The Unbearable Sadness Of Ben Affleck

The Ben Affleck of the late ‘90s was a charm machine: goofy, self-effacing, and deep in a highly public bromance with the equally winning Matt Damon. Within five years, he was a punchline. It took a decade for his career to recover. Today, he's once again at war with his image. So what's Affleck so ashamed of?

The year after Daredevil, Ben Affleck told People magazine that “I can’t imagine doing another action movie.” In 2002, he called his earlier desire to do blockbusters “an adolescent aspiration.” In 2003, he described his “fundamental code” as “being honest, doing things with which I can live, rather than be ashamed of — doing estimable things.” In 2006, he told USA Today that “I’ve been in movies that earned a lot of money that ... I wish I wasn’t in, honestly.” Later that year, in an interview for his “comeback” role in Hollywoodland, he was relieved because “I don’t have to feel, like, embarrassed anymore.”

Affleck has an issue with shame. Over the last 20 years of stardom, he’s voiced that shame about the roles that he’s taken, the relationships he’s made public, his lack of education, his drinking habits, and, most recently, his tattoo, which, after a swift and public backlash, he quickly (and rather dubiously) claimed to be “fake.” He has not, it should be noted, been ashamed of his gambling habits or his extramarital affair — allegations of which, at least publicly, he still denies.

During his career renaissance in the late 2000s, the shame receded: He was directing, which is much less embarrassing than acting in bad movies, and in 2013, he won a Best Picture Oscar for Argo. But recently, Affleck has returned to the source of his embarrassment: In signing up for the role of Batman, he’s wed himself to a decade of action movies. Reviews for Batman v Superman are so bad that fans of the film have conjured a conspiracy theory that they were paid for by (DC Comics rival) Marvel. And in videos like this one, currently meme-ing its way across the internet, you can watch, in real time, as that old shame creeps in:

View this video on YouTube

It’s the same look he sported at the Gigli premiere in 2004, laden with the realization that he’d done something horribly, irrevocably wrong. It's a look that shows up so often there's an entire deliriously well-stocked Tumblr of "Ben Affleck Looking Sad." But the Sadfleck look doesn't inspire pity. Instead, there's a palpable desire to punch him in the face.

Stars, the understanding goes, should be grateful for what our fandom has given them. They should be gracious when we award them their fame, and when reviews are bad, they should smile and keep spinning, as Henry Cavill gamefully does in the Sadfleck Interview. And they should do all of this because they are getting paid mountains of money.

Affleck breaks that implicit pact. It’s one thing to make fun of your past, but it’s quite another to resent your present. Especially, in the case of Batman v Superman, because Affleck has been through it all before: He hates action movies. He especially hates superhero movies. His self-flagellation is off-putting because it’s tinged with resentment — toward the very filmmakers who would hire him again and, by extension, the millions of fans who've paid to see him.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the slew of genre films that made him seem like a paint-by-numbers leading man, Affleck had something like charisma. Early on, he played beefhead bullies in supporting roles — see Dazed and Confused (1993) and Mallrats (1995) — in part because, at 6’2”, he towers over most actors. “I had some producer try to talk me out of casting Ben in Chasing Amy,” director Kevin Smith told People magazine. “Because he was ‘too big’ to be a romantic leading man.”

In Chasing Amy (1997), Affleck was finally in the lead role, but he was still no leading man: just a New Jersey schmoe who, like the movie itself, doesn’t really understand lesbians. The moment when Amy (Joey Lauren Adams) takes the stage and begins singing to someone in the crowd, and Holden (Affleck) thinks that someone is him — it's a sublime moment of oblivious doofery. Not slapstick, just complete ego annihilation. As Holden, Affleck is all goatee and bad cardigans, but you have to trust me when I say it was hot for the time. It also helped launch his career: As Amy hit theaters, Good Will Hunting, Dogma, and Armageddon were all in production.

