chasing ben

Ben Affleck Plays Himself

Becoming a tabloid star gave the actor his best role ever.

Smoking a cigarette in 2016. Photo: AKIF/BACKGRID
Smoking a cigarette in 2016. Photo: AKIF/BACKGRID

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For years after Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck broke up, it was treated as common knowledge that the relationship had almost ruined the actor’s career. “If I have a regret, it was doing the music video,” said Affleck in 2008, after he made his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone. He was referring to his appearance in 2002’s “Jenny From the Block,” which featured Affleck and Lopez being surveilled by paparazzi while trying to live their fabulous lives, something they were also doing for real.

This brand of fame — gossip fame, inland fame — is not one to which serious actors expose themselves. Matt Damon, who has largely managed to avoid that kind of spotlight, returned to the narrative about his old friend in a recent New York Times Magazine profile: By Damon’s account, during and after Bennifer 1.0, Affleck felt he could “sell magazines but not movie tickets.” When the Times Magazine writer gave Affleck the chance to respond, the actor gently chided him for implying he had invited the attention. But he did not deny its effects. “I’m not a psychiatrist, but I would think that the process of suspending disbelief when watching an actor would be more difficult for an audience if they knew more about the person they’re watching,” he said.

Did Bennifer hurt Affleck’s career? The calculations that go into fame have become so transparent in the 17 years since that relationship that for Affleck to dismiss the media circus as beneath his dignity feels naïve and a little self-serving. But one thing is definitely true: In a year when Affleck appears in three films (if you count “the Snyder Cut”), more people can name whom he’s dating than what he’s starring in. In July, the same month that Affleck informed the Times Magazine that he and Damon “have both assiduously tried to maintain our privacy,” Affleck was photographed lounging on a yacht in the sun with Lopez, with whom he reunited earlier this year, his hand on the slopes of his lover’s critically acclaimed derrière. It was either a deliberate recreation of the most famous moment in the music video Affleck had previously renounced or an absentminded gesture of affection made by someone who had forgotten all about that.

The uneasy relationship Affleck has with celebrity owes a lot to the level of invasive scrutiny he’s dealt with steadily over the years. The ups and downs of his life, the high-profile relationships, the family, the divorce, and the struggles with alcoholism have been chronicled in vivid, excruciating detail by the press. Bennifer marked the beginning of an intense public interest in Affleck’s life, and it’s undoubtedly the force that has kept him in the cultural consciousness and, more recently, made him an object of internet standom.

Straw-poll a group of strangers, and they’re unlikely to approach anything close to a consensus as to what constitutes Affleck’s best-known work. He is not a performer who vanishes into roles. He is always inescapably himself, which is not in itself a bad thing. It is an essential aspect of being a movie star, a separate quality from acting entirely. But he is a movie star who has never been known for a definitive movie, though he’s been acting since he was a kid and has been a force to be reckoned with since 1997’s Good Will Hunting, which he and Damon wrote together back when they were two bright young men from Boston (well, Cambridge). He has played Tom Clancy characters, corrupt politicians, single dads, romantic leads, criminals, multiple superheroes, and the main role in a Best Picture winner he himself directed. And yet the first image of Affleck that comes to mind is almost certainly one taken by a paparazzo.

It’s not that Affleck is bad at what he does so much as he has seldom had roles that make use of his distinctive set of qualities — the almost absurdly square jaw, the height, the handsomeness, as well as the touch of a smirk, the hint of unreliability that can come across as discordant when he plays the hero. If it feels like Affleck’s greatest role to date has been as himself, the reluctant celebrity, it’s because his pap pics are rich with narrative and unfiltered emotion. He has a fascinating expressiveness that he can’t seem to help offscreen. The wild virality of Affleck’s most famous snapshots comes from the fact that they capture a side of him his movies rarely do, showcasing an unusual level of masculine vulnerability.

