Once considered a flash in the pan, Ben Affleck is on the comeback trail

Profile The American actor who took the cinematic world by storm with Good Will Hunting fell into career rut, but turning back to his filmmaking talents is beginning to bring his fortunes around.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
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The American actor who took the cinematic world by storm with Good Will Hunting fell into career rut, but turning back to his filmmaking talents is beginning to bring his fortunes around.

Ten years ago, Ben Affleck seemed to be on a fast track to nowhere, his career a rollercoaster ride from zero to hero and back again. The focus of endless tabloid gossip and sour jokes about his private life, Affleck had graduated from promising young all-rounder to washed-up playboy almost overnight. Both blessed and cursed with square-jawed good looks, he appeared to have squandered his early potential on flashy blockbusters and trashy vanity projects.

But Affleck, who turned 40 last month, has proved more wily and resilient than he appeared, staging a slow but steady comeback in recent years. Earlier this week, the Venice International Film Festival witnessed him starring in director Terrence Malick's sumptuous autobiographical drama To the Wonder, an impressionist companion piece to last year's award-winning Tree of Life. The film has fiercely divided critics with its fragmentary plot and dreamy style, but at least Affleck emerges from the project with his reputation as a serious actor enhanced.

Far more impressive and entertaining is Argo, Affleck's third feature as director, currently generating major buzz after a sneak preview at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last week. Co-produced by George Clooney, this lively comedy thriller puts a lightly fictional spin on the incredible true story of a CIA plot to smuggle six fugitive American diplomats out of Tehran during the tense hostage crisis at the US Embassy that followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Affleck not only directs but also co-stars as the bearded, scruffy intelligence officer who hatches an audacious plan to stage a fake Hollywood film shoot in the Iranian desert. A tremendous story, told with style and wit.

Both Argo and To the Wonder are showing at the Toronto International Film Festival over the next few days. Argo then opens in the United States next month, and is already being tipped for Oscars next year. A former student of Middle Eastern affairs who once taught himself to speak Arabic, Affleck has always been a smart cookie - he just let that side of his nature lapse a little when mainstream fame beckoned. But now, after a decade of bad choices and car-crash movies, the comeback kid is finally reclaiming some of the industry credibility and critical acclaim that first made him a star.

Benjamin Géza Affleck-Boldt was born in 1972 in Berkeley, California, to progressive hippie parents. His mother, Christine Anne Boldt, worked as a teacher. His father, Timothy Byers Affleck, was an alcoholic who worked a variety of jobs including social worker, car mechanic, stage actor and janitor at Harvard University - later becoming a key inspiration for the main character in the film Good Will Hunting. The family relocated to a working-class neighbourhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where 8-year-old Ben first met his long-time friend and fellow actor, Matt Damon. Before Affleck turned 12, his father divorced his mother and left. Father and son later reconciled on friendly terms.

Distantly related through a common ancestor, Affleck and Damon attended the same schools and discovered a shared passion for acting. Aided by one of his mother's friends, a casting director, young Ben began his screen career playing sporadic child and teenage roles, mostly in television movies. Dropping out of the University of Vermont after one semester, he dedicated himself to pursuing an acting career. He and Damon shared an apartment, and even a bank account. With acting work in short supply, they wrote screenplays together, sometimes in partnership with Affleck's younger brother Casey.

Affleck first showed a flair for wordy, ironic, indie comedies, most notably for Chasing Amy director Kevin Smith. Indeed, it was Smith's endorsement that helped secure studio backing for his 1997 career breakthrough with Good Will Hunting, a shared script that he and Damon had been touting around Hollywood for almost five years before finally trading it for US$600,000 (Dh220,383) and two juicy acting roles. Directed by Gus Van Sant, this sentimental but rousing urban fairy tale about a blue-collar Boston college janitor with genius-level maths skills became a critical and commercial hit, transforming these two virtual unknowns into in-demand actors and screenwriters overnight.

At the 1998 Academy Awards, Affleck became the youngest-ever winner of an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. "It felt like stepping through the looking glass, where you are sitting at home watching television and all of a sudden the television starts talking to you," he recalled in a 2010 interview with the online film magazine Deadline. "That was hard for us to even absorb at that age. I was 25."

