The best Hollywood careers are unpredictable. No one in, say, the 1970s would have expected a prolific young director named Terrence Malick to disappear for 20 years and then come back with a meditative meisterwerk. Or imagined sitcom star John Travolta blowing up, then fading, then being redeemed by a hotshot former video-store clerk.
By this standard, Ben Affleck's career is strange — but perhaps no more strange than some of our other shape-shifting talents.
Affleck began as a wunderkind writer-actor — watch his "Good Will Hunting" acceptance speech now and you'll be struck by just how young and jolting to the system he and Matt Damon were — then in just a few years descended into laughable "Gigli"-esque roles and, thanks to his other J.Lo affiliation, the grinding machinery of the tabloids.
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But in the last five years, Affleck has remade himself as one of our most talented young directors. And unlike his other guises, he's gotten better each time out — from the promising "Gone Baby Gone" to the more assured "The Town" to the dazzling "Argo," which garnered strong reviews and box office this weekend.
What's striking is not that Affleck had the abilities to pull this off but that he was allowed to do so. There's no reason to think Affleck didn't have the talent. The problem, as it is in so many of these cases, was getting Hollywood to bet on it.
Actors frequently try to reinvent themselves as directors. Most of them fail. Partly that's because the skill sets, no matter what boilerplate they might offer in an interview, are so different. But partly that's because most actors aren't given much good directorial material in the first place — usually a cast-off project that's been lying around for years or a "personal" project that's unlikely to set the world afire.
For Affleck, just a few years after "Gigli," landing a studio directing job was never going to happen. But the actor was able to get his shot with "Gone Baby Gone" because of the existence of the so-called new (and, not long after, defunct) Miramax. The company was developing quality material — and was independent and free-thinking enough to hire a rookie director who had fallen out of favor as an actor. It was also, not insignificantly, looking for a top talent who wouldn't require paying top-talent prices.
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The success of "Gone" in hand, Affleck had the credibility to land "The Town" at Warner Bros. That in turn made him one of the most sought-after directors on the Warners lot and enabled "Argo” and all sorts of other offers.
Whether Affleck will complete the arc and win a directing Oscar this year remains to be seen. My colleagues and I have had spirited debates around the office about this, and while there's no consensus, there's a strong argument to be made. At the very least, "Argo's" Oscar drawbacks are no more severe than those of its main competitors, "Lincoln" and "The Silver Linings Playbook."
What is clear is that Affleck is far from done. When I interviewed him in Toronto for "To the Wonder," the new Malick film in which he stars, Affleck said he wanted to keep pushing and experimenting as a director, using some of the tricks he observed on "Wonder" to make something challenging and less accessible. We wouldn't predict this, which is exactly why we should expect it.