Ben Affleck: How He Went From 'Gigli' Disgrace to 'Argo' Oscar Frontrunner (INSIDE STORY)

Ben Affleck on Maturity
"Forty is the new 15," the father of three tells Celebuzz. Read More »

All the praise and Oscar buzz surrounding Ben Affleck this fall isn't that surprising, given the growing respect he's earned as a director/actor/screenwriter, acclaim that seems to have grown exponentially with the releases of Gone Baby Gone (2007), The Town (2010), and now Argo (due out October 12).

But it is surprising if you remember that, just eight short years ago, Affleck was widely regarded as a Hollywood cautionary tale, an exemplar of youthful potential wasted. He'd won an Oscar and become a star at 25, but by 32, career and personal choices that went south resulted in a string of loathed movies (most notoriously, the flop Gigli) and a spectacularly fizzled tabloid romance with Jennifer Lopez. Who'd have imagined then the complete personal and artistic turnaround that finds him, at 40, married to the popular Jennifer Garner, a doting dad of three kids, and the director/co-writer/star of one of the current awards season's most anticipated films?

How did Affleck manage to turn his career and his life around?

It seems instructive to compare and contrast Affleck's career with that of his lifelong pal Matt Damon. Both appeared as prep students opposite Brendan Fraser in 1992's School Ties. Affleck went on to carve out a niche as a sadistic bruiser in indie films (notably, Dazed and Confused, a launching pad for numerous future stars, and Mallrats, the first of many films he made for Kevin Smith), while Damon went on to dramatic supporting roles in mainstream studio fare like Courage Under Fire. But neither became a star until 1997. That was the year that Smith cast Affleck against type as a romantic lead in Chasing Amy. More important, it was the year that Affleck and Damon sold a screenplay with starring roles for themselves, inspired by their Boston upbringing: Good Will Hunting. Director Gus Van Sant's resulting hit film made them household names and won them an Oscar for original screenwriting.

At this point, despite several more joint collaborations between Affleck, Damon, and Smith, the two actors began to take different paths. Affleck began to take conventional leading man roles in big studio blockbusters like Michael Bay's films Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, while Damon explored quirkier indie roles in films like Rounders and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Affleck had his first taste of magazine-cover romance when he dated Gwyneth Paltrow and appeared in two movies with her (Shakespeare in Love and Bounce, neither of which offered him much of a showcase for his talents). Damon continued to take roles in big studio movies where he was part of an ensemble and didn't have to carry the whole picture himself (Saving Private Ryan, the Ocean's Eleven movies).

By the time their paths converged again in 2002, with both of them launching big-studio spy franchises (Affleck rebooting Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears, Damon kicking off the Bourne series), it was Damon who seemed the more interesting and compelling star, seasoned by years of practicing for the big leagues, while Affleck seemed like someone who'd been thrust into having to carry blockbusters before he was ready. The excesses of his personal life -- he was an avid poker player who would gamble large sums of money in a single sitting, and he went to rehab for alcoholism in 2001 -- only made him appear even more like a frivolous Hollywood narcissist heading for a fall.

It all started to come crashing down for Affleck in 2003, the year Affleck (in a new Details interview) calls his "annus horribilis." That was the year he made Daredevil, a Marvel superhero movie that didn't do well enough to launch a franchise (though it did spawn a spinoff, Elektra, which also went nowhere). It was the year he starred in Paycheck, a listless sci-fi thriller whose title suggested Affleck's motivation for appearing in it.

2003 was also the year he made Gigli, a witless Mob comedy that was such a disaster, by every measure, that it supplanted Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, and Waterworld as the archetypal Hollywood flop. And it was the year that he and Gigli costar Lopez embarked upon their ill-fated romance, which took them through one more picture (Smith's romantic drama Jersey Girl, which also flopped) countless tabloid headlines, the coining of the first celebrity couple joint nickname ("Bennifer"), and an engagement that fell apart under all the public scrutiny.

Then Affleck started to make some smart choices. He quietly courted and married his Daredevil costar Garner in 2005. And he sat out movies for a couple years. When he came back, it was in a supporting role in an indie film, not a lead role in a potential blockbuster. And it was the right role -- that of George Reeves, the 1950s star of TV's Superman, in the 2006 crime drama Hollywoodland. The role of Reeves -- an actor who seemed trapped in an uncomfortable superhero costume and frustrated that no one in Hollywood or among the audience would take him seriously -- couldn't have fit Affleck better, and he earned a lot of critical praise for his performance.

