The icing on Jen's Cake

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You can star in one of the most beloved sitcoms of the last quarter century, win an Emmy, be paid US$1 million (S$1.3 million) an episode, find as much success in movies and still have more than a little something to prove, along with a whole lot to lose.

So in the seconds before the first public showing of Cake at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, Jennifer Aniston was a wreck inside.

"It didn't hit me until the lights went down that the most people who'd seen it were eight people and, all of a sudden, we were in a 1,500-seat theatre," she said.

"I just didn't know how it would be received. It's a vulnerable, terrifying moment."

Cake, about a devastated woman's uncertain recovery, does away with pretty, peppy Aniston and installs a pill-popping harridan in her place.

She has scars on her face, flab on her body, an anguished gait and acid tongue. It is a kind of glamour-for-grit statement just familiar enough to raise the possibility of eye rolls in lieu of applause. It is a plea of sorts and she had no guarantee of a charitable answer.

But the audience in Toronto gave her a standing ovation. And while the movie, which opens in the United States on Jan 23, received mixed notices from the handful of critics who weighed in, she got just enough positive recognition to essentially muscle herself into the awards season.

She has been an indefatigable whirlwind over the last few months, attending question-and-answer sessions at screenings in California and New York.

It is working.

Last December, she picked up Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics' Choice nominations for Best Actress. The Globes ceremony is on today in Los Angeles.

She recognises this moment as perhaps her best chance to "take away the cloak of Rachel", she said, referring to her part on the sitcom Friends.

She added: "You have to do something really dark to be taken seriously, I guess."

To believe the tabloids, she has spent the last decade in a grudge match with Angelina Jolie, whose husband, Brad Pitt, was of course married to her first.

Aniston, 45, has been one of Hollywood's most mercilessly chronicled celebrities, pressing on through a ceaseless storm of gossip and a constant swarm of paparazzi.

And she has clearly developed strategies for the fishbowl.

She surrenders just enough so that she does not have to give up too much. She scatters tidbits of apparent revelation amid anodyne lines.

She spoke of actor Justin Theroux, her fiance of more than two years, dropping him into a story about an unappreciated boyfriend who died of a brain tumour.

"He was my first love - five years we were together," she said, referring to that boyfriend.

"He would have been the one. But I was 25 and I was stupid. He must have sent me Justin to make up for it all."

She bristles at the scrutiny that her private life gets, in part because it underscores what she believes to be a double standard.

She said: "You don't see a lot of men getting asked, 'Why aren't you married? Why aren't you having children?' They don't get the 'Well, they seem to play the same thing over and over again', and some of them do.

"We're very much a sexist society. Women are still not paid as much as men."

And she noted that men's looks and ageing are not dissected with the withering judgment directed at, say, Renee Zellweger, when she re-emerged in October with a seemingly changed face.

Aniston added: "I really do think you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

"You either are too fat - 'Oh my God, she's gained weight, getting chubby, mid-40s spread' or 'She's so skeletal, get some meat on her bones'. I've been on too-thin lists, I've been on what- happened-to-her lists."

She has churned out movies at an unflagging pace.

And while many have been romance- tinged, conventional Hollywood comedies, she has routinely built in exceptions.

She was the femme fatale to Clive Owen's patsy in Derailed (2005). She tucked herself into one of director Nicole Holofcener's idiosyncratic ensembles in Friends With Money (2006).

Most notably, she played a Texas dime-store clerk trapped in a mirthless marriage in The Good Girl, a tiny 2002 drama for which she got rave reviews. But the movie quickly faded from memory.

She is hoping for more from Cake.

To play the part, she stopped exercising, gained weight, let her hair get dirty and did not wear makeup.

All of that is actually less striking on screen than her sluggish, herky-jerky movements, a manifestation of the character's ambiguously defined physical injuries and reliance on narcotics.

One resource for understanding her character's experience was a close friend, Stacy Courtney, who has also worked as her stunt double.

One of Courtney's legs was mangled by a boat propeller years ago and afterwards, she endured nearly a dozen surgeries and a gruelling regimen of physical therapy.

In their conversations, Courtney said, the actress was "really breaking it down and wanting to know: What did it feel like to be that woman, to be in that kind of pain? She really wanted to be inside my body".

The Cake shoot spanned only about a month. Aniston's exertions to ensure that the movie is noticed - that nothing about it or her work is "hidden" - have lasted much longer.

And the nervousness that trailed her to Toronto is gone, replaced by pure resolve.

Fussing with her microphone at that mid-town Manhattan screening, she said: "I'm afraid that I'm not going to be loud enough."

So she spoke up. And everyone heard her just fine.

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