these kinds of movies. It's kind of like caviar. I don't need to have it again."
MOVIE: Rumor Has It (2005) LESSON: DIVORCE AS NEEDED Aniston's newly engaged character Sarah is not a fan of the marriage convention. "When he asked me to marry him, I didn't feel what I think you're supposed to feel—I felt terrified," she reveals early on. "I feel like if you get married, that's it. You have a bunch of kids." Her grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, responds: "You make marriage sound like a death sentence... You haven't lived fully since you lived through one [divorce]." By the time this film came out, she had.
MOVIE: The Break-Up (2006) LESSON: BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO—BUT WORTH IT Analysis of the ironic lessons in this film could fill a thesis—especially because at the time of filming, Aniston was dating her costar, Vince Vaughn. Is it so implausible that Aniston followed Vaughn’s character’s initial pick-up line? “Do you think you'll marry him?” Gary asks, referring to her current boyfriend. “If you're not going to marry him, if it's not forever, then you really don't have anything to lose in [going out with me].” Way to set the bar high, Vince. Or perhaps she was empowered when she screams at Gary: “I deserve someone who gives a shit. I'm not spending one more second of this life with some inconsiderate prick… I just don't feel like you appreciate any of it... I don't feel you appreciate me.” Bonus lesson: Get even post-split by looking even sexier. Aniston’s naked strut down the hallway in The Break-Up made Vaughn eat his heart out—her semi-nude GQ cover two years later stopped a few.
MOVIE: Friends with Money (2006) LESSON: THERE ISN’T ONLY ONE PATH Aniston’s Olivia is the only person in her group of friends who lacks an extreme amount of disposable income. She works as a housemaid (“I'm sorry I don't have my entire life figured out”), suffers from low self-esteem, and goes out of her way to acquire free samples of moisturizer (and stealing them from her clients). Why doesn’t she have a boyfriend? “I don’t know—ask my last boyfriend,” she says. She also stalks her married ex-beau, whose wife asks why she doesn't get her own husband. “I would if I fucking could,” she responds.
MOVIE: Marley & Me (2008) LESSON: DOGS KEEP YOU YOUNG Aniston plays... Jennifer, a dog-loving mother of three who struggles with the demands of her marriage and motherhood. One key moment: Aniston (who cherishes her real-life pups Norman and Dolly) celebrates her husband's 40th birthday by jumping in their pool naked. “We're not old... We can still surprise ourselves," she says. Aniston, meanwhile, told Vogue, "I'm 30-10. I don't feel 40. I don't know what it means. I just know that all of a sudden it's something that's in print next to my name: And now she's 40." And now, she is.
MOVIE: He’s Just Not That Into You (2009) LESSON: DON’T BE CLINGY Sure, the film is stuffed to the brim with clichés and disconcerting portrayals of gender roles, but there’s something to be said for an Aniston character who earnestly explains why she hasn’t raised the issue of marriage with her boyfriend of seven years. “I haven’t wanted to seem demanding or clingy or psycho,” Beth says. “Are you ever going to marry me?…I can’t do this anymore.” So true to life that Googling “Aniston” and “clingy” returns over 23,000 results. As a source close to Aniston countered to Us Weekly last summer, “If she said she wants kids and he's not ready, that's not being needy. It's being honest.” After Aniston’s on-screen breakup with Ben Affleck’s marriage-phobic character (but before she’s called “an older model”), her sister assures her, “Tons of people make the choice to be alone.”
Happy birthday, Jen.