January 13, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

We’ve heard it many times over the past few years: Jennifer Aniston is moving on. She’s ending her 10-season run on Friends and moving on. She’s putting her marriage to Brad Pitt in the rearview mirror and moving on. (Brangelina, say hello to Vaughniston.) But for all of Aniston’s pluck, there’s one aspect of her life that seems stuck in neutral: her long-promised ascension to A-list movie stardom.

Since 1994, when audiences first fell for Friends‘ adorably scatterbrained Rachel Green, Aniston has been one of Hollywood’s great hopes — a star who might open a movie solely on the strength of his or her name. (Think Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, and Tom Hanks.) But after a disappointing year at the box office, some are starting to wonder when — or even if — those expectations will be realized. November’s Derailed, a downbeat thriller costarring Clive Owen, received lukewarm reviews and pulled in a decent but unremarkable $36 million. The romantic comedy Rumor Has It was supposed to be right in Aniston’s strike zone, but the ill-conceived quasi-sequel to The Graduate bowed on Christmas to an underwhelming $3 million opening-day gross?leaving Aniston, who was front and center in the big-budget marketing campaign, holding the stocking full of coal. (It has made just $35 million.) With another major romantic comedy on the horizon this summer, 2006 could be a pivotal year.

In one sense, Aniston’s dilemma is the one every TV star has faced in transitioning to film: Those 200-plus episodes of Friends will live on in reruns until the sun becomes a red giant and swallows up the earth, making it extremely hard for her to escape her old character. ”You can see her for free 24 hours a day, so why do you need to go pay 10 bucks?” says one veteran studio executive. ”She’s not Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz — she’s just so Rachel.”

By the cruel logic of fame, the intense media attention to Aniston’s personal travails of the past year may have further overexposed her, shifting the focus miles away from her work. Consider last September’s ballyhooed Vanity Fair cover story on Aniston; the profile ran 6,450 words, but you had to read more than 6,000 words into it to learn she had two movies coming out. Public sympathy can pay off in career terms (Nicole Kidman’s post-divorce breakout comes to mind), but month after month of unceasing coverage can also create audience fatigue. ”She’s won the war [with Pitt and Angelina Jolie] as far as publicity,” says the studio exec. ”But she’s also been everywhere.”

Tabloid saturation aside, many believe Aniston’s long-term career strategy is sound. Her early meet-cute vehicles — Picture Perfect and The Object of My Affection — may have fizzled, but she has burnished her critical cred in smaller films, like The Good Girl, and scored box office hits opposite Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty and Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Aniston is the tenth-highest-paid actress in movies, earning around $9 million a picture — hardly the sign of a career in trouble. ”People should wait before they make the judgment that she’s not going to be a movie star,” says producer J.C. Spink (Red Eye). ”She’s making good choices. If you look at who has the best shot to become that next romantic-comedy queen, I think it’s Rachel McAdams and Jennifer.”

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