The next year saw the release of his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. A crime drama set in Affleck's hometown of Boston and starring his brother Casey Affleck, the movie earned praise for Affleck's direction and for the authenticity of its setting. And he was smart enough not to make himself the center of attention by starring in the film as well.

For a while, behind-the-camera work seemed like it would be a good career path for Affleck, though he continued to act in supporting roles in gritty dramas directed by others, like State of Play and The Company Men. By the time he made The Town, however, he was ready to work both sides of the camera. Comparisons between the Boston-set crime drama and Affleck's first film were inevitable, but critics took note of both Affleck's direction (The Town was a film much more ambitious in scale) and his acting (the 38-year-old displayed a world-weariness on screen that seemed hard-earned, a sense of lived-in experience that the callow Affleck from a decade earlier wouldn't have been able to convey).

Now comes Argo, Affleck's most ambitious film yet, with a tale involving global politics, vast set-pieces, historical drama, and show-business satire. The absurd-but-true story of a CIA scheme to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 by staging a fake Hollywood sci-fi film shoot in the desert, Argo demands a tricky tonal blend of comedy, drama, and action, and it demands from its star (Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez) a performance with layers of trickery and deception. By the accounts of most early reviewers, Affleck has managed to pull it all off and deserves for his efforts the attention of the Academy when it announces its nominations in January.

One measure of his growing skill as a director is his consideration for even the lowliest of his characters, Film.com movie critic Stephanie Zacharek told Celebuzz. "One of the things I admire about Affleck is his understanding of class differences -- when he creates characters who perhaps don't have a lot of money or social status, he always gives them multiple dimensions," she said. "I'm thinking of, say, Blake Lively's character in The Town. Of course, much of the credit has to go to Lively for what she brings to the role. But so many filmmakers would use a character like that as a kind of placemarker -- 'Insert generic lower-class, drug-addled floozy here' -- and Affleck is too astute and sensitive to do that. He's a remarkably unsnobby filmmaker -- he doesn't talk down to his characters or to his material."

Part of Affleck's maturity as a filmmaker may have to do with his grounded personal life. "I have a very, very different life than I used to have and I much prefer the life that I have now," Affleck recently told Celebuzz. "I have a much more rewarding home life than I’ve ever had. And my wife is just a spectacular woman."

There's also a sense that Hollywood was always rooting for Affleck to pick himself up and get back on track.  So suggested Howard Bragman, longtime Hollywood publicist and vice chairman of Reputation.com, in an interview with Celebuzz. "We never disliked the guy," Bragman said. "We didn't always agree with his career choices, but he never did anything heinous. He's never really been in the gutter."

Bragman, who routinely coaches celebrities on making career and personal decisions that will help them weather crises, said he finds a lot of qualities in Affleck that his clients could emulate. "Maturity, political involvement, willingness to do interesting projects that move your soul as opposed to just commercial appeal," Bragman said of Affleck. "Those are all worthy and smart things."

Most of all, there needs to be a sense of perspective, suggested Bragman, who said he doesn't think Affleck ever sunk as low or returned as dramatically as John Travolta did when Pulp Fiction resurrected his career in 1994. "Anybody who's successful in this industry for more than a decade makes mistakes and has missteps," Bragman said of Affleck. "It's a marathon, not a sprint. That's what he understands."

Affleck himself seems to recognize that, given a long view of his career, his 2003-04 nadir will someday be seen as a minor speed bump. Maybe sooner rather than later. As he told Details, during the shooting of The Town in 2009, he drove costar Lively, then 22, around Boston and pointed out the house where his pal Damon grew up. "And she said, 'Oh my God! You know Jason Bourne?!' She really didn't know. And I thought, 'There it is. The first age of people who are adults who missed the whole Matt-and-Ben propaganda campaign!' Mostly, it just made me feel old."

Or, as Bragman put it, with a more positive spin, "Once somebody is a star and the public likes them, there's always an opportunity to reinvent yourself."

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