Compared with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck has always seemed like the fuckup. He’s the one with the string of high-profile breakups, from Jennifer Lopez to Gwyneth Paltrow; his indiscretions with that nanny and her Super Bowl rings gave us Jennifer Garner’s super-shady “Bless his heart”; and the fact that he recently adopted a puppy to guarantee cutesy press coverage is the most desperate kind of PR move. Affleck got that Oscar for Argo, sure, but he’s also #notmyBatman; his passion project Live by Night was an absolute dud; and based on paparazzi photos, he doesn’t own any clean shirts. Next to Affleck, Damon has often looked pretty good.
His charity work with Water.org has been admirable. He’s been outspoken politically, often an articulate advocate for liberal causes. His life with his non-famous wife and four daughters has always been down-to-earth and private. But every so often, Damon has done something shockingly inconsiderate (like breaking up with Minnie Driver during an appearance on Oprah) and unbelievably privileged (like explaining to African-American producer Effie Brown during his show with Affleck, Project Greenlight, that inclusive casting on the reality competition didn’t matter because “We’re talking about diversity; you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show”).
And since last year, from the awards-season campaigning for Casey Affleck to October’s box office flop with Suburbicon, it’s seemed like Damon has had more missteps than successes—the A-lister is consistently displaying a kind of tone-deafness that suggests, quite possibly, that it may be time for us to quit Matt Damon.
How did Casey Affleck win that damn Oscar for Best Actor? You can probably give a sizable amount of the credit for that to Damon, who as a producer of Manchester by the Sea helped secure director Kenneth Lonergan (whom you may remember as being just extra enough to write a letter to the editor to his college newspaper, the Wesleyan Argus, attacking a college student who wrote a column critical of Casey Affleck) and who dropped out of the leading role of the film to hand it to Casey. For months, despite mounting chatter regarding what producer Amanda White and director of photography Magdalena Gorka said Affleck had done to them during the creation of his mockumentary I’m Still Here (outlined explicitly by the Daily Beast), Casey kept getting great press coverage. He was on the cover of Variety, he appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, he hosted Saturday Night Live.
Over and over again, Damon was there—by his side at events, giving interviews praising Casey’s commitment to his craft, lumping him into a childhood narrative that included Damon and both Affleck brothers struggling to make it as actors. Before, it had been Matt and Ben; now it was Matt and Ben and Casey, giving equal footing to the kid who in Good Will Hunting was whining about his crew putting his burgers on payment plans because he was so broke, and who lied about masturbating into a friend’s Little League baseball glove. And ultimately, those sexual harassment allegations didn’t matter in February when Affleck won the Best Actor Oscar, providing us with reaction shots from Denzel Washington and Brie Larson that were 100% accurate:
As Kristy noted in her piece Nov. 6, there are online petitions circulating to prevent Casey from presenting the future Best Actress with her honor at the 2018 Academy Awards. That would be great! But what about Damon? It is unquestionable that his A-list status buoyed and protected Ben’s little brother, along with his own interests as a producer for Manchester by the Sea. And his latest statements about Harvey Weinstein are reminding us of the policy of ignorance he used with Casey, too. First, he denied knowing anything was going on with Weinstein (speaking to Deadline, “I never saw this. I think a lot of actors have come out and said, everybody’s saying we all knew. That’s not true”), but then some days later on Good Morning America, while promoting Suburbicon, his film with George Clooney and the Coen brothers, Damon acknowledged that he knew about Weinstein’s shitty behavior toward Gwyneth Paltrow: “Ben told me. But I knew that they had come to whatever agreement or understanding that they had come to. She had handled it, and she was the first lady of Miramax. And he treated her incredibly respectfully, always.”
Damon is turning out to be the kind of guy who says things like “She handled it” as a way of shrugging off his own complicit behavior, but who also appeals to our sympathies by offering up “But now, as the father of four daughters, this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night.” Would he expect any of his daughters to just “handle” sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or sexual assault? Why wasn’t he more interested in Gwyneth’s story then—an actress he calls “really special” and “amazing”? Why wasn’t he more interested in the allegations against Casey Affleck now? Why is Damon so willing to look away instead of doing the work needed to make his good guy image an undeniable reality?
As a box-office draw, Damon’s fortunes have been sliding, too, aside from the remarkable success of The Martian (the 2016 awards-season run of that helped put him in the right rooms to garner praise for Casey Affleck). October’s Suburbicon was a phenomenal critical and commercial failure, receiving a D- CinemaScore from viewers and stealthily disappearing from cinemas only two weeks after its release. His upcoming Downsizing has received so-so reviews coming out of festivals. The Great Wall failed in the U.S. and was overshadowed by Damon’s crappy labeling of concerns about whitewashing as fake news. Jason Bourne made money, but nobody seemed too excited about Damon’s return to a franchise that seemed to slink back to him as a last resort. And his prior years of affable, working-class, salt-of-the-earth turns—Promised Land, We Bought a Zoo, Contagion, The Adjustment Bureau—are becoming more and more difficult to look upon fondly.
At this point, it feels like we enjoy Damon most when he pops up unannounced, whether it was with a villainous cameo in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, or that other villainous cameo in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, or other recent surprise cameos. And maybe that’s because on some level we recognize that Damon’s aggressive presentation of himself as a smiling, affable, liberally minded dude doesn’t entirely line up with what we keep seeing in real life in his consistent refusal to engage with conversations about diversity and sexism that challenge him, his A-list status, and his undeniable privilege. Sure, he’s not an Affleck. But he’s no longer an impenetrable good guy, either.