There are some stars who reveal as much about us as they do about themselves. Ben Affleck, who turns 50 on Aug. 15, is like that: A dimpled-chin Rorschach test, he reads differently to different people. For some fans, he’ll always be Matt Damon’s loyal best friend, Chuckie, in “Good Will Hunting,” the 1997 drama and “modern Boston movie” he co-wrote with Damon, both from Cambridge, launching their careers. They won the Oscar for original screenplay the following year.
For others, he’s the straight guy who fell in love with a lesbian comic book artist in “Chasing Amy” (also 1997) Or he’s the big bully and manager of Fashionable Male in “Mallrats” (1995). Or he’s the leader of a Charlestown bank-robbery gang in “The Town” (2010), another Boston movie, which he also co-wrote and directed. Or he’s Batman (see 2016′s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”).
For still others, he’s bound up with Jennifers, once again half of Bennifer, the beleaguered celebrity whose every move has been captured on camera, inspiring endless memes (and questions about his phoenix back tattoo). He’s been snapped sad-smoking, juggling a Dunkin’ order, staring at the sea, and sleeping open-mouthed on a boat. He exudes a “just like us” appeal, but then he surprises us by being Ben Affleck, the one and only.
What other actor can you think of who could direct an Oscar-winning movie about a real, fake movie devised as a cover to rescue Americans during the US-Iran hostage crisis (2012′s “Argo”) and win a “Razzie” for worst actor in 2003′s “Gigli”? At the 2004 Golden Raspberry Awards — an annual ceremony honoring the worst Hollywood has to offer — Affleck’s mob comedy with Jennifer Lopez nabbed six top prizes.
And now he’s made it to the half-century mark (with Jennifer Affleck by his side, no less). We’re celebrating some favorite Affleck moments. They may not all be the “best” or “most memorable,” but together they say something about an actor, writer, director, and genre unto himself who’s never been easy to pigeonhole or predict. Happy birthday, Ben. — Brooke Hauser
Public paddling in ‘Dazed and Confused’
It’s the last day of school, that night, and the next morning in a Texas town during the Bicentennial summer of 1976. That’s the set-up for Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” (1993). All sorts of things happen — but, then again, nothing of any real consequence. The movie’s like life that way.
It’s aged quite well, not least of all because the cast includes several now-familiar faces very early in their careers: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, an uncredited Renée Zellweger (“Girl in Blue Truck”), and, yes, Ben Affleck.
He’s 18th billed, but his character stands out. Certainly the prop he carries does. Local custom has it that when a boy graduates from middle school he gets hazed, and the hazing takes the form of a public paddling. Affleck plays the paddle wielder, O’Bannion. O’Bannion’s eagerness in discharging his appointed task is so unswerving as to be slightly unnerving.
“Dazed and Confused” is also like life in not really having any heroes or villains — except for O’Bannion. The easy way out for Affleck would have been to play the part for laughs, a little sheepishness here, a little winking at the audience there. That’s not what he does. He’s willing to let viewers dislike him, and actors hate, hate, hate being dislikable. But already, at 21, Affleck is a pro. It’s playing the part that matters, and if a paddle needs to be swung he will swing it. —Mark Feeney
Feeling like ‘the luckiest man alive’
I met Ben Affleck when he was 24. Having been impressed by him in “Chasing Amy,” a film that explored varying sexual identities before that became de rigueur in indie film and on alternative TV series, I looked forward to our interview for the Sunday Globe. “Good Will Hunting” hadn’t been filmed yet; the tabloids’ Bennifers 1, 2, and 1 redux were still years in the future; and “Argo” was probably unimaginable. He was just another young Boston-bred actor enjoying a happy journey into the wilds of La-La Land. No longer needing to stay on his mother’s fold-out couch in Cambridge, he sat in a Back Bay hotel suite talking at length of his gratitude for his good fortune, calling himself “the luckiest man alive” as he awaited the “Good Will Hunting” shoot.
