With Argo having received rave reviews, and now securing the Best Picture Oscar, we take a look at the rise, fall, and rise of its director and star, Ben Affleck.
THE FIRST AGE OF AFFLECK 1981-1997
“I'd do anything to have what you got” - Chuckie, Good Will Hunting.
Benjamin Géza Affleck-Boldt has packed a lot into his 31 year career. However, until 1997, you wouldn’t have easily recognized the Californian born, Boston raised star.
You wouldn’t have recognized the 9-year old jobbing TV child actor when he appeared in a series of unremarkable series. You might remember the original film version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but you wouldn’t easily recall the uncredited Basketball player #10. Do you remember seeing School Ties, Against The Grain, or Glory Daze? We guess not. You probably enjoyed Dazed and Confused, and Mallrats but still hadn’t made a note of the name of, you know, that guy.
Affleck had progressed from a complete unknown…to a largely unknown. That was about to change.
Affleck and school friend (and School Ties co-star ) Matt Damon had been working on the script for a thriller- about a working class kid with mathematical gifts who was wanted by the FBI. After advice from director Rob Reiner and uber-scribe William Goldman, they amended the script from a thriller to a character piece. That screenplay became Good Will Hunting. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon had written and starred in their own Oscar winning drama. Affleck was 25.
Where do you go from there?
THE SECOND AGE OF AFFLECK 1998-2005
“You don't tell me what to do, okay? Don't tell me what we might do, don't tell me what we're supposed to do, don't tell me what we maybe should do, don't ever tell me nothing” – Larry Gigli, Gigli
There were whispers in Hollywood that it was impossible. Two young, good looking unknowns couldn’t have written something that brilliant. Surely they had help? It must have been someone else? It must have been Goldman? Their involvement must have been a marketing ploy?
In a town that fears change, jealousy and innuendo were rife, and people were looking to see what direction the wunderkind would take next. They were waiting for a mis-step. They had their answer when Affleck signed on for Michael Bay’s Armageddon. He wanted to be a movie star. He would get his wish.
Depending on your mood, Armageddon is either a guilty pleasure - a BIG movie that is the very definition of popcorn entertainment, or as critic Roger Ebert described it, ‘an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained’.
Admittedly, during filming, Affleck did ask Michael Bay whether it wouldn’t be simpler to teach astronauts to drill rather than oilmen to be astronauts - after a pause, he was told to shut up. This is a suitable metaphor for the second age of Affleck - he was smart enough to know that the films he was choosing should have been better.
The highlights of Affleck during this middle period - Shakespeare in Love and Boiler Room, are notable in that both were mere cameos. At best, his starring vehicles were average; Paycheck, The Sum Of All Fears, Changing Lanes. At worst, they were terrible - Pearl Harbor so awful, you found yourself rooting for the Japanese - and after watching the wretched Daredevil, only a true daredevil would endure it a second time.
While Matt Damon was enjoying critical and commercial success as Jason Bourne and in Ocean’s 11, Affleck was becoming a punchline, a byword for wasted talent. And then came Gigli.
Gigli is legendary. A glorious, notorious, hapless failure. A bomb. A colossal disaster considered one of the worst films to ever emerge from a major studio. It grossed only $7m worldwide against a $75m budget. It had opened on 2215 screens, by its third week it was showing on 78 screens only. It was pulled after a week in the UK.
But how? Why? Writer and director Martin Brest had overseen classics such as Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run and the Oscar winning Scent Of A Woman. How could a tale about two low level mobsters be that bad?
Sadly for Affleck, it was a perfect storm. Public attention was already piqued as Affleck and co-star Jennifer Lopez were very publicly dating. Affleck had appeared in the video for Lopez’s ‘Jenny From The Block’, a risible promo in which the singer claimed she hadn’t lost touch with her working class roots while cavorting with her millionaire superstar actor fiance on a vast motor yacht. Lopez had moved from promising actress to international brand. Together, ‘Bennifer’ had become tabloid fodder.
Concurrently, the making of Gigli had been a fiasco. Originally envisioned by Martin Brest to be a dark thriller, it is reputed the studio interfered, demanding the film be rewritten and reshot as a romantic comedy. It was a bonkers decision- like demanding Scorsese turn Goodfellas into Moonstruck mid-way through production.
Gigli was a bewildering, incoherent, unfunny catastrophe. The resulting bad publicity must have added to the enormous pressure on the couple and they separated in 2004. Those that had been waiting for the fall of the young upstart had their wish.
THE THIRD AGE OF AFFLECK 2006- Present
“You got nothing to worry about. It's all under control.” - Doug MacRay, The Town.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that Hollywoodland saved Affleck’s career. Returning to his low budget indie roots, he excelled as George Reeves, the tragic star of the 1950s Superman TV series, bringing a melancholic vulnerability to a man unhappy with his career and in his personal life. Affleck rightfully received a Golden Globe nomination for his best performance since Boiler Room.
The idea of anyone needing to make a comeback aged only 35 seems ludicrous, but with the release of Affleck’s assured directorial debut Gone Baby Gone in 2007 which he co-wrote, it confirmed his career dip was over. Acclaim for the Boston-set drama led to suggestions that perhaps his future might be behind the camera, as well as in front of it.
Outstanding performances in State Of Play and The Company Men proved he still had the desire and ability to act, and he was confident enough to combine writing, directing and starring when he embarked on his second Boston crime thriller, The Town. Based on the Dennis Lehane novel, the film showed that at 38, not only might Affleck be a good director, he had the potential to be a great one.
Argo, his latest, shows a marked ambition to expand his directorial horizons. A political thriller set during the Iranian hostage crisis, it’s a beautifully judged piece of work that further enhances Affleck’s reputation as a young director with more than just promise.
Now married with a family, to Daredevil co-star Jennifer Garner, Affleck seems both personally and professionally content. He has experienced both remarkable success and endured extraordinary failures that few other 40-year-olds can possibly comprehend. And his work keeps getting better and better.
His 15 year old Oscar statuette now has company. It's fully deserved.