Good Will Hunting was a ready-made Oscar campaign, elevated to even more epic levels with the help of the Weinsteins — who, in 1997, were at the very top of their promotional game. According to the well-recited narrative, Affleck and Damon had met as kids in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Damon went to Harvard; Affleck went to the University of Vermont where, after two months, he dropped out and went to Hollywood, chasing the dream of acting after he’d appeared in a few bit roles as a teen. Damon, by contrast, wrote a screenplay, which sat in wait until he dropped out of school and moved to Hollywood, where he and Affleck started to act out scenes, rewrite, expand, and refine the script, anchoring it in big, meaty moments where one of them (or the psychologist character, played by Robin Williams) could give tour-de-force performances.

Affleck and Damon in Good Will Hunting

Which helps explain why the movie endures as a collection of scenes: the “Dem Apples” moment at the bar, Williams talking about his wife, Affleck telling Damon that he’ll kill him if he decides to squander his talent. The image of Damon and Affleck as a pair of hometown-boys-made-good was at the center of the publicity campaign, but Damon was clearly the star — and given most of the credit for the screenplay (at least, that is, when others weren’t floating conspiracy theories that the script had been written, or at least heavily doctored, by someone else).

“I took the whole writer thing very seriously,” Affleck told Talk magazine in 2000. “In retrospect, if I’d known then what I know now, I would have expanded the part that I played. Matt had a bigger part in School Ties and he had been a lead in Geronimo. Both movies totally bombed, and nobody was offering him any parts, but you could make the case that he was the actor. I’d only had supporting roles, and there wasn’t a lot of room [in the script] for us both to star, especially because we needed to have a big name [Robin Williams] in order to get it made. So I felt like, well, okay, we’ll cut my scenes out.”

When the pair won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, they were scrappy favorites — wearing gifted tuxes and bringing their moms as dates — that fit, in many ways, with their onscreen images as working-class Massholes. They remained self-deprecating (Damon: “If you put us together, you might actually make a whole, creative, interesting individual”) and graciously accepted the next step in their Hollywood wunderkind path: blockbuster stardom: Damon, with Spielberg, in Saving Private Ryan; Affleck, with Michael Bay, in Armageddon.

Still, Affleck managed to avoid insufferability. He still wasn’t the lead lead — that was reserved for Bruce Willis — instead, he gamely played with animal crackers on Liv Tyler’s stomach. But in his first big cover story for Vanity Fair in 1999, hints of his macho self-consciousness started to become visible. “He may not be Bike Guy or Adrenaline-Junkie Guy, but spend a few minutes with Affleck, who’s usually seen around town in baggy army pants, a t-shirt, and a leather jacket, and one thing becomes clear: he sure as hell is a guy.” “He longs for the time when models looked like Christie Brinkley,” the profile declared. “He thinks Tom Cruise is a god. He stands behind Hootie. He has been known to forgo sex for video games.”

And as a guy, a guy’s guy, still friends with all his friends from home, Entourage style, Affleck was terrified of the feminizing effects of publicity. “His favorite words seem to be ‘chump,’ ‘weak,’ and especially ‘jackass,’” the profile continues. “‘Jackass,’ to Affleck, is the worst of insults. A jackass is what he fears he sounds like in profiles like this one.” Later in the interview, Affleck admits that the media version of his friendship with Damon was “so gay.” “If I had gone by the tabloid stories of it,” he elaborated, “I would have been like ‘Look at these fuckin’ chumps. I just want to smack these people.' And I kind of wanted to smack myself.”

Vanity Fair goes on to declare that Affleck, in his self-awareness, is the opposite of a jackass, but that fear — of the way that publicity will effectively castrate him — was merited. Male and female stars have always required publicity (posing for photo shoots, sitting for interviews) in order to maintain their status in the public eye and promote their newest product. But there’s a type of publicity that’s masculine (profiles in men’s magazines, photos in classy suits, interviews in established newspapers) and another that’s feminizing (gossip magazines, tabloids, photo shoots that signal a willingness to believe that you’re hot). The cover of Vanity Fair isn’t feminizing. Being named People’s Sexiest Man Alive — and posing for a mildly embarrassing photo shoot — is.