Affleck was then schooling himself in movie promotion. “It never fails,” he said, “that after an interview I feel like I sounded stupid or said something I shouldn’t have said! Because I have a tendency to shoot my mouth off and be honest and forthright.” But he refused to complain about the media, saying, “Only a fool doesn’t see that if you want to be successful and do movies, that comes with it. If you don’t want that, don’t do it.” If he managed to go on and hit the big time and lose his freedom to the rigors of fame, he wouldn’t have any regrets, he said. “I’d certainly consider myself very, very lucky and just accept the downside with it.”
I wonder if, as he turns 50, he continues to feel that way. He has been grist for an increasingly brutal gossip mill — his romances, his addiction issues, HIS HAIR. Back in 1997, in the glow of “Chasing Amy,” we didn’t see “Argo” coming, but we also didn’t see TMZ and its ilk coming, with their invasions of privacy, their cruelty, and their utter shamelessness. —Matthew Gilbert
Swashbuckling (for a second) in ‘Shakespeare’
When we first see Ben Affleck in the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), he is bursting dramatically through the front door of an Elizabethan playhouse, then swiftly putting a bullying moneyman in his place.
It’s a swashbuckling entrance, though it’s mostly downhill from there for his character.
Always among our more physically imposing actors, Affleck plays Ned Alleyn, based on Edward (Ned) Alleyn, a respected 16th-century actor also known for his size. (However, the playwright with whom the real Alleyn was closely associated was Christopher Marlowe, not William Shakespeare.)
Ned is a minor role in “Shakespeare in Love,’’ and a goateed Affleck spends most of the movie vaguely glowering. When he does speak, his British accent is . . . inexact. But Affleck does have a couple of amusing moments.
Ned is possessed of an ego to match his bulk, and he has grandly consented to portray Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet” because Shakespeare has told him the play’s title is “Mercutio.’’ But Ned eventually notices that Mercutio disappears for a suspiciously long stretch. When he confronts the playwright, Shakespeare turns on the charm, ensorcelling Ned with a description of the duel Mercutio gets to engage in and the glorious words he gets to utter just before he, um, dies.
The playwright then hastens away as the light dawns on Affleck’s dumbstruck Ned, who calls after Shakespeare: “He dies?’’ — Don Aucoin
Starring: Ben Affleck’s hair
There used to be a lot of speculation about Ben Affleck’s hair — like, is it, you know, actually his hair. Google “actors with toupees” and you’ll see there are still questions about what, exactly, is happening on top of Ben’s head. (He’s not alone: Other A-list actors with suspect coiffures include Matthew McConaughey and Brad Pitt.) Such conjecture would be understandable now that Affleck’s turning 50, but celebrity websites have been wondering for years why Ben’s lettuce sometimes looks thin and other times like a dense clump plucked from a storm drain. Not us. We’re persuaded, after all these years and 60-plus movies, that Affleck’s hair is (mostly) his own.
Ben Affleck’s personal life has been fodder for gossip sites for 25 years. That’s what happens when you become a Hollywood heavyweight. Much of the attention was warranted. You can’t be in a relationship with Jennifer Lopez or Jennifer Garner and expect people not to pay attention. But sometimes the scrutiny has been over the top — like after Ben and JLo broke off their engagement in the early 2000s. Affleck returned to Boston and briefly dated a woman named Enza Sambataro, who was working then at WBZ-TV selling ads. Unfortunately, Sambataro’s starstruck roommate couldn’t resist emailing friends about Affleck, and her catty missives found their way to the media. Soon after, Sambataro and Affleck’s every move was captured by the paparazzi and the relationship ended. — Mark Shanahan
Upending the ending of ‘The Town’
My favorite Ben Affleck moment, both as an actor and director, is the 2010 crime story, “The Town,” about a pack of Charlestown guys who rob a bank, including one, Doug MacRay, who falls in love with a witness to his crime. I love that he filmed chase scenes on narrow streets in the North End. I am thrilled when Chris Cooper shows up to steal a scene as Doug’s dad. I love the concept of robbing Fenway Park (note to my employers: I have no plans to do this).
