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.
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