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After being singled out by fate (and Brian De Palma) for a small part in a big video, it looked like Courteney Cox might be forever known as the Girl Who Danced with Bruce Springsteen. But those 30 some-odd seconds were an unimagined launch pad for the 20-year-old Birmingham native who abandoned architecture to pursue modeling and acting. The breaks followed quickly, first with commercials and soap operas, then parts on TV series like Misfits of Science, Family Ties and Seinfeld. Movies opened up next. Masters of the Universe, Mr. Destiny and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective were coveted opportunities for someone starting out, even if they did make more use of her looks than her talent and didn’t raise her profile as much as that of her male co-stars.
Returning to TV seemed like a good way to maintain visibility, so ten years after being The Boss’ most famous dance partner she auditioned for the role of Rachel Green on a new series called (among many other things at first) Friends. She was cast instead as Monica Geller, and along with the rest of the cast, became a pop culture phenomenon. Friends ran for ten seasons, had 62 primetime Emmy nods and hit the biggest mass entertainment sweet spot of the 90s. Did it continue to be popular in the aughts? Well, its series finale in 2004 had 52.5 million viewers in America alone. What’s more, it somehow continues to resonate. New York magazine noted last year that, “the central pleasure of watching Friends — the feeling of being cosseted in a familiar place, free of worries, surrounded by friends — has never been quite so longed-for as it is now.”
But Friends, and Cox’ part in it, was important in other ways. As co-star Lisa Kudrow told Vanity Fair in 2012, “Courteney was the best known of all of us, and she had guest starred on Seinfeld. She said, “Listen, I just did a Seinfeld, and they all help each other.” Several seasons later, the cast would become the first to use solidarity as leverage in salary negotiations. The show also gave Cox the long-awaited chance to prove that beautiful women could also be funny.
A ten-year reputation as one of the most likeable women ever on TV is something most actors would guard with their life when looking around for their next gig. Cox chose Dirt. USA Today wrote, “It’s brave of Cox to choose such an unsympathetic character for her post-Friends TV return.” Cox just thought playing a cynical tabloid editor would be a fun change of pace – if not a sort of meta-jab at the paparazzi that had become a permanent fixture in her life by then.
Bill Lawrence, who found her to be “comedically fearless” when he cast her in a three-episode arc on Scrubs, offered her the lead in Cougar Town. Her comic chops were in full evidence on screen, but a lot of the humor (and Cox’ is on the ironic side) stems just from her choice to do the show. A real life example of the media obsession with looks, aging, and how women deal with it, Cox made herself the primetime fictional subject of it as well. As the camera pans the show’s landscape of Botoxed, bleached, low-cut-spandex-clad 40-somethings in an opening episode, Cox, as Jules Cobb, says to a friend, “I know I’m one of them, I just don’t feel like one of them.” Off screen, she was honing her talents as a director on several episodes. Cox seems to have split vision – one eye trained on the job at hand, the other on what’s next.
While continuing to act in films, she also began directing them. There was Talhotblond, based on a real-life story about an internet obsession that leads to familial disconnection and eventually murder. The Huffington Post wrote, “Cox paces the film slowly, letting the jeopardy of the situation build. There are many close calls and Cox presents them in a way that makes this movie full of nerve-breaking suspense.” And in 2014, she made the black comedy Just Before I Go. The Los Angeles Times praised her juggling of genuine emotion and raunchy humor, noting, “Cox steers this tricky ship with a deft hand and a strong sense of timing, comic and otherwise.”
She’s also directed music videos, and has two new TV series in the works, both of which she is executive producing. While Cox has always denied she’s as OCD as her famous alter ego, there is a sense of restlessness about her. She seems perpetually dissatisfied in the best, self-challenging way. No doubt she’ll be indelibly (and deservedly) remembered as Monica, but what’s most exciting is everything she’s yet to be known for.