In 2018, when shooting the brawny Netflix heist movie Triple Frontier in Hawaii, an irresistible photo of Affleck on the beach with his co-stars started making the rounds. In addition to demonstrating that a phoenix back tattoo that Affleck had previously stated was fake and for a role was apparently real and earnestly obtained, the picture caught the actor in a pensive pose. As The New Yorker’s Naomi Fry wrote that year, the way the towel fell around his mid-section recalled “a shy teen at the local pool.” Affleck felt the need to respond to Fry, tweeting that he was “doing just fine. Thick skin bolstered by garish tattoos” — a self-deprecating reply that also seemed to imply that regarding him as a public figure was a transgression.

Staring into the sea in 2018. Photo: Backgrid

The whole appeal of these photos is that they invite readings of an inaccessible inner life — hence the Tumblr account dedicated to all the times when he’s looked sad. The feeling reached new heights in 2015, after Affleck and his then-wife Jennifer Garner separated. The pap pics that started emerging, that year and the next, were a kind of negative bookend to the bacchanalia of fabulousness created for “Jenny From the Block.” Affleck’s marriage was ending, and he was the featured player in some of the most Getting Divorced photos of all time. He was photographed looking miserable on the Dumbo ride at Disney World, cradling a golden-retriever puppy, and vaping in a car as though the electronic cigarette he clutched were providing him with the breath of life. Whatever the context in which each moment was taking place, as a series they told the story of someone whose life was falling apart with astounding clarity.

A 2016 photo of the actor smoking a cigarette in London, where he had spent his 44th birthday with Garner and their children, was quickly detached from the time and place in which it was taken to become the stuff of memes. It was a perfect encapsulation of the feeling of stepping out from a rough workplace or a shitty party and letting your game face drop. It’s there in the exhausted tilt of his head, the closed eyes, the pose of a body slowly returning to something more recognizably mortal after months of impossible superhero shape.

The biggest hit of Affleck’s career, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, had come out a few months earlier, but the photo was more emotionally articulate than anything Affleck had done onscreen in his first turn as the Caped Crusader. That wasn’t entirely his fault — as envisioned by director Zack Snyder, the character was as morose as Bruce Wayne and tanklike in costume; Affleck’s involvement felt largely incidental. To play a superhero has become the apex of movie stardom, and Affleck has tried it twice. In the pre-MCU era of 2003, he played lawyer-slash-red-leather-suited vigilante Matt Murdock in Daredevil, a turn so somnolent that it felt like he had decided a few days in that the film was going to be embarrassing but it was too late to back out.

These comic-book icons have never been quite right for Affleck, and he, in turn, has never been quite right for them — unable to surrender to their fantasy-tinged universes or commit to their vision of the world as full of good guys and villains. When he was starting out, he was cast repeatedly as the kind of guy who’d kick the shit out of you at the behest of his buddies — as one of the classmates taking part in anti-Semitic bullying in School Ties, as the haze-happy senior O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused, and as ride-or-die bestie Chuckie in Good Will Hunting. That last role he co-wrote for himself, while Damon played the troubled boy genius who gets the girl and the bright future. It felt like a sign that Affleck was unsure of how he would figure into the Hollywood landscape. The same qualities that kept him from being an easy fit as a swashbuckling hero also worked against him as a romantic lead.

The love stories he has starred in have a way of turning out to be other sorts of stories — about a delayed coming-of-age or something weirder. He wooed women under deceptive circumstances in Bounce and Reindeer Games; he learned from the women he dated rather than ending up with them in Chasing Amy and Forces of Nature. He has acted in multiple movies alongside people he was already or about to become involved with in real life — Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Garner — inevitably inviting awareness of his personal life onscreen. His most recent work to deal with marriage, the Adrian Lyne erotic thriller Deep Water, co-starring his last girlfriend, Ana de Armas, was bumped to 2022, outlasting the real-life romance that started during its filming. That relationship included the most successful traditional romantic imagery in Affleck’s career: a lockdown romantic comedy’s worth of pap shots in which they walked their dogs.

Over the course of 2020, Affleck and de Armas got matching necklaces and embarked on high jinks. In the most swoon-worthy set of pics, they nuzzled their masked faces together in a COVID-proof version of a classic Hollywood clinch, curving toward each other in a pose that could’ve gone on a poster were it not for Affleck’s ever-present iced coffee so prominently at its center. While there’s no reason to believe these appearances were a collaboration with the photographers, they were certainly made with the understanding that the press would be there, starved for material during lockdown. As one paparazzo told New York, “I’m sorry, but you’re walking the dog the same time in the morning and damn near the same time every evening. I think you like the attention, to an extent.”

