Will Jennifer Aniston finally win Oscar’s respect with stellar performance in ‘Cake’?

I don’t know why Jennifer Aniston doesn’t get more respect as an actress. Sure, she’s a tabloid magnet, but so are her Oscar-winning ex Brad Pitt and his Oscar-winning wife Angelina Jolie. And her resume is padded with dubious comedies, but so is Matthew McConaughey‘s. The academy was quick to celebrate his career “McConaissance” last year, so why not the “Anissance”? Her new indie drama “Cake” would be a good opportunity to do so.

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The film, which stars Aniston as a woman suffering chronic pain after a devastating accident, earned the actress praise when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and it was snatched up by new distributor Cinelou Releasing for an Oscar-qualifying run in December, followed by an official release in January.

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There’s still room to maneuver in the Best Actress race, unlike Best Actor, where there already seem to be a dozen candidates vying for the five slots, with latecomers like David Oyelowo (“Selma“) and Bradley Cooper (“American Sniper“) still trying to squeeze in. That’s mostly because Hollywood doesn’t make or promote nearly as many prestige films about women as they do about men. Cate Blanchett addressed the problem when accepting her Best Actress Oscar last year for “Blue Jasmine,” saying, “Audiences want to see [films with women at the center], and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”

As a result, the Best Actress field only has a few reasonably safe bets at this stage of the game (Julianne Moore in “Still Alice” and Reese Witherspoon in “Wild“), with a few other strong possibilities (like Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl,” Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything,” Hilary Swank in “The Homesman” and Amy Adams in “Big Eyes“), but still room for a late-stage surprise like Aniston.

Standing in her way may be the mixed reviews for the film itself. Several critics do admire it, like Betsey Sharkey (Los Angeles Times), who wrote, “For all the pain, grief, sadness and suicide that layers ‘Cake,’ it is a serious treat to see the actress stretch herself. Hopefully this film won’t turn out to be a single slice.”

Gregory Ellwood (HitFix) adds, “And as much as ‘Cake’ is something of a comeback for [director Daniel Barnz], it’s really on most people’s radar for being a rare dramatic turn for Jennifer Aniston, and she doesn’t disappoint.”

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But even some of the less favorable reviews for the film have been favorable of its star. Said Justin Chang (Variety), “A strong if self-consciously deglammed performance from Jennifer Aniston deserves more honest story treatment than it gets.” Leslie Felperin (Hollywood Reporter) argues the film “is less emotionally potent than it wants to be,” but that Aniston “submits an honest, sturdy performance.”

But a bigger challenge than winning over critics might be the film’s upstart distributor, which is diving in the deep end of the Oscar pool and may have an uphill battle against the industry’s campaign heavyweights, who have gotten a head start. By the time “Cake” opens in late December, it could be challenging for a small film to build momentum.

At the very least, though, “Cake” could earn Aniston another invitation to the Independent Spirit Awards, which nominated her for Best Actress more than a decade ago for another film that deserved more kudos than it got, “The Good Girl.” The Spirit Awards have been inching closer and closer to the Oscar mainstream with each passing year – last year Best Feature and all four acting races matched the subsequent Oscar champs – but there’s usually still room for a few truly unsung indies to be nominated.

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