It’s a counterintuitive process: that becoming a heartthrob can de-masculinize you. Attractiveness to women should up a male star’s virility quotient, but in truth, or, at least, in media, it makes him subject to the gaze — a passive pin-up. It’s what happened to Rudolph Valentino back in the ‘20s; it’s what nearly happened to Burt Reynolds in the ‘70s, when he posed nude for a Cosmopolitan centerfold that he’s recently admitted he regrets. (Leonardo DiCaprio has fought the impulse by getting as ugly as possible in every other film.)

Whether Affleck was conscious of that process or not, publicity clearly inflamed his anxiety — which, judging from his own comments, sprung from an acute case of class consciousness. Affleck described his upbringing as “working class” — his mother was an elementary school teacher, his father was, among other things, a mechanic, a bookie, a construction worker, a bartender, and a drunk, who left the family when Affleck was a boy, leaving his mother to raise him and his brother Casey on a single income. Affleck’s mother, Chris, was raised on the Upper East Side and attended Harvard; her father (Affleck’s grandfather) had been a Democratic activist — an inclination that was passed down to Affleck, who has been active, in some capacity, in Democratic politics his entire adult life.

Which is all to say that Affleck, living in Cambridge, surrounded by schools like MIT and Harvard, and living with a Harvard-educated mother, was incredibly attuned to class differences. “I’ve always been insecure because I only had a little bit of college and knew a lot of people from fancy schools,” Affleck told Rolling Stone. “All that sort of resentment in Good Will Hunting about people who went to college came from me feeling on the fringe.”

He hated being called “fratty” because it pointed to a class level that he also never achieved. “The idea that I’m this frat guy is odd, because I only went to college for one semester,” he told Talk. “I was never in fraternity. It speaks to a kind of upper-class upbringing that I didn’t have.”

Which isn’t to say that he didn’t dress and act like a different style of frat boy: His idea of the good life, according to longtime friend and producer Chris Moore, was “eating at Subway and playing video games”; when Bay cast him in Armageddon, his first order was that Affleck get his teeth, one of the ultimate signifiers of class, fixed.

At the same time, Affleck had affixed himself to Gwyneth Paltrow — arguably the most high-class star of the last 25 years. Paltrow, who, pre-Goop, was still the woman who’d attended the most exclusive New York private school, who’d grown up surrounded by Hollywood, and who'd, according to writer-director Don Roose, offered Affleck “lots of unsolicited advice” about his decor. “To hear her talk you’d think there were mattresses on the floor and Led Zeppelin posters on the wall.”

In truth, it was more like a keg of Guinness and a rotating set of friends in his Hollywood home, but Paltrow, according to People, “wanted to show that there’s a real man inside him, a thinker and a sensitive guy. She doesn’t let him skate by on that frat-boy thing.” Put differently, she was trying to reform — re-class — him.

Anxiety over the public perception of his intelligence, apparently fueled by his own girlfriend, might have been part of why Affleck so eagerly stumped for Al Gore, embraced plans to adapt Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, or spoke publicly at Harvard with Damon and Zinn about raising wages for the university’s service employees. “They spoke very passionately,” Zinn said. “Ben talked about how his father had worked at Harvard at a menial job and how he understood what it was like to work for an enormously rich corporation and get a pittance.”

Affleck’s affiliation with Zinn, whose work also made an appearance in Good Will Hunting, crystallized his ambivalent relationship with his own class: He wanted to be a populist — someone who’s not ashamed of his working-class roots — but everything around him, including his own girlfriend, wanted him to disaffiliate with that same past in order to be famous.

