On accepting his Bafta award for Best Director, Ben Affleck thanked the film industry for giving him his ‘second act’, and dedicated his award to “anyone else out there trying to get their second act.” His emotional and motivational speech alluded to the troubled nature of his relationship with the industry before his success with Argo. Although it may seem hard to believe, Affleck was not always Hollywood’s darling, and despite being in plenty of big budget films, such as Armageddon, Shakespeare in Love and the abysmal Daredevil, he had generally failed to attract the interest of the critics since his first major breakthrough as co-writer and co-star with Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.
In the glowing aftermath of Argo’s critical blowout it is quite shocking to gaze back over Affleck’s career and remind us of the cinematic disasters to which he so readily contributed. Pearl Harbour, Smokin’ Aces and Paycheck are all exceedingly dull films, but it is not just the script or the direction that makes them so readily applicable as moments from cinema that we would all rather forget; Affleck is also to blame. The sad truth is that he was a pretty subpar actor. He was uncharismatic, relatively uninteresting to look at, and for some reason always appeared to be slightly uncomfortable on screen.
It is unfair to suggest that he hasn’t been commendable in any film in between Good Will Hunting and Argo. In State of Play he was genuinely compelling as an untrustworthy congressman, and in Dogma he is both funny and unnerving as a rebellious angel seeking vengeance on God. However, Affleck is subsidiary to the other components making up these films. State of Play was yet another vehicle for Russell Crowe, while Dogma is more concerned with the concepts it is lambasting rather than a coherent narrative with fully developed characters. In both cases, Ben Affleck was never the point of focus.
This tendency to be wholly unremarkable extended to when he was behind the camera as well as in front of it, with the instantly forgettable heist movie cum social drama, The Town. Admittedly, his directing was robust and competent, just as it was in his successful directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (in which he did not have an acting role), but the script and the acting suffered from a numbing blandness that cried out for some originality and vigour that would have made The Town worthy of its running time.
So then, what has changed? What has enabled the transition from first act to second? Argo
is thrilling, humorous, entertaining, and contains some excellent acting. Despite winning the Academy Award it is not the best film of 2012, however it is certainly one of the most satisfying. In one film Affleck has changed from a piece of Hollywood fluff to a multi-award winning director. It must be the beard. Ben Affleck is clearly the Samson of the film industry; as his hair grows he becomes more and more competent as an actor and a director. Suddenly his face is more attractive, he seems more confident, and he is definitely more charismatic on screen, while behind the camera, he has suddenly become able to make a film utterly compelling, rather than just workman like. If you don’t believe me about the beard have a look at the trailer for To the Wonder, and you will see that Affleck just isn’t interesting without a bit of scruff around his chops.
Regardless of how he has suddenly made himself an inspirational Hollywood icon, it is clear that now he has embarked on his ‘second act’ we are going to see a lot more exciting things from Ben Affleck. As George Clooney said to him when picking up the award for Best Film at the Baftas, “if this is your second act I don’t know what the hell you are going to do for a third act.”