Entertainment

How Jennifer Aniston proved she can actually act — and deserves Emmys glory

Jennifer Aniston has sustained a lot of friendly fire in the 25 years since she became America’s ageless Breck Girl next door — but this now-veteran actress is nobody’s victim.

Sure, the beloved former “Friends” star was typecast after a decade (1994-2004) as spoiled rich chick Rachel Green on NBC’s “must-see TV” sitcom, followed by another decade-plus of retread movie rom-coms — some smash hits, others total stinkers, often co-starring fellow slummers Adam Sandler and Jason Bateman.

Despite six previous Emmy noms (and one 2002 win) for comedy, armchair critics reveled in flooding social media with shady praise of Aniston’s flawless hair — and snide critiques of her supposedly one-note range as a lightweight actress.

Suck it up, haters: Gold Derby gurus now rank the 51-year-old as a front-runner to win Best Actress in a Drama Sunday at the 2020 Emmys for her revelatory, against-type performance as Alex Levy, an aging TV hostess on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the hit Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show.”

“Don’t underestimate Aniston just because many prognosticators pick Laura Linney or Olivia Colman to win,” Gold Derby founder Tom O’Neill told The Post. “Don’t forget that Aniston won the SAG Award earlier this year and that has virtually the same voting system as the Emmys — only actors voting for actors.”

Plus, “Aniston is having a triumphant career comeback that’s especially alluring to TV industry insiders,” O’Neill added. “She portrays a reigning TV celebrity struggling to survive a crumbling, cruel world around her — the threat of younger, rising stars and her shock to discover the awful secrets and betrayals of the old regime.”

Jennifer Aniston made her off-Broadway debut in 1988 at Joseph Papp's legendary The Public Theater.
Aniston made her off-Broadway debut opposite Tony winner Tony Shalhoub (“The Band’s Visit”) in 1988 at Joseph Papp’s The Public Theater.The Public Theater

But the actress proved long ago that she had real chops in a wide range of under-the-radar projects — the masses just slept on it. Here are nine times Aniston proved she can really act:

Before she had “Friends” (1980s to mid-’90s)

Aniston started learning her craft at Manhattan’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (a k a the “Fame” school), making her off-Broadway stage debut at 19 in “For Dear Life” at Joseph Papp’s legendary Public Theater in 1988.

When Hollywood came calling, the brunette with an allegedly different nose honed her chops in supporting sitcom bits. By 1992, she joined the repertory company of Fox’s short-lived sketch-comedy series “The Edge” (an “SNL” audition didn’t pan out) before starring in a starlet prerequisite: a horror flick — 1993’s “Leprechaun.”

But what many don’t realize is that she low-key returned to Broadway for “24 Hour Plays” marathons in 2006 and 2009.

“She’s the One” (1996)

Miles from her turn as glossy-locked debutante Rachel, Aniston’s sad-eyed plain Jane with true grit stole this sweet indie movie from va-va-voom blond bombshell Cameron Diaz, who was fresh off her star-making debut opposite Jim Carrey in “The Mask.” Critics noticed, but audiences — and Hollywood execs — seemed determined to pigeonhole her into Sandra Bullock/Julia Roberts castoffs.

“The Object of My Affection” (1998)

This saccharine soap opera about a gal who falls for —  and makes a baby with — her gay bestie (Paul Rudd) was a tone-deaf misfire. But its acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner, of Broadway and Shakespearean theater fame, hinted at Aniston’s future greatness. “Her first instinct may be to put a very skilled, polished, funny twist on a line — and believe me, she can make anything funny,” he told Vanity Fair in 2001. “But she can equally, after a moment’s thought, find a much more interesting, more truthful, much more touching way of playing a scene … when she spends more of her time with material that requires her to exercise other muscles, her really considerable gift as an actress will be more widely recognized.”

“Office Space” (1999)

One word sums up Aniston’s scene-stealing supporting role in Mike Judge’s offbeat workplace comedy: “flair.” As a frustrated waitress at Chotchkie’s — a stand-in for TGI Fridays — she goes off on the priggish boss who rides her for not wearing enough decorative buttons. A low-key flop at the time, it has since achieved true cult status, leading Aniston to once proclaim, “You know what I really love? I love when people say, ‘I loved you in some movie’ that didn’t really get any attention.”

