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Ben's big fall

Affleck is finding out how a high-profile romance and a couple of movie flops can harm a reputation.

October 27, 2004|Kim Masters | Special to The Times

WHEN he was host of "Saturday Night Live" a couple of weeks ago, Ben Affleck made an opening-monologue joke out of "the slow-motion train wreck I like to call my life." Self-deprecating humor can be a powerful antidote for the troubled famous. But in this case, a prominent agent saw the solution as part of the problem. "How many times can you make fun of bad choices in your career?" he asks. "I live a lot by the expression, 'How can we miss you if you don't go away?' "

In fact, many in the industry believe that Affleck -- whose career started so auspiciously when he and his friend Matt Damon stormed into a box-office hit and an Oscar for best screenplay with the 1997 sleeper "Good Will Hunting" -- needs to take a break before he can get a break. His latest film, "Surviving Christmas," has just been savaged. The film tanked over the weekend, grossing only $4.5 million and arriving in seventh place.

Affleck has not only been seen in a string of unfortunate movies, he has also been ubiquitous. He lobbied Congress to raise the minimum wage, and he put in various appearances for charity in May, won the California State Poker Championship in June and made the rounds at the Democratic National Convention in July, appearing on "Hardball With Chris Matthews," "The O'Reilly Factor," "Crossfire," "The Today Show," "Larry King Live" and "Good Morning America." He's been a faithful presence at Red Sox games.

Affleck may be working and playing hard, but at this point he's also seriously overexposed. No doubt his image was severely damaged -- fairly or not -- by a love affair in which he appeared to lose himself completely. On top of that, his last several movies have bombed ("Gigli") or at best gotten a cool reception from critics and audiences ("Jersey Girl").

The actor is hardly the first celebrity to have had a run of bad movies. He's not the first to engage in a high-profile romance with another celebrity. All sorts of stars have engaged in all kinds of shenanigans and paid a smaller price. But for whatever reason, Affleck has been ensnared in a series of unfortunate events, and the question now is whether he can recover.

One thing he could use is a break from the tabloids and fanzines. They have vivisected him since his ill-fated hookup with Jennifer Lopez, chronicling such mesmerizing moments as Affleck comforting Lopez when she had a toothache.

But while the critics see Affleck as a big pinata and the tabloids see him as a reader magnet, few industry professionals seem to be gloating over Affleck's travails. Even some with no stake in Affleck regard his difficulties with sympathy.

Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who gave Affleck his break in "Good Will Hunting," says Affleck deserves that consideration. "He's one of the sweetest people I've ever met in this industry," Weinstein says, "and certainly one of the most charitable."

A number of executives who have worked with Affleck praise him in similar terms. "I think he's a really nice, sweet guy," says Terry Curtin, the outgoing marketing chief at Revolution, who dealt with the star on "Armageddon" and the notorious flop "Gigli." "I don't think there's any evil, egotistical thing with him. I think this is a tough town to be in."

There was a certain romance to the way Affleck and Damon burst onto the scene: two bright, good-looking boys who seemed so innocent and so blessed. Now the contrast between the two is striking. Damon has emerged as a seemingly confident star with notable roles in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and the powerhouse "Bourne Identity" franchise. While Affleck's publicist, Ken Sunshine, insists that everything is hunky-dory with the star's career, he has obviously stumbled hard.

Just a couple of years ago, the picture looked entirely different. In early summer of 2002, Damon was coming off two flops: "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "All the Pretty Horses." "The Bourne Identity" was rumored to be a disaster. Affleck was the one doing fine as the new Jack Ryan in "Sum of All Fears." He had a few big commercial successes under his belt; even the maligned "Pearl Harbor" grossed almost $200 million domestically. Then everything changed.

Many in Hollywood believe that Damon has more talent -- even in "Good Will Hunting," he was the lead actor (and nominated for an Oscar) while Affleck had a supporting role. But Affleck is sexier, and sometimes that's even better than talent. Then again, Damon has been focused on his work, while Affleck has had other interests.

To agent Patrick Whitesell, who represents both stars, any comparison between the two is irritating. "Good Will Hunting came out in 1997," he says. "It's been years since these guys came on the scene together.... Matt's experiencing a very fortunate time right now, and Ben's recent movies haven't worked as well as we'd hoped."

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