Ten Years Ago Today, Ben Affleck Saved His Career.
(I started working on this piece, a look back at Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone last month, before the fallout of Harvey Weinstein, at the time head of Miramax, which distributed this film and someone who has always been apart of Affleck’s career. Affleck himself has gotten himself into some trouble for events that happened in 2003, and his brother Casey, who stars in this film, has also been the subject of controversy over his treatment of women. I researched and wrote this piece on this movie not to endorse their behavior, but to shine a light on a story I found interesting, of someone making a comeback, of saving their career, while helping launch a new one.)
Ten years ago today, Ben Affleck started what would become one of the great Hollywood comeback stories in recent memory with the release of Gone Baby Gone, a neo-noir set in his hometown of Boston, his directorial debut.
Based on the Denis Lehane novel of the same name, Gone Baby Gone follows private detective Patrick Kenzie, who along with his girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro, try to uncover the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a four-year-old girl named Amanda, and try to reunite her with her alcoholic, drug addicted, neglectful mother Helene.
Co-written by Affleck and Aaron Stockard, Gone Baby Gone starred Affleck’s younger brother Casey as Patrick and Michelle Mohangan as Angie. The supporting cast was filled with veteran actors the likes of Amy Ryan, who played Helene, Ed Harris as police detective Remy Bressant, and Morgan Freeman as Captain Jack Dorsey, the head of a police task force in charge of tackling missing children cases. Gone Baby Gone is a movie about choices, a morality tale that questions whether the right choice, the moral choice, is the one we should always make. That dilemma appears in the films climax when Patrick finds Amanda, not in the hands of a local drug kingpin or pedophile, but in the home of Dorsey himself, the man in charge of finding her. He knows that if he were to walk away, to allow Amanda to stay with him, she would perhaps lead a happier life then going back to live with a mother who runs drugs, associates herself with low lives and can’t even remember the name of her daughters favorite doll; however, Patrick wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he made that choice. Sacrificing his relationship with Angie, and perhaps Amanda’s only chance to live a happy, stable childhood, Patrick calls the state troopers on Dorsey, because it may be for the wrong reasons, but to him, it’s the right thing to do.
The movie didn’t kill at the box-office. It grossed $34 million dollars worldwide on a $20 million dollar budget, however, it didn’t have to make a ton of money, it had to be good. 10 years later, Gone Baby Gone is not only a strong debut, a love letter to Affleck’s hometown, it’s notable for being the first step in his career redemption story; which reached its climax when his third feature, Argo, would go on to win Best Picture at the 2013 Academy Awards. Gone Baby Gone was biggest project Affleck had attached his name to in years, because in the early 2000’s Affleck feel victim to one of the most harsh and vicious celebrity backlashes of the new century. It came in part due to the tabloid fiasco that was his relationship with Jennifer Lopez (commonly know as “Bennifer”), but mostly because Affleck starred in a streak of bad films that exposed him to ridicule from both critics and the general public.
In case you forgot what those films were, allow me to remind you. It started with Daredevil, the first time Affleck would play a superhero on film (in a suit that made him look like a Jolly Rancher that could perform backflips). Then there was Gigli, the romantic comedy starring “Bennifer” themselves, a debacle that left the couple becoming associated with not one, but two of the worst words ever developed by the English language. After that, there was Paycheck, the last American John Woo film, which Woo made before returning to China to salvage his own career, and that’s just in 2003. The year after Affleck starred in Jersey Girl, directed by Affleck’s friend Kevin Smith, who has been using the movie as a source of self-deprecating humor ever since, and finally, there was Surviving Christmas, which if you remember that movie, you’re perhaps the only person you know who does.
Affleck went from being an Academy Award winning screenwriter and leading man to an overexposed hack to the public, and box office poison in Hollywood. To understand just how much people were tired of seeing Affleck in theaters and magazine racks, read how Affleck’s “friends at The Verge,” described him in 2004.
“The other night, we found you on Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, E!, MTV, Animal Planet and the Jakarta Cricket Channel. You’re so overexposed, you could walk into the White House with Iraqi WMD’s under one arm and Osama bin Laden under the other and the public reaction would be: Not another friggin’ Ben Affleck story.”
Later that year, in The Los Angeles Times, reporter Kim Masters touched on the beating Affleck’s reputation took in the early 2000’s. She agreed with The Verge that Affleck became supremely overexposed thanks to the bad films and his constant appearance in the tabloids; however, she was curious as to why it seemed that this celebrity backlash in particular was much more damaging than others we’ve seen throughout history. “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,” she wrote. Kevin Smith, who talked to Masters for the article, was also confused as to how bad it got for his friend, mentioning other actors like Hugh Grant and Eddie Murphy, who both got caught with sex workers (in Murphy’s case, the sex worker happened to be transsexual), and neither their reputations or standing in Hollywood were nearly as tarnished as Affleck’s was in 2004.
