Jennifer Aniston and the curse of 'Friends'

Her latest film is yet another flop. Even so, she's doing well compared to her former co-stars, reports Guy Adams in Los Angeles
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The Independent Culture

For Jennifer Aniston, it was just another week at the (box) office. First, she tiptoed up a red carpet on the arm of an eligible male co-star. Then, she mounted a PR blitz that put her on the front of almost every gossip magazine in America. Finally, after swinging by several chat-show studios, she holed-up at a female bachelor pad in the Hollywood hills to see how The Switch, her latest heavily-marketed romantic comedy, would perform in cinemas.

You didn't need a crystal ball to predict what would happen next; just a healthy sense of history. Like most of the movies that the 41-year-old actress has launched since the demise of Friends, the TV series which made her famous, The Switch bombed. Despite all the marketing, the vaguely biographical tale of a single fortysomething who turns to sperm donors to satisfy a ticking biological clock, opened to complete apathy, limping into eighth position in the weekend box office charts, with ticket sales of just $8m (£5.1m).

To put that figure into context, it was less than half the amount made by Sylvester Stallone's kitsch action film The Expendables, which remains top of the charts in its second week of release, and $4m less than the figure recorded by the second placed title, a low-budget horror spoof called Vampires Suck. It was worse than the weekend's other underperforming new releases, Emma Thompson's Nanny McPhee Returns, and Piranha 3D. As headline-writers put it, Aniston's film about a turkey-baster turned out to be a turkey.

It also highlighted an unfortunate paradox. Though Jennifer Aniston is comfortably one of the world's most famous and recognisable women, her movie career has been defined by failure. Three of her last four releases have now been financial disasters. Management closed after making just $2m in May 2009. Love Happens returned $36m. Her last effort, The Bounty Hunter, defied awful reviews to post $136m globally. But these days, when even cheap studio flicks cost $60m, that doesn't put it into blockbuster territory.

Little wonder, then, that followers of this most cut-throat of industries are currently unsheathing their poisoned pens. "At what point will Hollywood give up on Jennifer Aniston?" read a headline in Forbes yesterday, above a piece which pointed out that the star's commercial track record seems at odds with her enormous wage demands, which currently make her the third-highest-paid actress in Hollywood, with annual earnings estimated at $27m (only Sandra Bullock and Angelina Jolie fare better).

"Exactly why is she a movie star?" asked Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times, pointing out that "she's made an almost-unbroken string of forgettable movies that have rarely made a lot of money". Perez Hilton, the acerbic blogger who is seemingly beloved of a younger generation of readers, put things more succinctly. "Poor Maniston!" he declared on Sunday evening. "She is just not a film star!"

The case against Aniston looks even more compelling when you consider the fact that biggest successes – Bruce Almighty, The Break-Up, and Marley & Me – have all seen her in a co-starring role, where she has played second fiddle in the public's affections to Jim Carrey, or Vince Vaughn, or (in the case of the latter film) a Labrador. She hasn't, on her own delicate shoulders, ever carried a movie past the benchmark of $70m.

The box office is, of course, a weekly crap-shoot. And there is never a shortage of noisy (and largely male) commentators waiting to pour scorn on so-called "chick flicks". But in mentioning Friends, which made her famous and dominated her life for a decade from 1994, Simmons may very well have identified the source of Aniston's commercial woes.

Six years after the show's 238th and last episode, the cultural footprint of Friends remains so vast that every one of its stars remains firmly in its shadow. Matt LeBlanc has not acted since 2006, when his spin-off sitcom, Joey, was axed. David Schwimmer, whose last film, Big Nothing, went straight to DVD, is pursuing a career in theatre. Matthew Perry had a supporting part in Zac Efron's disappointing 17 Again last year, but the last film he took the lead in, Birds of America, did not get a wide release.

Aniston's former female colleagues have also suffered from the so-called "curse of Friends". Lisa Kudrow makes occasional minor film and TV appearances, but her last major movie role was in a title called The Paper Man, which made a mere $13,000 at the box office. Courteney Cox hasn't even bothered trying to crack the movie business, opting for more guaranteed success on TV.

The phenomenon of sitcom stars trying, and failing, to become movie stars is well-documented: after a decade being beamed into the world's living rooms, David Schwimmer will forever be the gormless Ross, just as Kudrow finds it hard, in the public's imagination, to be anything but the eccentric Phoebe.

Aniston, who still looks and sounds like Rachel Green in many of her film roles, is further hampered by the regrettable attitudes of an industry that has a famously throwaway attitude towards female talent of a certain age. So far, she has perhaps only survived (when other Friends stars have stumbled) because her market value has been inflated by her own, chequered, love-life). As one half of "Braniston", alongside former husband Brad Pitt, she was cast at the centre of one of the world's most watched celebrity soap-operas. When Pitt left her in 2005 for his current partner Angelina Jolie (forming "Brangelina"), she became first America's best-known scorned housewife, and then Hollywood's most eligible female fortysomething, a role that continues to this day.

Her ill-fated dalliances with the likes of musician John Mayer have helped extend her celebrity career way past that of her former Friends co-stars, guaranteeing her, for example, a Vogue cover only last year. It also makes a useful marketing tool: almost every film she launches sees her in a supposed "romance" with a male co-star.

For now, this continues to land Aniston film roles: her calendar for next year contains three expensive studio titles. But so long as she continues to play single women seeking happiness ever after, critics will be entitled to roll their eyes and accuse her of doing the same old thing.

"In her newest movie, The Switch, Aniston plays a character that has no husband or boyfriend, which is decidedly inconvenient considering her time to have a child is running out," noted the New York Post last week. "It's funny, cause that's the exact same situation the real Aniston wakes up to each and every morning (minus the stupendous dimmers that Brad Pitt personally installed in the house they lived in together, and the weighted knowledge that he now has six children that she did not give him)."

Choosing art that imitates her life has, in other words, landed Aniston lots of highly paid film roles. It has kept her in the fame game far longer than she had any right to expect. But, in an industry dogged by accusations of creative stagnation, facing a public that is harder and harder to drag into cinemas, she will only become a true film star – in the critics' eyes, at least – when she makes a movie that is more interesting than her own, tangled romantic life.

How the 'Friends' alumni have fared

Courteney Cox

With the strongest big-screen pedigree when the series began, and a key role in the popular Scream movie series, Cox has recently found herself more in demand on television. These days her biggest role is as a sexually voracious woman in pursuit of younger men in the comedy series Cougar Town.

Matt LeBlanc

Considered the best-loved character in the series, network bosses commissioned two seasons of a spinoff about Joey Tribbiani. But the new show flopped, and LeBlanc has been considerably less in demand since. A trained carpenter, he professes not to mind. "This whole acting thing was always just ... an absolute shot in the dark," he once said. "If it didn't pan out, I had my hammer and tool belt."

Lisa Kudrow

Playing a washed-up former sitcom star searching for a new hit in The Comeback was a bold approach to the demise of Friends and Pheobe. It earned Kudrow critical acclaim, but only one series. Never obvious star material, she has taken a number of supporting film roles, and now executive produces the US version of Who Do You Think You Are?

Matthew Perry

After Chandler, Perry moved behind the camera, directing an episode of Scrubs. He also gained two Emmy nominations for a part in The West Wing, and took a starring role in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which lasted only one series. Most recently he starred in teen film 17 Again.

David Schwimmer

Arguably the most successful of the show's alumni, Schwimmer has made few high-visibility moves, instead quietly establishing himself as a successful director with Simon Pegg's Run Fatboy Run and guest-starring in such hits as Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock. He's also carved out a niche as a stage actor.