“The Good Girl” (2002)

This dark comedy found Aniston channeling Sissy Spacek in “Badlands” with her dry voice-overs as a small-town cashier on the skids — and generated sparkling oddball chemistry with a pre-“Brokeback Mountain” Jake Gyllenhaal. After it premiered at the Sundance Film Fest, famed critic Roger Ebert raved, “Aniston has at last decisively broken with her ‘Friends’ image in an independent film of satiric fire and emotional turmoil … It will no longer be possible to consider her in the same way.” So why isn’t it available on any major streaming service?

Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt at premiere

Aniston and Brad Pitt at the premiere of “Erin Brockovich” in Westwood, Calif., March 14, 2000

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Brad Pitt And Jennifer Aniston Soon To Wed

Pitt and Aniston arrive at the 1999 Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

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52nd Annual Emmy Awards

Aniston and Pitt arrive at the 2000 Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

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FR: Cannes International Film Festival: Troy - World Premiere

Pitt and Aniston attend the premiere of epic movie “Troy” at Le Palais de Festival on May 13, 2004 in Cannes, France.

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Rock Star premiere

Pitt and Aniston at the premiere of “Rock Star” in Los Angeles, Calif., on Sept. 4, 2001.

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The Good Girl Premiere

Aniston and Pitt at the premiere of “The Good Girl” in West Hollywood, Ca. Wednesday, August 7, 2002.

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New York Premiere Of "Troy"

Pitt and Aniston at the US premiere of “Troy” on May 10, 2004 in NYC.

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26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Media Center

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston come face to face at the 2020 Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles.

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Tabloid princess (2005 to eternity)

It wasn’t a scripted performance, but embodying grace under pressure was perhaps the greatest role of her repetitive rom-com era. Despite being pummeled with “poor scorned Jen” tabloid headlines on a weekly basis after Brad Pitt ditched her for Angelina Jolie, Aniston’s steely depth seems so obvious now. In 2005, she told Vanity Fair, “I don’t have a halo that I’m polishing here [but] I am not defined by this relationship. I am not defined by the part they’re making me play in the triangle.” But by 2016, she was warning Marie Claire readers: “I have worked too hard in this life and this career to be whittled down to a sad, childless human.”

“Friends With Money” (2006)

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener thought outside the box to cast America’s sweetheart as a depressive stoner maid trolling luxury department stores, scooping up free beauty product samples to fill an emotional void when she’s not dead-end boning a younger dude. Aniston more than held her own opposite a cast of powerhouse character actresses (Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener) who possessed a wealth of acclaim that remained out of her reach.

“Cake” (2014)

Yes, they glued a prosthetic scar on her iconic face, drabbed up her golden tresses and wrote out her signature smile. The calculated “ugly her up for an Oscar” playbook would be laughable — if she wasn’t so damn good. Aniston’s haunting turn as an accident victim battling chronic pain earned her Golden Globe and SAG nods. “I felt like I went back to class,” she told ABC News at the time. “It’s been so long since I’ve had to, or ever had something like this to dive into. I’m thrilled. It was exciting to keep challenging myself.”

“The Morning Show” (2020) 

In a premiere episode boardroom monologue that calls to mind Faye Dunaway’s camp-classic rant — “Don’t f - - k with me, fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo!” — from “Mommie Dearest,” Aniston delivers an electrifying jolt of thin-lipped rage. As a daytime TV diva fighting to survive after her longtime co-host (Steve Carell) gets #MeToo’d, she exposes previously untapped range — basically stealing the show from her Oscar-winning co-star/producer Reese Witherspoon, who plays her younger heir apparent.

Digging into the dark underbelly of celebrity culture was “cathartic,” Aniston has since revealed. “To actually look at it from an actor brain, observing it and acknowledging it, I had to look at it as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “That show was 20 years of therapy wrapped into 10 episodes. … I would read a scene and feel like a whole manhole cover was taken off my back.”

But is it enough to finally earn her that first Emmy for a legit drama?

“Come on, it’s Jennifer Aniston,” Gold Derby’s O’Neill told The Post. “Sometimes Hollywood industry awards are really just all about hugs — and Jen deserves a big one for her welcome return to the spotlight on red-hot Apple TV+.”

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