But when I think about “The Town,” I think about the real ending — or the alternative ending, which most people haven’t seen. The movie’s official final scenes give antihero Doug a “Shawshank Redemption” kind of closure. It’s implied that he’s found his happy place, in Florida. But Affleck made another ending, which is available on the special DVD version of the film. It is far more reasonable, closer to the one in Chuck Hogan’s book on which the film is based (“Prince of Thieves”). That second ending is a bummer — I won’t spoil it — but it felt right for this Boston crime story.
Years ago, when the movie came out, the studio hosted a screening of that alternative ending at AMC Boston Common. I went — and I remember Affleck’s mom was there. He couldn’t come, but there were a lot of local actors in the audience. I don’t know how everybody else felt, but I wished Affleck’s vision for a more upsetting fate for his character had made it to a final cut. Regardless, Ben, if you’re reading this, that’s my favorite Ben Affleck cinematic moment. I always thought Florida was just a metaphor. — Meredith Goldstein
Directing himself, and letting other actors shine, in ‘Argo’
In “Argo,” Ben Affleck directs himself and a slew of great character actors who threaten to upstage him in every scene. Despite the director’s love of close-ups of himself (that could make for a good drinking game), Affleck wisely allows vets like Alan Arkin and John Goodman to steal the movie.
Still, a few scenes bring attention to Affleck’s Tony Mendez. When Mendez shoots down every idea the CIA has to extract the six Americans hiding out in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, Affleck makes great use of his smart-ass, know-it-all persona, batting down plans with exasperated snark. That same exasperation is bookended by the closing scene where Mendez is told by his boss, O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), that he’ll be honored with the Intelligence Star. And then he has to return it as the mission was classified.
Watch Affleck’s face when he says, “So they’re just gonna give me an award and then they’re gonna take it back?” He closes his eyes and rocks his head back and forth, like a surly teen saying “whatever” to his dad. It’s a small gesture, but a perfect acting choice. Then Cranston steals the spotlight back with two words: “That’s right.” — Odie Henderson
And don’t forget ‘Matt & Ben’ the play
Nobody can administer a takedown with more brutal efficiency than the folks in your hometown.
Back in 2011, Ben Affleck was depicted as a none-too-bright palooka in a backward-facing Red Sox cap in “Matt & Ben,” a very funny satire at the Central Square Theater in his native burg of Cambridge.
The “Matt,” of course, was Affleck’s good buddy, fellow Cantabrigian and “Good Will Hunting” co-writer Matt Damon.
Or — twist! — did Affleck and Damon actually write “Good Will Hunting”? The premise of “Matt & Ben” is that the screenplay for their breakthrough hit literally falls from the heavens, deus ex machina-style, plummeting from above onto a coffee table in Ben’s grubby apartment in Somerville one day in 1996.
“Matt & Ben” was co-written by yet another Cambridge native, Mindy Kaling — before she became famous as Kelly Kapoor on “The Office” — and Brenda Withers, an excellent actress and playwright who went on to cofound Wellfleet’s Harbor Stage Company. Kaling and Withers performed “Matt & Ben” off-Broadway in 2003.
At Central Square Theater, Matt was portrayed as an earnestly striving sort by Philana Mia, while Marianna Bassham delivered a brilliant comic turn as Ben that helped solidify Bassham’s claim as one of the best Boston actresses of her generation.
Even though the quality of the “Good Will Hunting” script is immediately apparent to Matt, Ben wonders if they should instead keep pushing ahead with an adaptation of “The Catcher in the Rye’' they’ve been working on. Then again, it might be best not to rely on Ben’s artistic judgment: It had come as news to him that Sam Shepard wrote plays in addition to acting in movies.
So how does the duo ultimately decide who plays the star-making lead role in “Good Will Hunting”? A coin flip. Hey, it makes as much sense as anything else in “Matt & Ben.” And who ever said satire had to be fair? — Don Aucoin