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The curious case of Ben Affleck, the star who managed to become more popular than his movies

The actor, who has just released the film ‘Hypnotic,’ continues to face the paradox of being an interesting director, an average performer and an absolutely fascinating media star

Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck at a premiere in Los Angeles, in 2021.Amy Sussman (Getty Images)
Eva Güimil

The last two decades of Ben Affleck’s life have been on a loop: he’s in a relationship with a woman named Jennifer, his movie has flopped, a photo of him having a bad day is becoming a meme, he won an Oscar (that’s not for acting) and he’s in a movie with his buddy, Matt Damon. None of the aforementioned things have happened just once… and there’s no ruling out that they won’t happen again.

The 51-year-old Californian’s career already spans four decades. Way back 1998, he was named the new Tom Cruise, thanks to the film Armageddon. And, just four years later, The Los Angeles Times advised that he should take a break.

His career has suffered a gradual deterioration, although his popularity remains intact. For instance, we’ve heard much less about his recently-released film Hypnotic, a thriller directed by Robert Rodríguez, than about an alleged argument he had in a car with his wife, Jennifer Lopez.

Affleck’s story has been atypical from the beginning. He could be considered a child prodigy, since the first time we saw him on-screen he was only seven. However, except for the most die-hard fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nobody remembers him before he played a high school bully in Dazed and Confused (1993), a generational comedy directed by Richard Linklater. He subsequently played a similar role in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (1995).

Affleck began to think that he would be typecast in the role of bully, until Smith gave him his first leading role in the indie romantic comedy Chasing Amy (1997). In the film, Affleck’s character — sensitive, tender, ironic — begins a relationship with a lesbian woman. More importantly, he manages to look handsome, even with a goatee. Following his performance, Hollywood — always looking for a new beau — prepared to engulf him. Before Chasing Amy was released, he was already sitting in Michael Bay’s office, listening to the path he would need to follow in order to become an action hero.

As producer Jennifer Klein acknowledged, they told him: “You’re going to have to go to the gym, get a tan, get a haircut.” Bay also had a problem with Affleck’s teeth: “He’s got baby teeth. I fixed [Tom] Cruise’s teeth. We’re going to fix his teeth.”

Every now and then, the industry sets its sights on a comedy actor and processes him into a mass of muscles. Sometimes, it turns out well (Chris Pratt) and sometimes, it’s really weird (John Krasinski and Kumail Nanjiani). But in Armageddon (1998) Affleck stood up to Bruce Willis with dignity, while his chemistry with Liv Tyler helped us forget the embarrassing animal crackers scene, which made everyone wish that an asteroid the size of Texas would hit as soon as possible.

A very young Ben Affleck alongside Pam Potillo in a Disney series in 1986.
A very young Ben Affleck alongside Pam Potillo in a Disney series in 1986.ABC Photo Archives (Disney General Entertainment Con)

The important thing is that the film brought in $500 million and everyone noticed how handsome Affleck looked in a shirt. A star was born… and, to top it all off, he was also intelligent. He and his childhood friend Damon had sold a script they had been working on for years, for $600,000. Good Will Hunting, with nine nominations, was the second-most nominated film by the Academy in 1997, just behind Titanic.

Affleck went from not being able to pay rent to earning $12 million per movie. He was dating Gwyneth Paltrow and People magazine voted him the Sexiest Man Alive in 2002. The world was at his feet. So, how do you explain that, just a couple of years later, the Los Angeles Times published an article in which it spoke of Affleck’s “fall”? Well, the answer is a word that merges two names: Bennifer.

The case of Bennifer

After the breakup with Paltrow, Affleck began dating Jennifer Lopez — the actress, singer, dancer, businesswoman and full-time diva. In the style of great couples (Burton and Taylor, Hepburn and Tracy, Bacall and Bogart), they embarked on a film project together. Affleck — who had already demonstrated his de-lesbianizing power in Chasing Amy — repeated it again in Gigli (2003), the story of a small-time criminal who falls in love with a lesbian hitwoman.

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, stars, heartthrobs and screenwriters.
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, stars, heartthrobs and screenwriters.Ron Galella, Ltd. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

The film was a disaster, both at the box office and among the critics. “After the schadenfreudian thrill of watching beautiful people humiliate themselves wears off, it has the same annihilating effect on your will to live,” Jeff Giles wrote in Newsweek.

Would the same thing have happened if the female lead had been Halle Berry, who was originally meant to have the role? And is it really such a disastrous movie? The truth is that it’s no worse than most of Jennifer Lopez’s movies: its failure had more to do with the fatigue that the public was beginning to feel. People didn’t like the couple… much less their ubiquity. While social media didn’t exist yet, the tabloids had turned Affleck and Lopez into their menu.

However, in a conversation with the Los Angeles Times, an anonymous marketing executive asked: “Who gave [the tabloids] the fodder? I don’t blame US Weekly, because if you’re going to go out and buy your girlfriend a six-carat diamond ring and roll up to premieres in a white Bentley like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, you are giving them what they want.”