Affleck and Paltrow broke up in 1999, but his subsequent roles suggest an oscillating desire to align himself with the (high-class) art house film and the (not-so-high-class) genre film — there’s his wan straight man opposite Sandra Bullock in rom-com Forces of Nature, a return to Smith in Dogma, classic indie ensemble work in 200 Cigarettes, and what was intended as a prestige role alongside Paltrow in the unremarkable Bounce: “If you don’t like my performance in this movie,” Affleck proclaimed, “then you will never like me or believe me in any movie, and probably should never go see another movie I do.”

He agreed to make Reindeer Games because its director, John Frankenheimer, was responsible for The Manchurian Candidate; he said yes to Daddy and Them because it was Armageddon co-star Billy Bob Thornton’s first directorial project since Slingblade. He did Boiler Room, one can assume, because he wanted to have a juicy Glengarry Glen Ross–type speech, though it did not transform him into a serious actor — or at least the sort of actor that wouldn’t have to do the kind of PR that would make his class an issue.

And so Affleck leaned into handsome-leading-man roles, even though, as he was quick to admit, he felt alienated from them. He was unmemorable in Pearl Harbor, fell flat taking over for Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears, was just fine opposite Samuel L. Jackson in Changing Lanes, and had every scene stolen from him by Jennifer Garner in Daredevil.

And then there was J.Lo.

Consider Affleck’s mindset at the time. He’d spent time in rehab (brought to the Promises Center in 2001 by Charlie Sheen after an all-night bender; just think about that for a second) as a “pre-emptive strike” to counter what he viewed as a family inclination toward alcoholism. After the disappointments of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, he’d become a major and successful movie star. But not a respected one — especially when compared, as he always was, with Damon, who’d given a tour de force performance in The Talented Mr. Ripley and attached himself to much less flashy (and better) franchises with Bourne and Ocean’s Eleven. If Damon’s career choices were Whole Foods, Affleck’s were increasingly Costco.

When Affleck began working with Lopez on Gigli in 2002, she was married to dancer Cris Judd, and enormously successful, but, at heart, a celebrity, not a star. The two became close on set, but according to Affleck, only as friends.

It was during this friendship that Affleck decided to publicly assert the extent of Lopez’s talents. In March 2002, he took out $20,000 in ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter declaring how much he loved working with her — and how impressed he was with her acting skills. “In a lot of ways it was in contrast to what some of my preconceptions were about Jennifer,” he wrote. “I thought I’d write a paragraph saying what a professional, decent person she is and how kind she is.” (Note: the Hollywood trade magazines have a long history of congratulatory ads, but this particular ad "raised eyebrows.")

They were "just friends," but Affleck was nevertheless concerned with the public perception — which goes unnamed here, but can be insinuated as “low class” — of his co-star. To be sure, Affleck did actually find Lopez impressive, professional, decent, and kind. But to take out an ad proclaiming as much says more about how he’d like to be perceived for working with her and less about his actual concern for her image. Put differently, she wasn’t ashamed; he was.

In June 2002, Lopez announced her separation from Judd; a month later, she and Affleck announced their relationship, as one does, via public appearance, dining with Lopez’s manager and producer Babyface at “New York’s see-and-be-seen” sushi restaurant Nobu. “They were cuddling at the table,” an employee told Us Weekly, adding that Lopez had worn beige-and-white sweatpants with her name embroidered across the back.

Thus launched one of the most high-profile — and heavily degraded — relationships in the modern celebrity era. They were the first couple to win a celebrity moniker, “Bennifer,” which pointed to the ways in which their relationship became the central commodity, exploited and expanded by the burgeoning rivalry between People magazine and the newly rejuvenated Us Weekly.

Dozens of couples had been tracked with similar ferocity before, and dozens would be in the decade to come. But the sentiment that hovered around Bennifer was one of distaste. The press was filled with reports of their lavish gifts to one another — a $100,000 toilet seat encrusted with jewels, a 6.1-carat pink solitaire ring, a six-figure Aston Martin sports car. While modern celebrity is distinguished, in no small part, through displays of conspicuous consumption, Bennifer’s tipped into new-money gaudiness — too conspicuous, especially when paired with equally conspicuous displays of affection.