But following their shared Oscar triumph, the two friends took very different career paths. Affleck immediately seemed to cash in with roles in bubblegum blockbusters such as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, huge box office hits which nevertheless dented his reputation as an indie icon and brainy sex symbol. Damon also began moving into the mainstream, but with more patience and care, balancing indie art house roles with critically acclaimed franchises like the Jason Bourne and Ocean's Eleven series.

In fairness, Affleck was also appearing in credible fare like Boiler Room and Changing Lanes, socially charged dramas with modest commercial impact. But while Damon studiously avoided the paparazzi and gossip columns, his former Boston buddy seemed to run headlong into the clichéd celebrity lifestyle. He briefly dated his Shakespeare in Love co-star Gwyneth Paltrow, starred in shampoo commercials and ended up in a rehab centre for alcohol addiction in 2001. Ironically, he was driven there by the notorious Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen.

Affleck's image hit a new low around 2002, when he began a high-profile relationship with the singer and actress Jennifer Lopez. The "Bennifer" affair reached a career-sinking nadir when the couple shared a screen in the notoriously awful Gigli in 2003 and the lacklustre romcom Jersey Girl in 2004. Soon after the latter was released, they separated, blaming saturation tabloid coverage for the "Icarus-like fall" of their high-flying relationship.

Meanwhile, Affleck's career slump deepened. He won the Golden Raspberry award for the Worst Actor in 2003, on top of two further nominations. His CV began to resemble what the British newspaper The Guardian later dubbed "a never-ending Thanksgiving dinner: one turkey after another". Adding injury to insult, Matt Damon gave a widely reported press interview that appeared to be a veiled attack on his long-time best friend for only taking big-paycheck roles.

Affleck hit back on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live with a mock rant against Damon. "I know you're not into stardom, but help me out here," he quipped. "I can't seem to recall which Chekhov play The Bourne Supremacy is based on." He also joked about his failed relationship with Lopez, adding: "wait till you lose your mind and make two movies in a row with your girlfriend".

Around this time, Affleck started to turn his career around and rebuild his tattered reputation. He began to flex his political muscles in public more, campaigning for Democratic US presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, just as he would support Barack Obama four years later. He also became involved with humanitarian charities in Eastern Congo, travelling to this war-torn African nation for the United Nations.

In June 2005, displaying an impressively consistent attraction to women named Jennifer, Affleck married his Daredevil co-star Jennifer Garner, pointedly keeping their wedding a secret from the media. In December, Garner gave birth to the first of their three children, Violet Anne.

Having earned a reported $15 million per movie at the peak of his boom-and-bust fame, Affleck took a steep pay cut in 2006 to co-star in Allen Coulter's low-budget bio-drama Hollywoodland as former Superman actor George Reeves, an early action-man star who longed for more serious roles. The real-life parallels were striking and helped win Affleck multiple awards, but the movie only turned a slender profit. He still needed a major break to revive his career.

"The trap for an actor is that you become too successful at what you're trying to do, and you can find yourself stuck there," Affleck confessed to Parade magazine in 2007. "As an actor there's so many ways that it can go wrong for you, and so few ways it can go right."

A year later, he finally took his fate into his own hands by co-writing and directing the noirish kidnap thriller Gone Baby Gone. Set on the working-class streets of South Boston, this broody adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel starred Casey Affleck alongside Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Freeman. A critical smash and a respectable commercial hit, Affleck's feature directing debut helped him make the Clooney-style leap from lightweight leading man to serious filmmaker.

In 2010, Affleck scored an even bigger box-office splash with another blue-collar Boston crime saga, The Town. This time he was multitasking as director, star and co-writer. Earning $150m worldwide, the film restored Affleck's reputation among studio chiefs and cemented his second career as a maker of dark, intelligent thrillers. Returning to Good Will Hunting territory, he rediscovered his mojo by reconnecting with his gritty Boston roots.

"For me, there was a lesson in Good Will Hunting," Affleck told Deadline magazine. "Generating your own material is the only thing you can rely on. Opportunities come and go, things go well and dry up. But ultimately you have to be responsible for yourself, your life and your career."