For the next two and a half years, Affleck laid low. Yes, he did get married to his Daredevil co-star Jennifer Garner, but that was infinitely more low-key than his previous relationship. His film appearances were limited to cameos and two supporting roles; the first was as George Reeves, TV’s first Superman, in the little seen and little remembered 2006 drama Hollywoodland, the other was in the early 2007 hit man comedy Smokin’ Aces. The move to directing wasn’t just something to appease his ego, but a method of survival. Talking to Entertainment Weekly after the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck says that the move to directing was not only something he was interested in doing, but it was, at the time, the “only option I felt I had to do good work, because the quality of scripts I was seeing was just getting worse and worse. I felt like I was either going to believe in myself and try directing, or just give in.”
The first mention of Gone Baby Gone appeared in a Variety column in February 2003. The piece was about Lopez going to see Affleck while filming Unfinished Life; the reporter, Army Archerd, mentioned that Affleck was working on the script for the film. Archerd wrote that Affleck had plans to direct and also star in the movie, with film executive Alan Ladd Jr., who owned the film rights to the characters at the time, alluding to the possibility that Lopez would play the role of Angie. Thankfully for Affleck (and for us) that version of the movie didn’t happen. Affleck would later mention Gone Baby Gone in an interview with Coming Soon while promoting Paycheck, saying he was working on a Dennis Lehane adaptation “nobody was all that interested in.”
It took a substantial amount of time for Affleck to finish the script and when he did, so much time had passed Ladd Jr. no longer had the rights, handing them over to Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount Pictures, who by then had stepped down. To find backing for the movie, Affleck reached out to former Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook, who agreed to release it via Miramax, a Disney subsidiary. While taking a while to get it all together, it might have been to Affleck’s benefit. By 2007, people were not completely ready to accept him for what happened in the early 2000s, but enough time had passed where the thought of Affleck directing a movie was met with skepticism rather than outright rejection.
Admit it, you couldn’t think of one person who had any faith in Ben Affleck, director. There was no way the star of Gigli could direct a serious, well-acted drama and, there was also the fact that Gone Baby Gone was the Dennis Lehane adaptation that would come after Clint Eastwood’s overrated Mystic River, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. During the films meditative opening credits (a tour through neighborhoods outside the metropolitan area of Boston) all that skepticism should have been put to rest. Talking to The New York Times, Affleck said that the idea of showing areas of his birthplace many were completely unfamiliar with was to show “something raw and authentic and even a little scuffed up.” It was a wise choice, one of many. In voiceover, Patrick says “this city can be hard,” and looking in the eyes of some of the people Affleck captures on camera (real life Bostonians), you believe him.
Gone Baby Gone not only help save Affleck’s career, it also elevated his brother Casey as a performer. The younger Affleck, who has faced some negative press in the last few years over his treatment of women, had a breakthrough year in 2007, with his roles in both this film and in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, where he played the aforementioned coward.
Casey is not large and muscular, or even has a face that can make a man stand back a step or two when being talked to. However, it doesn’t matter how much strength, influence or power other characters may have or feel they have over Patrick, legal or otherwise, if you try and disrespect Patrick Kenzie in any fashion, he has no problem pulling your card. He may look like a kid fresh out of college, but in the way he speaks and handles everything thrown at him, he’s someone who knows Boston, and more importantly, he knows how to survive Boston.
Gone Baby Gone received almost universal acclaim from critics. Writing for the Associated Press, critic Christy Lemire wrote that Affleck as a director “has found his calling, an avenue for using his obvious intelligence while getting out of the way of his own celebrity.” Roger Ebert called it “a superior police procedural” and Ty Burr, of Affleck’s hometown Boston Globe, opened his review with these two sentences: “Welcome home, Ben Affleck — all is forgiven. Yes, even “Gigli.”
His next film, 2010’s The Town, was another success, proving that his debut feature wasn’t a fluke. Then came Argo, in 2012, his third critically beloved film, a hit at the box office and the at the 85th Academy Awards, Michelle Obama (opening the envelops in the White House), announced that Argo had won Best Picture. Standing on the Oscars stage, his reputation fully replenished, Affleck got on the microphone and said two things that will get played in Oscar telecasts for years to come: “I never thought I would be back here” and “It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life, because that’s gonna happen, all that matters is that you gotta get up.”
In the half decade since Argo, Affleck’s career has had its up and downs. He’s starred in films he didn’t direct, some of them being hits like David Fincher’s Gone Girl and The Accountant, which was successful enough to warrant a sequel. However, he has taken some hits, most notably in his casting as Batman for Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film was critically panned, with Affleck becoming a meme thanks to The Sound of Silence from Simon & Garfunkel. His last film, the gangster period drama Live By Night, didn’t do well at the box office (its his least loved critical feature) and the film didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination
This year, Affleck has been plagued with rumors and headlines saying his time as The Dark Knight may be coming to an end. To be quite honest, I think it should be. Affleck’s true talents do not come from him dodging questions about fan backlash or mediocre films he mistakenly signed up for, it comes from his ability to make movies. Live By Night didn’t do well and if Justice League underperforms critically and/or commercially, I can imagine the memes and videos people will put out on going after Affleck before anyone else. I’m sure Affleck is prepared, because, more than most in Hollywood, he’s experienced this before. He has also silenced his critics and redeemed himself to Hollywood, and the public, so I feel strongly that he can do so again; all he needs to do is move away from the lens and sit in the directors chair again.