Usually, we love when celebrities kiss or hold hands for the cameras, but Bennifer exceeded the unspoken limits of good taste, especially when Affleck appeared in the video for Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block” — cuddling, kissing, cupping her ass on the back of a yacht. “The reason I did the video was as a commentary on the crazy tabloid paparazzi attention,” Affleck explained. “But it was covered without any irony whatsoever.” Instead of satirizing paparazzi surveillance, it seemed like Lopez and Affleck were celebrating, or at least catering, to it.

In the press, Lopez was figured as a “bad fit” for Affleck: She was "ravenously ambitious” (Vanity Fair), “the Zsa Zsa Gabor of our generation” (Rolling Stone) who wore velour J.Lo jumpsuits and loved Deuce Bigalow. “The problem, of course, is that J.Lo is no Julia,” an editorial for The Hollywood Reporter explained, comparing her to Roberts, whose love life had also been in the press. “You never saw Roberts show up at the Oscars dressed in Saran Wrap, for instance. No one gushes about Roberts’ rear end as being intrinsic to her success.”

The unspoken connotation of all this rhetoric? Lopez was trashy. She wasn’t talented like other Hollywood stars — she was an OK singer, a forgettable actor. Instead, her celebrity was rooted in her raced, classed body: in her dancing ability, but also in her body’s beauty, which she exploited without shame. She had been arrested, along with ex-boyfriend Sean “Puffy” Combs, in connection to a Manhattan shooting. She was the opposite of Paltrow.

And even though Affleck attempted to emphasize the similarities between him and Lopez — "We are both from working-class families in culturally diverse neighborhoods in east coast cities,” he told The Mirror — the rhetoric around their relationship remained that of a mismatch. When Vanity Fair asserted that Lopez was “perhaps the last woman on earth Affleck should have chosen if he really wanted to maintain a lower profile,” he responded: “That occurred to me. Why did I fall in love with this person? What does that say about me? Maybe I am conflicted, but I also have a contrary streak.”

Which might explain Affleck’s conflicting impulse to both defend Lopez and transform her. He corrected those who called her “J.Lo” instead of Jennifer, a move that presaged Tom Cruise’s attempt to turn Katie Holmes into “Kate.” He toned down her sexuality: “Jen has had fewer boyfriends than your average high-school junior,” he said. “In the physical sense, she’s extremely chaste. She’s had a much simpler, more easily explainable, more clean romantic history than I have.” He encouraged Lopez to fire her longtime manager, who’d help craft the tabloid-friendly strategy that made her famous. The “popular theory,” according to Newsweek, was that Affleck wanted to “sophisticate his wife-to-be’s image in case his long-rumored aspirations of a political life as a congressman from Massachusetts become a reality.”

The pair went on Dateline in late July to promote Gigli, which was set to premiere August 1, 2003. The interview itself was overkill (Entertainment Weekly charted its progress with a “Pain-o-Meter”), but the distaste was further amplified when, the night that it aired, Affleck was “caught” at a strip club in Vancouver with Christian Slater and Tara Reid — where, depending on the report, he either drank water all night and touched no one, or hooked up with a dancer, went back to Slater’s house, and had sex with her.

Affleck and Lopez issued statements maintaining that Affleck had attended the club with Lopez’s permission, but it mattered little — he was still at a strip club. If anything, her “approval” simply reinforced her lack of class. When the pair showed up to Gigli, the looks on their faces as they posed on the red carpet were overly bronzed and pained.

Gigli became a legendary flop, immediately likened to ur-flop Ishtar; studio head Joe Roth called its $7 million international gross, on a budget of $54 million, “humiliating.” A month later, Affleck and Lopez called off their $2 million wedding, purportedly due to too much media scrutiny. By January 2004, the pair officially ended their relationship. But they still had a second collaboration — Jersey Girl — to promote, and Affleck was back on the publicity circuit in March, making fun of Gigli and his own overexposure, owning the shame and sporting a hideous goatee and tatted-up arms on the cover of Rolling Stone.

