It’s official: We’ve got our Ben back. And, good Lord, what he had to put us through, and go through, to get here.
The 15-year arc of Ben Affleck’s career — from brash young talent to overexposed movie star to tabloid celebrity to Most Ridiculed Man in Showbiz and all the way back to humble yet triumphant cinematic craftsman — is one of the most singular round trips in American pop culture history.
With Sunday night’s best picture Oscar win for “Argo” — which caps a victory tour that includes the Golden Globes, the major critics’ group and guild awards, and England’s BAFTAs — the passage is complete. Affleck has gone from the pit of pop scorn to the apex of Hollywood respect. He has arrived. Again.
To add to the flukiness of his comeback, Affleck is only the fourth filmmaker in the 85-year history of the Academy Awards to capture the top prize without even being nominated for best director, a snub that arguably galvanized support for his movie.
True, even when he was a national joke a decade ago — when Affleck and fiance Jennifer Lopez seemed to grin from every magazine cover — he was a handsome, successful movie star. Still, the rise and fall and rise of this particular actor says everything about what we value and devalue in our public personages and how difficult it can be to walk the tightrope of fame without falling off. And it’s a reminder that falling off has become its own form of entertainment, with subsidiary profits for a lot of people on the sidelines.
When Affleck first appeared on an Oscar podium, it was 1998 and he was accompanied by his best bud, Matt Damon. It was the apotheosis of Matt-n-Ben: two bros from the Boston hood (all right, the mean streets of Cambridge) who wrote a script, made sure they starred in it, and took 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” all the way to a best original screenplay award.
They seemed charmingly unmanufactured: rough-edged but sensitive, handsome but not slick. Above all, they were young, and the entertainment media machine, ever hungry for fresh blood, latched onto them like a succubus.
Of the two, Affleck appeared to thirst more for traditionalstardom. He played the bad-boy best friend in “Hunting” and had that same edge in his early public persona: a lazy stare, a swagger that seemed streetwise rather than smug, a stubble that implied he couldn’t be bothered to shave. He had indie-movie cred, too, from small roles in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” (1993) and an ongoing collaboration with writer-director Kevin Smith (“Mallrats” in 1995, “Chasing Amy” in 1997).
Yet Affleck’s persona experienced slippage early on. Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” (1998), in which he helps Bruce Willis save the planet from an asteroid, proved the new kid could play in the big leagues — but it also hinted at how desperately he wanted to. By the time Affleck re-upped with Bay for the World War II epic “Pearl Harbor” (2001) — a moneymaker that everyone seemed to hate — the culture already seemed sick of him. Variety called him “blandly handsome,” while Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal said the actor “alternates his expressions between clenched jaw plus earnest frown and earnest frown plus clenched jaw.”
A corner had been turned in public perceptions of his image: Suddenly, his cockiness seemed entitled rather than earned. And just as suddenly, moviegoers seemed to rediscover Matt Damon as the faithful swain next to Affleck’s cavalier cad. Matt honored the Greatest Generation in “Saving Private Ryan.” Matt took acting risks in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Ben? He was swanning around with Gwyneth Paltrow and getting nominated for a Golden Raspberry for worst actor in “Pearl Harbor.”
He won the Razzie in 2003, for his annual body of work. It was the only thing Affleck won in a year when he donned a ludicrous red leather jumpsuit for the superhero movie “Daredevil,” his romance with Lopez turned into the hydra-headed gossip beast “Bennifer,” and the couple appeared in “Gigli,” a movie still synonymous with “unwatchable fiasco.”
“Is there anyone who isn’t sick of Ben Affleck?” asked The New York Times that August. Even Boston — granted, a town famously contemptuous of anyone who thinks he’s “better then he should be” — turned its back. In the Globe, Louise Kennedy wrote that Affleck had “stopped being the nice guy you root for, no matter how bad the movie, and became the overweening celebrity you’re happy to make fun of, no matter how much you used to like him.”
All of this, of course, is a game of charades. Our sense of what we think Ben Affleck is (or was) is based on what we see on movie screens and the covers of magazines. Unless you know him personally (and you don’t), that image has only a tangential relationship to the person himself. Was Affleck really the callow lout he seemed in the popular eye? Or, more likely, was he a young actor who let fame get the best of him only to see his persona spin beyond his control?
He lay low for a few years, even as his status as a national joke sputtered on. (From a 2005 Newsweek humor column: “North Korea sent shockwaves through the international community today by announcing that it possesses an unreleased Ben Affleck film which it will open wide if the United States does not agree to bilateral talks.”) He got married to actress Jennifer Garner and started a family, avoiding the cameras as best as a tabloid staple can.
In 2006, Affleck played 1950s TV actor George Reeves (“Superman”) in a twisty period drama called “Hollywoodland” and, to the shock of many, got great reviews. The next year, he did something more startling: He directed a movie and didn’t appear in it. “Gone Baby Gone” marked a return to Affleck’s roots both in its Boston settings and in the seriousness with which he approached the drama onscreen and the craft behind it.
It was almost as if he were asking the hometown that had disowned him to take him back. Crucially, Affleck’s choosing not to star in the film took his persona out of the game. It looked like an act of humility, and that was something new in the aggregation of public signage we call Ben Affleck.
With “The Town” (2010), he stepped gingerly back in front of his own cameras while staying within the comfort zone of familiar locations. The strut was gone, and a becoming new wariness informed the playing.
And with “Argo,” his third feature film as a director, Affleck bet the farm: an ambitious period epic that embraces revolutionary Iran and 1970s Hollywood, that nimbly combines comedy and classic movie suspense — and that he anchors onscreen not as a swaggering lone-wolf hero but as the leader of a team.
The performance was fine, but it was the directing that sealed the deal. This awards season has been, at long last, Affleck’s moment, and he has accepted it with the sincere and grateful humility of a man who once was toast and who surely recognizes by now the absurd fickleness of fame.
But what makes it all the more satisfying — doubtless for him as well as for us — is that this is much more than an actor’s comeback. It’s a filmmaker’s arrival.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.