From left: Kissing through masks in 2020. Photo: BG004/Bauer-Griffin/GC ImagesJuggling Dunkin’ in 2020. Photo: FREE/BACKGRID
From top: Kissing through masks in 2020. Photo: BG004/Bauer-Griffin/GC ImagesJuggling Dunkin’ in 2020. Photo: FREE/BACKGRID

There are at least a half-dozen pictures in circulation of Affleck flipping off cameras. Photographers wait outside his house in hopes of taking pictures — like the immortally on-brand one in which he gives the lens a direct deer-in-the-headlights stare while wearing a BELIEVE IN BOSTON shirt and fumbling a Dunkin’ haul. They have followed his family; they have captured some of his most agonizingly unguarded moments and sold them for public consumption. To view these pics of Affleck is to be complicit in this machinery, but it also means getting a more eloquent look at their subject than he tends to offer himself. The best of these images, with their untrammeled dirtbag energy and their middle-aged melancholy, are expressive in a way that borders on the absurd. When they’re funny, it’s because they feel unmediated, lending them an unexpected purity.

Affleck may not always be a memorable performer, but somehow he still has that ineffable thing that makes you want to watch him. His strongest roles have been the ones that worked with the qualities that make him such a compelling target for the tabloids. Gone Girl allowed him to lean into the aura of the hometown hero who was accustomed to having his way and his flaws forgiven; Jersey Girl capitalized on a lighter version of the same by allowing his character a genuine midlife enlightenment that caring about other people means not always putting your own desires first. In Triple Frontier, he exuded flop sweat and a barely tamped-down desperation as a Special Forces vet turned real-estate agent struggling to hawk condos in Florida, like a human embodiment of the hollowness of the American Dream. And as a onetime basketball star who returns to coach at his high school in The Way Back, Affleck lets all kinds of personal experiences — from his character’s painful divorce to the alcoholism he eventually admits to and the recovery process he begins — inform what he does onscreen. It’s one of the best things he’s ever done.

Affleck has a talent for characters who are panicking about the gap between who they are and the men they feel they should be. His most notable superhero-related role is not as Batman but as George Reeves in the 2006 L.A. noir Hollywoodland. Reeves played Superman on television in the ’50s, a role that made him famous while pigeonholing him — a variation on the ongoing theme in Affleck’s career. In the film’s greatest sequence, a child comes up to Reeves after a live event and asks to shoot him, believing he’s really the character and that the bullet will bounce off. Reeves can see what the others around them can’t: that the gun is real. Affleck’s face is remarkable in that moment, trying to shore up that cheesecake grin while projecting utter terror that he’s about to die, trapped on the other side of the celebrity equation, his private self swallowed by the part.

Being a celebrity involves a series of impossible negotiations regarding how much of yourself to offer up and how much will get seen anyway, regardless of your consent. Perversely, one of the reasons Affleck is such an incredible celebrity is that he only sometimes appears to be in control of how he navigates this world, coming across as an active participant in the ongoing skirmishes of being famous as often as he seems a victim of them. To partake in the photos of Affleck, on the cusp of 50, reunited with his old flame and grinning his way into another highly surveilled relationship, is to feel like you’re seeing someone who has started to make some kind of peace, if not with the world’s boundless investment in his life, at least with himself as a famous figure rather than an aspirational artisan who emerges only in character. To have photographers documenting your every move can be both superpower and nightmare. It’s something Lopez has understood for a long time — at least since 2002, when she dared to present that level of scrutiny as not just a by-product of success but also an advantage of it. It’s something even Damon, for all of his carefully guarded opacity, understands. After a bad press cycle about his use of an anti-gay slur this year, the actor was photographed walking on the beach in Malibu with Affleck and Lopez. It was as though he was hoping to take advantage of their renewed gleam.

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Ben Affleck Plays Himself