This week sees the release of The Way Back, a Gavin O’Connor-directed sports drama about an alcoholic former basketball player who returns to his alma mater to coach the new team. The film has received encouraging reviews, but in a week where its major competition is a Pixar movie, it’s not expected to set the box office on fire. That, however, is beside the point. While financial success would be a welcome cherry on top of this particular pie, the film itself is enough of a symbol of progress for its leading man. Ben Affleck is back. Again.
It did not take long for the comeback headlines to swarm around The Way Back for Ben Affleck. He never really went away, of course. He appeared in two movies in 2019 and executive produced a successful Showtime series as well, but mostly, he remained a tabloid fixture. Affleck’s history with addiction has been extensively documented by the press ever since he became a major star. Following his split from Jennifer Garner, he admitted to falling off the wagon hard, returning to rehab in both 2017 and 2018. The second time came when Garner very publicly picked him up from his home and drove him to a treatment center while the paparazzi took endless photos. In October of last year, TMZ filmed Affleck walking around Los Angeles in a clearly inebriated state.
It has escaped nobody, not least Affleck himself, that his comeback vehicle is a story of alcoholism. In interviews, he has admitted that working on the project was a cathartic experience that helped him get through his own demons. It’s hard to read any review of The Way Back and not find at least one reference to Affleck’s personal life and how it must have influenced or resonated with him during his creative process. Given Hollywood and the entertainment media’s obsession with the most bastardized understanding of method acting, it’s not shocking to see this sort of near-lurid focus on Affleck and his troubles as a form of inspiration. Is it gross? Yeah, but it’s also a great story, and in showbiz, story is king, especially if you’re on your second comeback.
The first comeback of Ben Affleck is a great old-school Hollywood story: The bright young talent who became a public joke before climbing the ranks to auteur greatness. Where his Good Will Hunting collaborator Matt Damon went on to more critically celebrated work, Affleck became a full-on A-List leading man. For a big chunk of the late ’90s and early 2000s, Affleck was inescapable, both on the screen and off. He dated extremely famous women, starred in bombastic blockbusters directed by Michael Bay, and seemed to embody everything we expected of a ’90s Hollywood megastar. If Leonardo DiCaprio and his Wolf Pack are the heirs to the throne, Affleck and his party crew were the great pretenders; messier and less outwardly controlled but probably more fun.
The thing about Affleck that began to grate was that he just seemed like kind of a douchebag. At his worst, Affleck had a level of smarminess that made him wholly unappealing, an issue exacerbated by poor role choices that positioned him as the pseudo-charming bro who never seemed to shut up. That Affleck never seemed aware of his own image: too slimy to be a believable rom-com hero; not quite forceful enough to pull off Matt Murdock in Daredevil; and seemingly drained of the charm and sincerity that made him so appealing in the first place. To put it bluntly, Affleck at his worst feels like the bro you don’t want anywhere near you at a party. He was white male privilege with a great jawline, and as his work depreciated in quality and commercial viability, he seemed on his way out, another conventionally handsome leading man resigned to the dustbins of ‘whatever happened to that guy?’
Obviously, Affleck had other tricks up his sleeve. He was still an Oscar-winner, after all, and his first comeback rested heavily on reminding people that he could walk the walk, even if it meant stepping behind the cameras for a change (but not before winning the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for Hollywoodland.) He directed films that people loved and inspired enough comparisons with Clint Eastwood to see him welcomed back into the industry fold. He never stopped acting but the move into film-maker made him seem as though he was a new kind of screen star, even if the movies themselves proved less than inspiring. During his press tour for Argo, his third film as a director, the comeback narrative began to build to its climax. In interviews, he confessed to making bad career decisions and struggling with his personal life, positioning Garner and his children as his saviors of sorts. It was a notable contrast from the playboy Affleck of old, the man whom his ex-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow once described as being his own worst enemy. Both talent and privilege played their part in Affleck’s comeback but the overwhelming story was that of a man who had decided to put in the work to be a better version of himself, one who took the craft seriously and rejected commercial viability in favor of artistic success (although it certainly didn’t hurt that his directorial efforts made money.) Cut to Oscar night and the dream seemed complete. Affleck was back. Now, what next?
