Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Famous For Fifteen Seasons

I feel bad for the kids of today, because their first exposure to Jennifer Aniston will be through her movies, like that one with Adam Sandler last year, and this summer's Horrible Bosses. There, she's playing Jennifer Aniston, Movie Star: her hair is shiny and her voice is perky and she's outrageous and winky. But back when she played Rachel Green on a little TV show called Friends, she was actually - and I know this is shocking - pretty funny.

All my dude friends just groaned, because while some of them think she's hot (and the majority think she's unappealingly shrill), almost none of them think she's hilarious. But if you watch old episodes of Friends, after they tone down her character's daffy rich-girl-striking-out-on-her-own storyline of the first few seasons and actually made her into a person (or as much of a person as characters are allowed to be on sitcoms), she's really funny. She's got timing, she's got the balanced beauty of someone who conceivably live in your apartment building, she lets other people be funny, and she works really well with her material.

The kids of today, of course, know her as Jennifer Aniston: Movie Star and Jennifer Aniston: Tabloid Fixture, and the kids of ten years ago knew her as Jennifer Aniston: Wife Of Hot, Hot Movie Star. Much the same way that Ryan Reynolds has gone from Sitcom Goof to Hot-Bodied Action Hero, and Scarlett Johansenn went from Blank-Eyed Indie Girl to Sultry Pin-Up, the early days of today's mega stars have been steamrolled by their publicists, stylists, agents, and other team members and imagineers into basically not existing.

Obviously, I have my own celebrity blind spots. Jason Bateman, who was on Silver Spoons and then Arrested Development, only came to my attention post-AD, when he played the potential adoptive father in Juno. Bateman's public persona was a many-layered thing: he was a former child star, the center of a cultishly popular sitcom and the brother of Justine Bateman, who was famous for a many of the same things. I was, at the time, ignorant of this history; I just thought his Juno character was a jerk. Likewise, my first encounter with Zach Braff was Garden State, which was sad-sack and featured a grating Natalie Portman. Braff didn't have a bunch of goodwill with me, because I had never seen his delightfully weird sitcom Scrubs. I just thought he was a loser.

It's hard for me to predict which of today's TV stars are going to make the jump into movies. Evangeline Lilly, the perpetually dirty-hot Kate from Lost, will be featured in this fall's Real Steel, a movie that, as far as I can tell, is based on Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. The upcoming Muppet movie stars Jason Segel, who is best known for How I Met Your Mother (although anyone who hasn't seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the only movie that featured both full-frontal male nudity and puppets, really should), but HIMYM has been on for for roughly one thousand seasons and my dad still hasn't seen it. It's not ubiquitous in the way that Friends, Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show, and any number of mid-1990s, TBS-syndicated, juggernaut sitcoms were.

I'm not all that concerned with Jennifer Aniston's legacy per se, because she's going to be just fine. Even if her movies don't stand the test of time, her Elizabeth Taylor-level of tabloid fame should secure her in the public's memory. What I think is interesting is that the way she became famous to me, by being a legitimately funny actress on a hugely successful TV show, is no longer the primary reason she's famous. The same way that Nicole Richie is now a "jewellery designer" instead of "noted anorexic," you know? I guess it sort speaks to the sitcom's loss of primacy in most network's programming (although it does seem to be creeping back), but it also seems hard to market a celebrity after they've won on Survivor, The Bachelor, or whatever reality TV is gobbling the airwaves this season. I like celebrities to have an embarrassing horror movie credit to their name before they hit it big. I like sitcom stars that turn into movie stars. I like movie stars who turn into tabloid fodder. But that doesn't seem to be the life cycle of the average celebrity any more.

At the risk of sounding old fashioned, I miss when people were famous for a reason. All the people I see in the rags now got their start on shows like 16 and Pregnant, which seems repugnant. I know who the Kardashians are. That seems insane! They don't do anything! At least Aniston and her sitcom-bred cohort did stuff (acting) to merit their ink. Even if I didn't recognize Braff and Bateman when I went to their movies, I can now. Fame, like anything else, should be merit-based, and I miss the days when folks earned their way to the top. Rachel Green, I salute you.

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