You’re only as good as your last picture. Nobody knows that better than Ben Affleck, who has been roiled by his up-and-down surf of a career. He’s learned hard lessons along the way. Now, at 48, he’s bent on pursuing the avocation he adopted as a 12-year-old with a SAG card in Boston: acting.
As a multitasker, Affleck occupies an odd Hollywood niche. His star took off when he and buddy Matt Damon won the 1998 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” Damon went on to become a respected movie star, notching three acting Oscar nominations, but Affleck’s talents were shadowed by romantic partners like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Garner (to whom he was married for 13 years), Playboy model Shauna Sexton, and most recently, his 31-year-old costar on the pandemic-delayed psychological thriller “Deep Water,” Ana de Armas (“Knives Out”).
And the relentless media coverage of Affleck, who is the child of an alcoholic, has focused on his long struggle with drinking, which flared up during Oscar campaigning for “Argo” in 2012. He’s been in and out of rehab over the years, with plenty of photo evidence of him looking bloated and puffy.
“I got to a point where I got really overexposed,” Affleck told Leonard Maltin at a 2012 Santa Barbara Film Festival tribute. “And I got really sick of the gossip machine, the paparazzi machine. I got really disillusioned about acting, if what acting meant was only a 50/50 shot at being in a movie that worked, and a 100-percent shot at ending up in a sort of magazine that I didn’t want to be in. And so I thought, ‘The only thing I know how to do is withdraw myself from this circus, go live in Georgia where nobody could see me or get to me, and just talk myself out of it and think, What do I want to do? What do I want my life to look like? Who do I want to be? And how do I want to express that in the arts if that’s still what I to do?’”
He starred in hits such as “Armageddon,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Gone Girl,” but Affleck’s best reviews are for directing, not acting. Playing Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” was a failure to launch in 2002, but five years later, directing the Dennis Lehane adaptation “Gone Baby Gone” proved to be a superb vehicle for Affleck’s brother Casey, and Ben nabbed good reviews for both directing and starring in follow-ups “The Town” and “Argo.”
That’s how Affleck painstakingly rebuilt his career. Developed and produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, the true Mideast escape thriller “Argo,” written by Chris Terrio, won the Best Picture Oscar partly because Affleck didn’t land his expected directing Oscar nomination, which instantly turned the entitled movie star into an underdog worth rooting for. “Argo” also ticked many Academy boxes: it was a timely mainstream commercial thriller based on a true hero (CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez got standing ovations at screenings), as well as a hilarious send-up of Hollywood.
Oscar voters have long embraced actor-directors, from Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and Kevin Costner to Clint Eastwood and Greta Gerwig. It’s an asset in the awards race to be a charming, beloved movie star — until you are not. (Costner also had to recover from fan fallout from a messy divorce. Then there’s Mel Gibson.)
Like Beatty, Affleck is one of the smartest Hollywood players you’ll ever meet, astute enough to produce, write, act, and direct. (He might have made an effective studio chief.) He also can be too clever for his own good. It’s hard to imagine any top director agreeing to star as Batman.
Affleck’s dogged agent, WME’s Patrick Whitesell, steered his client through many obstacles over the years, from toxic JLO flop “Gigli” to his post-“Argo” divorce from Garner. While Clooney long ago decided to pursue movies he could boast about (partly because he flopped as Batman), Affleck happily joined the DC universe, ignoring Clooney’s advice to give the Dark Knight a pass. Affleck sought to buttress his stardom (and bank account) via likely blockbusters, but also to steer the course of the Batman franchise by directing a film or two as well.
This was not to be. There was nothing wrong with Affleck’s performances as Bruce Wayne/Batman in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Suicide Squad,” and “Justice League,” but these comic-book flicks did nothing to enhance Affleck’s acting cred. (Affleck will reprise Batman in Zack Snyder’s new cut of “Justice League” on HBO Max, as well as the upcoming Flash movie.) His post-“Argo” directing effort, the ambitious Lehane ’30s Boston gangster noir, “Live By Night” (Metascore: 49), grossed just $22.7 million worldwide against a $65 million budget. And Affleck’s glum CIA officer stuck out like a sore thumb in Dee Rees’ poorly reviewed “The Last Thing He Wanted.”
The most destructive thing to emerge from his run as Batman: “Sad Affleck,” a sticky video meme of the despondent star sitting next to “Justice League” costar Henry Cavill. Affleck bailed, passing the “Batman” torch to director Matt Reeves and actor Robert Pattinson.
Tired of Hollywood action flicks, Affleck decided to pursue a dramatic role that could stretch his acting chops. Affleck brought his “The Accountant” director Gavin O’Connor to work with him on Brad Ingelsby’s script for “The Way Back,” a gritty drama about a contractor who turns to alcohol after he loses his son to cancer and breaks up with his wife. He pulls out of his slump when he coaches the weak basketball team of his old high school, where he was a star, and they start to win.
“I knew O’Connor had done sports movies with ‘The Miracle’ and ‘Warrior,'” said Affleck on his first-ever Zoom FYC panel, for SAG members. “I approached him as the perfect guy for it. It was one of those things that worked out. We went to Warners, which has no money for small dramas, but they were thrilled I wanted to do it and play a part like that. I was reconnecting to my love for acting… It was just about the performance, my desire to get in touch with myself and the full range of my emotions…I felt really locked in. You feel sometimes you’re in the zone, you’re connected with the character.”
Clearly, Affleck relished reconnecting to his acting roots. “I started off as actor, and got famous as a writer, worked as a director and producer,” he said. “I have had a lot of focus on other things besides acting, just pure acting. That’s what this was for me, my way of affirming to myself, ‘I am a real actor, I deserve to do this.'”
Warners supported “The Way Back” with a production budget of about $25 million, and opened the movie to favorable reviews on March 6, 2020. But the spring release was cut short after ten days, when theaters shut down due to the pandemic.
In the movie Affleck digs into a wide range of feelings: grief, loss, depression, self-pity, anger, shame, regret, denial, and acceptance. Affleck clearly connected to the young actors playing his basketball team. It’s the best acting he’s ever done.
While the performance connected him to fresh wounds from his personal life, Affleck enjoyed the shoot, he said at the FYC panel: “This is so rich and textured, even though it is a depressing story,” he said. “It was a joyful experience acting-wise. It made me love acting again. For me it was cathartic and thrilling and satisfying; the deeply painful emotional stuff felt great.”
It’s going to be tough for Warners to mount an effective Affleck Oscar campaign. They would need to restore awareness to a movie that seems long ago and far away. Due to the pandemic, the movie was unable to build word of mouth at the box office, and quickly went up on HBO Max on March 24. The movie grossed just $13.6 million in North America, plus $1.1 million overseas, for $14.7 million worldwide.
In a pandemic year, when actors are stuck online and can’t work the usual glad-handing awards circuit, reviews and year-end critics groups are crucial. While many reviews (including IndieWire) praised Affleck’s performance, the movie has not registered with critics’ groups thus far. We’ll see how Affleck fares on the next of round of awards, as SAG, Critics Choice and Golden Globe voters catch up with their screeners.
Next up, along with “Deep Water,” is Ridley Scott’s 14th-century drama “The Last Duel,” which Nicole Holofcener wrote with Affleck and Damon, who wrote and costarred for the first time since “Good Will Hunting.” Despite Affleck’s latest run-in with the paparazzi over the holidays, when “The Last Duel” finally opens it could mark the next step in his career upswing. “I loved every minute of it,” he said. “Lately, acting is exciting to me. I feel engaged and alive as an actor. Maybe I am a late bloomer.”