Wednesday, March 20, 2013

From Good Will Hunting to Argo: How Ben Affleck Recaptured Hollywood's Heart

The following is a guest post by Eve Pearce

When Ben Affleck claimed the Best Picture Oscar a few weeks ago it was a far cry from his first Academy Award win. Many commentators enjoyed the comparison of a youthfully exuberant actor on the cusp of career and stardom with his older, wiser self; many others failed to even make the connection. Yet Affleck’s original screenplay prize, shared with childhood friend and fellow actor Matt Damon, was heavily lauded, applauded as well as derided at the time. It may be hard to believe, but it was fifteen years ago that the two bound joyously and enthusiastically onto the stage to thank their mothers, wearing tuxedos that seemed ill-fitting in more ways than one. Both have achieved highs in their careers, but only one has suffered the bitter backlash of fame and that is the current toast of Hollywood, Affleck. But how did a film about a maths genius from Boston charm the Academy and pave the way for Hollywood success? Indeed, was this seemingly small-budget and heartfelt emotional drama in fact a cynical attempt to capture both awards and fame for its two young stars?

A leading man with a difference

It’s difficult to imagine the pitch of this film, let alone anyone biting for the rights. Let’s face it, mathematics is hardly considered the stuff of Hollywood gold - add to that two first time screenwriters, a less than glamorous location and a relatively obscure director and it is hard to believe the film was ever made. However, confining Damon’s character of Will Hunting to the pigeon hole of ‘maths genius’ is unfair to the piece as a whole. It is a characteristic symbolic of far more than numeric skill and significant in many ways. His God-given talent is his curse, instead of heralding the promise of a brighter future it seems to further instil feelings of worthlessness in him as even his genuine genius fails to raise him from the low aspirations his unpleasant upbringing has created: highlighted by the memorable image of Will working as a janitor whilst simultaneously solving the most complex of sums. His experience of the world of education reveals to him a different world from the one he has known. Mountains of mathematics textbooks, chalk board cliff faces and rivers of intellectualism represent a better world, with better people and better prospects. In a film that is unafraid of liberal ideals the notion that education is the key to bettering yourself rings ear-piercingly true. 

On a more distrustful level, there is no mistaking the purpose of Will Hunting’s given skill. Damon and Affleck would have known to steer clear of making their protagonist a sportsman or an artist. One is almost too admirable in its implications of strength and physical prowess and the other, in terms of filmic conventions at least, too individual and introverted. When baiting Oscar, it appears characters with more unusual issues are required. Ricky Gervais’ comedy Extras, which featured a number of celebrities playing skewed versions of themselves , though often wide of the mark in its observations got it absolutely spot on when it came to the Academy and their penchant for certain cinematic tropes. Kate Winslet, then a multiple nominee but also a multiple loser at the Oscars, explains clearly to Gervais’ character what must be done in order to win an acting gong at the ceremony – her theory revolves around the perceived ‘worthiness’ of character and subject. Or in her unreservedly politically incorrect terms, ‘You’re guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.’ Strangely enough, her eventual win saw her portray an unhappily illiterate woman in The Reader … and in Good Will Hunting’s year, Matt Damon lost out as Best Actor to Jack Nicholson as a man with obsessive compulsive tendencies and a deep-rooted social ineptitude in As Good As It Gets. Perhaps she had a point.

Movie magic

The image of the two soon-to-be stars carefully crafting their love song to the nurturing of undiscovered talent raises a surprisingly rarely posed question: why have the two not written together again? As images of Damon and Affleck, fresh-faced with golden statuettes in hand, were beamed around the world, a number of fun-sapping sceptics dared to suggest that the whole thing was a sham. In fact, they purported, Damon and Affleck did not compose the script at all. The implication that they were the far more pretty and acceptable face of the true writer of the piece was far from welcomed by Miramax, the Weinstein powered company behind the film’s distribution. Understandably so, as it had been a key component of a highly successful marketing scheme orchestrated by Weinstein and friends. It must also be noted that the two have written again, just not together. So perhaps Good Will Hunting was as baffling an equation as those that the eponymous hero solves with ease – quite simply a case of right place, right time for Damon and Affleck.

Affleck himself did not fail to notice the significance of his return to the winners’ enclosure. His acceptance speech was warm and as genuine as an actor can deliver. Following Good Will Hunting’s success, Affleck appeared distracted by fame: he made terrible choices both personally and professionally (with Jennifer Lopez as the common denominator – sorry J-Lo!) before regaining his equilibrium and re-establishing himself as a rare filmmaker: one who has something to say. Choosing to believe in Good Will Hunting’s authenticity in terms of its authorship in addition to its purpose means choosing to believe in the magic of the movies and choosing to believe in the alchemy of filmmaking. Furthermore, it makes Affleck’s current success all the more remarkable, as a man who has seen his career go full circle it almost sounds like the premise of a movie script that has yet to be written.

Now wouldn’t that be the perfect reason for Affleck and Damon to reunite?

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