It was at the 1998 Academy Awards when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s names were called up to the stage for winning the award for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The two childhood friends from Boston hugged their mothers and took the stage, barely containing their excitement as their Massachusetts accents filled the theatre with a kind of energy the Oscars hardly ever see. After all, Damon was only 26 and Affleck, at 25, is still the youngest person to ever capture the award. It stands as one of the best Oscar speeches of all time, the two kids overcome with emotion. It’s the kind of moment that stands out amidst the forever-long snooze fests the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences usually puts on.
Hollywood saw bright things ahead for the duo, who also starred in the movie and had made waves in films like Chasing Amy (for both), Dazed and Confused (for Ben) and School Ties (for Matt). But the two careers went in very different directions. Later that year, Damon would star in Saving Private Ryan and Rounders, earning critical acclaim for both performances. He would go on to earn universal respect for his acting ability, taking on tough roles in films like The Talented Mr.Ripley and Finding Forrester in the late 90’s to early 00’s before embarking on two successful trilogies with Oceans 11 and The Bourne Identity, the latter re-defining the modern day action movie. That Damon mixed those efforts in with Oscar-winning films like The Departed and True Grit didn’t hurt. Looking back, there haven’t been a whole lot of moments since that fateful night in 1998 where the public doubted Matt Damon’s ability as an actor. He’s arguably always managed to keep a favourable profile with the public even when the results weren’t the greatest (Ripley, The Legend of Bagger Vance). Damon’s been a legitimate movie star since that Oscar speech, with studios happily paying millions for him, knowing he’s a safe bet to make it back.
Ben Affleck, however, has gone down a different road since that moment on stage at the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Centre. His big release that year, Armageddon, was destroyed by critics, and though his supporting role in Shakespeare in Love helped recover from that bomb (pun intended), it wouldn’t be long before critics descended on Affleck with bad reviews once again. Reindeer Games was a clunker and Pearl Harbour, despite the box office receipts, was looked at as a gigantic failure, not able to turn one of the biggest, most emotional moments in American history into a watchable film. After a while, Affleck was the common denominator in the carnage of bad movies he was leaving in his wake. “Maybe he was just a shitty actor,” the public thought. The Sum of All Fears, The Third Wheel, the busts kept coming. Then, in 2003, the double whammy that would cement him as a terrible actor in the minds of critics everywhere: Gigli and Daredevil.
Just writing those two titles makes me a shudder a little bit. In the film world, releasing these two films— in the same year no less—was a complete disaster, enough to ruin a career beyond redemption. Gigli was the encapsulation of this era of Affleck’s life, and ‘Bennifer,’ (I know, ugh) some say, killed Affleck’s acting career. Maybe it did. Or maybe someone who’s young, rich and having sex with Jennifer Lopez just doesn’t give a fuck about what critics think. But if Gigli didn’t do enough damage, Daredevil surely finished off the job. It wasn’t so much that Daredevil was a bad film as much as the fact that Spider-Man had just come out and done fantastic with critics and fans alike, teasing fans as to what they should expect. They didn’t get it though, and Affleck as the title character was the worst part of it all (I’ll defend Colin Farrell’s performance as Bullseye to this day).
Ben Affleck’s always been an underdog, but he’s only ever gotten respect when he’s won. His career stagnated, wrecked horribly for a long four years, until 2007. During that period Affleck was universally despised in the film world; there was no defending him. He was bad. That was it, there was no counter argument. The movie Team America even wrote a song that declared “I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school.” Family Guy depicted him as leeching off Damon when they wrote Hunting and the public accepted these shots as true fact.
Then a funny thing happened. Affleck went to his roots, writing (with Aaron Stockard) and directing Gone Baby Gone, a crime drama set in the gritty Boston neighbourhood of Dorchester. The film killed with critics, earning Affleck praise all over the world in his first feature length directorial effort and gained Amy Ryan an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The accolades flowed in. The jokes about his acting were still abound, but Affleck had burst back onto the stage in a way no one thought possible. In 2010’s The Town, Affleck took things a step further. In another crime drama, set in yet another gritty Boston neighbourhood (this time Charlestown), Affleck pulled out all the stops. Playing the main character and telling a complex and compelling narrative that captured its audience with its breathtaking robbery scenes and intense character development, The Town earned another Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, this time for Jeremy Renner for his truly scary portrayal of hard-nosed criminal Jem. These two films, more than anything, proved that Ben Affleck had arrived as a director/writer and, as the tortured Doug MacRay. He was a leading man once again.
Stepping out of his comfort zone of Bruins, Red Sox and blue collar crime in Boston, 2012’s Argo was an ambitious undertaking. Focusing on the true story of the operation to extract six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran in 1980, it was brilliantly executed by producer/director Affleck. When he wasn’t nominated for Best Director by the Academy, some saw it as a reckless omission, not understanding why the film didn’t garner respect for its exceptional direction. All was forgiven, however, when Michelle Obama announced Argo as the winner for Best Picture.
15 years after he ran on stage and jumped up and down, Ben Affleck took the stage once again, blood rushing to his face, excited as all hell, but this time prepared. He’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. “I just want to say, I was here 15 years ago or something” said Affleck. “And I had no idea what I was doing. I stood out here in front of you all, really just a kid and I went out and never thought I would be back here and I am.” After thanking everyone who helped him on the way while on the verge of tears, he settled on a final quote to sum up the tumultuous 15 years that had just passed: “It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life, cause that’s gonna happen. All that matters is that you gotta get up.”