You become Batman, obviously.
I’ve written before about how curious yet understandable a decision Affleck’s choice to become Bruce Wayne seemed at the time. It felt like Affleck wasn’t satisfied with being just an actor who directed great movies. He had to be a full-on megastar once more. There’s a strange auteur sensibility that has surrounded Batman since his big-screen debut in 1989, courtesy of Tim Burton. Now, playing Batman (as well as the Joker) feels like the modern-day version of playing Hamlet: A rite-of-passage for the ‘serious’ actor and film-maker. Remember, Affleck didn’t just sign on to play Bruce: He was supposed to write and direct a solo Batman movie for the DCEU. What better way to establish your clout across the board than being the face and mind of one of the 20th century’s most iconic cultural creations?
Of course, it didn’t pan out that way.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice made a decent amount of money but couldn’t escape those abysmal reviews, and coupled with the critical disaster and behind-the-scenes drama of Suicide Squad, it seemed like the new era of DC was dead on arrival. Affleck had a solid commercial hit with The Accountant but his next directorial effort, Live by Night, struggled. Sad Affleck became the meme du jour, and his obvious exhaustion throughout the Batman v Superman press tour did little to alleviate that narrative. By the time it was announced that Affleck wouldn’t be directing a new Batman movie, the comeback had ended.
Affleck looked tired in TV appearances. He was clearly struggling. It wasn’t nice to watch. The public seemed to generally be on his side, although their sympathies were tested when he was accused of inappropriate behavior by two women and Rose McGowan claimed that he had essentially dismissed her allegations against Harvey Weinstein (he denies this and McGowan later clarified her comments.) The douche bro angle seemed to have returned with a vengeance, especially when he was seen in public with a much younger woman just before his return to rehab. Still, public perceptions and understandings of addiction are vastly different today than they were even a decade ago. Affleck was still shamed for being an alcoholic but nobody wanted him to fail on this front.
In an interview Affleck conducted with The New York Times as part of comeback number two, he seems oddly apologetic about his addictions and mental health issues. Comeback narratives imply a need to be forgiven by the world at large, be it for truly sh*tty behavior or some sort of perceived slight. Think about how many times women who have been the victims of revenge porn and online hacking have been forced to say sorry for leaked nude photos, as if the completely legal act of photographing yourself naked is more egregious than the criminals who burglarized them. What is particularly fascinating about the pieces in the New York Times is how relatively gentle it is. The interviewer does not dive deep into any of the more lurid or tabloid-friendly aspects of Affleck’s life. He’s candid but only to a point and intensely focused on the central message of this profile. It’s a standard celeb profile, but is that enough? You can’t help but wonder how things would have changed had Taffy Brodesser-Akner or Caity Weaver written the piece. Then again, they may have been less sympathetic to Affleck than he needed from this process.
In a devastatingly precise piece for The Daily Beast, writer Laura Bradley compared Affleck to BoJack Horseman, noting that both had ‘achieved a level of fame that guarantees an almost unconscionable amount of power — and lack of accountability — only to have the rug pulled out from under him when people started paying attention.’ What made BoJack such a compelling character was that we, the audience, were gifted the opportunity to delve into the deep recesses of a truly broken individual’s mind and see them come to the impossible realization that they wanted to stop being a bad person. We saw that, but everyone else in the world of BoJack Horseman did not: They just saw a nasty abusive drunk who broke hearts, preyed on a teenage girl, abandoned an addict friend, then wore some nice knitwear as he went on a well-manicured apology tour. That’s what we have with Affleck: A man who can be very easy to like and respect and understand but still one afforded the opportunity to come back.
As Bradley notes, Ben Affleck has yet to fully publicly reckon with the multiple allegations of groping and harassment made against him, and in a post-Weinstein world, overlooking that is not an option. Then again, maybe it is, if the rest of the narrative is compelling enough. I do not say this to denigrate Affleck’s personal issues or malign them as unimportant. Anyone who has ever known an addict will be agonizingly aware of the collateral damage and emotional anguish that accompanies them. Affleck is a very rich and famous man with an expert team around him to help with his public revival. They are savvy to pick and choose which elements of their client to sell to the world in the most compelling manner possible.
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