“That kind of coverage robs movie stars of their mystique,” lamented Harvey Weinstein, who was Affleck’s friend around that time. “The great lesson that Paul Newman and Robert Redford taught me is that you have to go out, promote your film and then run and hide.” In an embarrassing move that, handled well, could have been ironic and eased a relationship that was beginning to become stomach-churning, the couple captured their love story in the music video for Jenny from the Block… something that the actor would regret years later.

If Affleck’s physical attractiveness had once made him the most promising of the two friends who were going to dominate Hollywood, the betting houses quickly moved their chips to Damon, who triumphed as the dark and fascinating protagonist of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and as the heroic Jason Bourne. Nothing was working for Affleck. Pearl Harbor (2000) was meant to be like a version of Titanic in the air, but despite its good grossing, it didn’t warm the hearts of viewers. Nor did Affleck arouse enthusiasm as the new Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears (2002), taking on the role after Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford had played it. Affleck and Lopez got engaged, but the wedding was postponed due to “excessive media attention” — which, in translation from PR speak, meant that the singer wasn’t too happy about Affleck’s visit to a strip club.

Another Jennifer

But Hollywood always gives a handsome man a second (or 10th) chance. His role as George Reeves (the first Superman) in Hollywoodland (2006) won him the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. He then opted for smaller projects and got behind the camera to demonstrate that his Academy Award for screenwriting wasn’t mere luck. Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010) earned him the respect of the studios, while Argo (2012) confirmed his capacity as a director: the film won three Oscars out of nine nominations. However, although Affleck was one of the co-winners for Best Picture, he didn’t get a Best Director nomination.

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck in New York City, in 2021.
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck in New York City, in 2021.Gotham (GC Images)

His new life also included a new partner — Jennifer Garner — whom he knew from the set of Pearl Harbor. In 2005, Victor Garber, Garner’s father in the TV show Alias, officiated their wedding.

While the new Bennifer didn’t have the same level of media exposure at first when compared to Affleck’s time with Lopez, the relationship certainly had an eventful ending. After a decade and three children together, the couple separated. If the first Jennifer had a problem with a strip club, the second dealt with another cliché: the nanny.

The divorce coincided with the filming of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). However, Affleck’s casting as Batman was not well-received by fans, who started a Change.org petition for him to abandon the project. Over 100,000 people signed.

“I wore the suit to my son’s birthday party, which was worth every moment of suffering on Justice League.” And what was it that he was suffering from? “I started drinking too much around the time of Justice League… and it’s a hard thing to confront and face and deal with,” he explained. “I’ve been sober for a while now, and I feel really good — as healthy and good as I’ve ever felt.”

During a radio interview with Howard Stern, he admitted that problems in his marriage had influenced his descent into hell. “I was like ‘I can’t leave ‘cause of my kids, but I’m not happy, what do I do?’ What I did was drink a bottle of scotch and fall asleep on the couch, which turned out not to be the solution.”

It wasn’t the first time this happened to him. In 2001, he entered the Promises rehabilitation center in Malibu to receive treatment for alcoholism. Affleck has never hidden his problems with depression and addiction. In fact, he’s long been familiar with them. His father was an alcoholic: he would see him drinking every day and recalled feeling “relieved” when his parents divorced when he was 11.

‘Sad Affleck’

While Affleck was dealing with his demons, the not-too-enthusiastic reception of his Batman, the critical online world and too much free time, he was hit by the “Sad Affleck” meme. During a promotional interview for the Justice League film alongside Henry Cavill, he maintained an absent expression for a few seconds… and that was all that social media needed. A YouTuber gave it The Sound of Silence as its soundtrack and the video went viral.

He wasn’t the first actor reduced to a meme, or even a symbol of sadness: this had already happened with Keanu Reeves. However, if Reeves was received with a certain tenderness, in the case of Affleck, there has always been a trace of ridicule. In his highly scrutinized relationship with Ana de Armas, some saw a publicity move… although it may simply be pure coincidence that every time an actress arrives in Hollywood, she falls in love with her on-screen partner and crosses paths daily with all the paparazzi in California.

On certain occasions, the actor has used the madness of social media for his own benefit. His appearance in David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) was analyzed not for his acting skills, but for his penis, which appeared so briefly that Vulture put out a guide to spotting it on screen, which included the suggestion of using binoculars. But demonstrating that he was unbothered and doing well, Affleck bolstered interest in the event, by telling MTV that the penis — although it only appears briefly — is indeed in the film. “It costs extra. It’s IMAX penis! You’ve gotta pay 15 bucks to see it in 3-D. It looks better in 3-D.”

A plot twist worthy of Gone Girl was the one that brought back the original Bennifer in 2021: Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez reconciled and married 17 years after their breakup. And, once again, they became the favorite topic of the tabloids, while feeding a cornucopia of new memes. The “Sad Affleck” has now been overshadowed by the “Exhausted Affleck,” due to Lopez’s supposed fieriness.

If social media is anything to go by, Affleck still matters. But if we go by the box office results, it seems that his films don’t. In 2023, it’s easier to remember his latest meme than the title of his last movie. It’s called Hypnotic, by the way. You’re welcome.

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