Barbara La Marr was an infamous starlet in the early days of Hollywood when things on the screen were silent. She wrote screenplays (7 of them) and she starred in films (20 them) and all 27 came over a period of six years (1920 – 1926), which seems inconceivable, before she died at the age of 29 after having been married 5 times. (The official cause of death was tuberculosis but the inevitable rumors abound that this was brought on by drugs and alcohol.) 27 films and 5 marriages by the age of 29!
Movies in those early days of cinema were shot, of course, using hand cranked cameras which sped up the action on screen and made it seem as if everyone and everything was moving in fast-forward, a sensation which symbolizes La Marr and Hollywood in general. You can a live whole life a few times by age 29. Everything in Hollywood is in fast-forward.
If Ms. La Marr is sort of symbolic of Old Hollywood then perhaps Ben Affleck is symbolic of New Hollywood. Not that Affleck’s life has been as tragic as La Marr’s, mind you, not at all, though sometimes you might think it was considering the ill-begotten headlines during the Bennifer days and the way in which he is now being touted as The Comeback Kid.
The early days of Affleck involved “Dazed and Confused” and Kevin Smith movies when Kevin Smith still had an idea of what he wanted to write, but his Rise culminated when he and Matt Damon each won an Academy Award for writing “Good Will Hunting” in 1997. Never mind that Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for “Boogie Nights” was superior, trickier and deeper, the story of the two longtime best friends from Boston who TOOK THEIR MOMS TO THE OSCARS is the sorta stuff the Academy lives for. And as the two of them stood on stage, percolating boyish enthusiasm, delivering a heartfelt speech, it was easy to picture a future with Matt & Ben running a movie studio at side by side desks in a glittery office. The world was their tallboy.
Less than 6 months later, Affleck was being chased around an oil rig by a shotgun-toting Bruce Willis in “Armageddon.” The world did not know it yet, but Affleck was already on his way out. He began accepting starry-eyed leading man roles – "Forces of Nature", "Bounce", "Reindeer Games". These choices were regrettable. Becoming the third Movie Jack Ryan in “The Sum of All Fears” seemed a good decision but he struck out. “Pearl Harbor” was a softly-lit monstrosity that earned Affleck his first (and second) Razzie nomination. He earned his third for his own stab at a superhero franchise in “Daredevil.”
It was also around this time that Ben began dating Jen – that is, J.Lo, Jennifer Lopez. Fair or not, this Bostonian/Fly Girl romance never stood a chance, and in some ways their trip to Fenway Park for a Red Sox/Yankees playoff game in mid-October famous for an onfield brawl underscored the entire relationship gossip-wise.
The Fall of Affleck culminated in 2003 with his Lopez co-starring “Gigli.” In truth, “Gigli” is not quite as bad as the legend (read the esteemed Roger Ebert’s original review, for instance) but the legend overrode fact and “Gigli” came to be viewed as Bennifer’s “Heaven’s Gate.” It was the butt of innumerable jokes and the career of Affleck seemed bottomed out. He and Kevin Smith attempted a revival of sorts together with “Jersey Girl” but it passed by as momentously as that ceasar salad you had for lunch.
Bennifer I ended and Bennifer II began – this is to say, Ben & J.Lo broke up and Ben took up with Jennifer Garner, prim & proper Jennifer Garner, who you might remember as the prim & proper nurse in “Pearl Harbor.” This seems crucial. Garner is not targeted by tabloids to the same degree as Lopez and no doubt this aided Bennifer II in remaining more grounded. And then something curious happened – Ben Affleck took the role of George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.”
I say curious because George Reeves was another member of the Hollywood clique who led a sped-up life, becoming an actor, going to war, getting divorced, and then culminating with the role of Superman in 1951. Tragically, though, his life would go downhill from there, financially and career-wise, and he died under controversial circumstances in 1959, chewed up and spit out by the place that made him. I dare say Affleck could identify with at least part of Reeves’ plight, the way in which a quick-to-judge community can live up to its reputation so precisely and turn its back so quickly.
His performance was well received, earning, amongst other plaudits, the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival. But rather than re-enter the spotlight in some sort of tailor-made starring role he took the opposite track, returning to screenwriting for the first time since his Oscar and stepping behind the camera for the first time ever.
He chose Denis Lehane’s novel “Gone Baby Gone” for his directorial debut and despite a too-talky ending and a few gratuitous clarifying flashbacks, he did not really step wrong, serving up a solid slice of raw atmosphere and coaxing several great performances from his impressive cast (most notably from Amy Ryan who was bawdy but never over the top). His follow up was “The Town”, a heist film that was not entirely successful but still impressive in its ambition. And that led to “Argo”, a based-on-a-true-story tale that Affleck creates with a spectacular sense of craftsmanship.
It is the favorite to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. If it does, will that be the Resurrection of Affleck? Or has the Resurrection already happened? Perhaps it has, and to think he was Risen at 25, Fallen at 31 and Risen Again at 40 comes across as improbable until you remember it’s Hollywood. Everything is in fast-forward.
What fascinates me most about “Argo” is not the tension Affleck creates in that galloping third act but the way in which he chooses to play the film’s protagonist, C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez. Dana Stevens of Slate called him “an emotional cipher, and not in a mysterious way, just in a dull one.” Manohla Dargis, however, of the New York Times counters that “his control serves the material, partly because it would have been a mistake for him to try to upstage this story.” I think I prefer the latter. In my own review I noted how Affleck almost seems to be resisting the stereotypical heroism that a role of this kind could easily provide. Dour but determined his version of Tony Mendez believes less in his own individualism and more in the story he is pitching (“I think my little story is the only thing standing between you and a gun to your head”) and the support group surrounding it.
In other words, the leading man is really a director. Maybe, deep down, it’s what he always wanted to be.