He’d also been thinking about why, exactly, his relationship had incited such vitriol. He suspected it “had something to do with race and class,” he told Vanity Fair. “That pushed a button. This is a country that flew into a gigantic uproar about Janet Jackson’s breast. There’s still a heavy-duty puritan influence going on, and we still hold ourselves to a pretty chaste ideal, which includes, buried within it, the tradition of people being with people like them. We were thought of as two different kinds of people, not just racially but culturally.”

The explanation didn’t feel credible at the time, but in hindsight, race and class anxieties were redolent, if coded, in the rhetoric used to describe their relationship. Affleck himself seemed to have internalized that anxiety. He turned away from publicity, at least until, a year later, he began dating Jennifer Garner — a woman who, in addition to her burgeoning role as avatar of the middle-class femininity, upholds, as Affleck had put it, “the tradition of people being with people like them.”

It was literally Bennifer 2.0, but Affleck kept the relationship as low-key — as classy — as possible: They married yet rarely appeared together in public, Garner’s career receded, and the only images of their three children were playing, as a family, in the park. Garner didn’t offer him the class elevation that Paltrow would’ve, but she also didn’t inflame his own working-class connotations the way J.Lo had. She was wonderfully, soothingly safe, roundly respectable — an image that slowly, by extension, became Affleck’s as well.

As Affleck’s halo of shame receded, his likability increased. He was humble and tragic in Hollywoodland, was easy to root for as the director of Gone Baby Gone, and gave a completely unflashy performance in Argo. He’d found his low-key niche — the one, back in the early 2000s, he’d dreamed of. But something happened in the aftermath — as if he’d forgotten the lessons of a decade before. He seemed cocksure, arrogant; he was gambling and fighting constant rumors of infidelity, specifically with Gone Girl co-star Emily Ratajkowski. He’s great in Gone Girl not because he’d returned to the gleeful doofiness of Chasing Amy and Shakespeare in Love, but because the doof had grown up, soured, turned on itself. “He’s perfect in Gone Girl,” a friend told me, “because that movie knows he’s trash.”

When Affleck and Garner announced their divorce, it was against a backdrop of continued gambling problems (in October 2014, Affleck was thrown out of a casino for counting cards) and an alleged affair with the family’s nanny — perhaps the trashiest in the tabloid hierarchy of affairs. Yet it came as no surprise: We’d seen this cycle play out once before. Now that Batman v Superman has been pummeled in the press, his reaction feels not just like sadness in the wake of bad reviews, but a deep shame stemming from a series of disappointing decisions.

Class and race are the primary ways that we decide a person’s worth in this country, and while the history of Hollywood stardom is filled with men and women who transcended their original class, any anxiety, regret, or shame about their current or past class is carefully scrubbed from their images. That sort of insecurity isn’t read as sympathetic or relatable — instead, it’s a sign of image instability.

Even though we encourage the people who surround us to grow, change, and deliberate, there’s an expectation that stars, and the ideologies their images come to represent, remain static. Affleck’s oscillation between class anxiety and class capitulation — in his actions, his facial expressions, his interviews — makes him seem like a man who refuses to own himself or his decisions.

Back in 2000, still in the first act of his career, Affleck turned philosophical: “Being in the position that I’m in now, I tend to look at lot of these older actors and say, ‘Well, where are their lives now? Who do you want to be in life?’ So many of them seem so unhappy and so fucked up: confused or lost or bitter or hateful or venomous or in agony. None of them are happy. And you think, God, I don’t want that life.”

It seems, at least publicly, that Affleck has found in that vortex of stardom, still at war with his image, his career choices, and what he’s come to represent. That’s the realization that seems to descend upon Affleck in the clip: the dark understanding that even an Oscar can’t rescue him from the specter of his past shame — compounded by time and regret and failed relationships and superhero carapaces and the everlasting comparison to Damon — returning for him.

Read a companion piece on the transformation of Jennifer Garner here.

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