Ben Affleck’s been doing pretty well lately. He’s back with Jennifer Lopez, he’s looking great, and the pair of them have vaulted back to the top of the celebrity power couple pile with such aplomb that it’s like they never left us. Soon, he’ll be gearing up for awards season with The Last Duel, alongside his BFF and screenwriter partner Matt Damon. Poor Matt, however, isn’t doing so hot right now. Perhaps that is the balance of the universe: One will rise while the other falls. It’s your turn, Matt.
Damon’s got a long and proud (?) history of sticking his entire foot into his mouth. Most recently, he had the internet wholly baffled when, while promoting his latest film Stillwater, he proudly claimed that he had only recently stopped using the ‘f-slur for a homosexual.’ What he may have intended to be a teachable moment wrapped up in a cutesy anecdote about his kids had the internet agog. Why the hell would you admit that out loud? Who was this designed to appeal to?! After a few days of widespread bafflement and criticism, Damon issued a follow-up statement wherein he now claimed that he had never used the slur ‘in my personal life’ and that ‘I stand with the LGBTQ+ community.’ Side note, but how is it that ‘I stand with the LGBTQ+ community’ has become an utterly meaningless phrase almost exclusively used by bigots to prove that they’re totally not bigots?
While people were understandably shocked at Damon for confessing any of this while others were listening, it wasn’t much of a surprise because he tends to get himself in trouble a lot with these moments of verbal vomit. In 2015, he made some unsavory comments about how actors should keep their personal lives private, including their sexualities, because it makes you better at your job. In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Damon told reporters that inappropriate sexual behavior needed to be seen as existing on a ‘spectrum’, a comment he later admitted was ‘tone-deaf’ and a significant of his ‘blind spots.’ And then there was the time when he told Effie Brown, a Black producer, on Project Greenlight that diversity was something ‘you do [it] in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show’, meaning the people they were at that point hiring to make a movie.
To quote Brown herself: Wow, OK.
Damon is hardly the only rich white guy in Hollywood with these attitudes, but the fact that he is constantly the one verbalizing them continues to be its own strange sort of phenomenon. When you’ve been in the industry for as long as Damon, a man who made his film debut in 1988 and won an Oscar at the age of 27, there are structures available to stop you from screwing up (pour one out for Damon’s publicist.)
Damon is consistently put in positions where he is deemed to be an unquestionable authority on any given subject, and he answers accordingly. This is part and parcel for the job, both for the interviewee and their subject. There’s a reason all your favorite stars keep getting asked the same questions — will you do a Marvel movie? Thoughts on Scorsese’s superhero movies comments? Do you bathe? CEO dictates a lot of this. Damon said his recent blunders while promoting Stillwater, a drama where he plays a blue-collar worker trying to get his daughter out of prison in France. As part of his research for the project, Damon said he road-tripped through Oklahoma to talk to some oil workers who voted for Trump to get a sense of how he should play the character. One wonders if his weird F-word comments were an extension of his desire to prove how down with the regular Joe Six-packs he is.
So much of Damon’s image is defined by his long-fostered persona as one of Hollywood’s most beloved everyman figures. While he’s never had the range of some of his contemporaries, he’s a malleable enough presence to feel as at home as master criminal Tom Ripley as he is with the stoic grit of Jason Bourne. He’s funny too, but he can also be a genuinely normal dude, a skill that’s much harder to pull off as a megastar than you’d think. Tom Cruise can’t be normal now. Will Smith maybe can but it’s Matt Damon that makes it feel wholly organic. As a guy who grew up raised by a single mother and living in a six-family communal household, he wasn’t raised Hollywood, although he did later attend Harvard before dropping out a semester shy of finishing his degree. Much of the press surrounding Damon and his BFF Ben Affleck during those early years was of a pair of regular guys who struck it big thanks to their talent and hard work. They were almost invaders, the kids who didn’t fit in and made the industry bow down to their will. Of course, since then, both men have thoroughly become the standard for the industry’s dealmakers, but Damon managed to hold onto that veneer of realness far longer than Affleck.
It’s important to note that Damon was never the A-List gleaming tabloid fodder that Affleck became and has remained for over 25 years. Damon dated fellow industry folks but never had his every move followed like Affleck with Gwyneth and Jennifers Lopez and Garner. He’s never had his mental troubles splashed across the front page of every tabloid, nor has such wall-to-wall coverage impacted audiences’ views of him. Really, it’s kind of impressive how little we know about Damon’s private life. He’s one of the most famous men of his generation of Hollywood and I don’t know the names of any of his three children. He’s made a real effort to keep the borders between personal and public separate, which makes his endless stupid comments even more inexplicable.
We may buy Damon as the everyman on-screen and he’s worked overtime to ensure his off-screen life doesn’t impact the work but it’s clear that there’s a disconnect at play now. Damon’s like a lot of guys in his situation: he thinks that it’s enough to vote left and write cheques to the good causes, but those moments of inter-industry change and personal responsibility are micro-issues in the grand scheme of things. What you do doesn’t impact what you say, so seems to be his logic. The work never really stops. Maybe that’s the lesson Damon needs to learn. Well, that and how it’s OK to just not speak.
Header Image Source: Andreas Rentz // Getty Images