In 1998, the year Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for "Good Will Hunting," "Saturday Night Live" castmember Colin Quinn joked during "Weekend Update" that Affleck "did all the typing, you know, while Matt Damon was on the bed doing hammer curls."
The joke brought down the house. Even then, before "Reindeer Games" and "Forces of Nature," before "Daredevil" and "Paycheck," before Jennifer Lopez and "Gigli," Ben Affleck was seen as the second fiddle — a would-be action star who lucked out beside more talented friends.
Guess who has the last laugh?
Back to writing after a 10-year hiatus, Affleck's "Gone Baby Gone" — which he also directed — is a gritty, labyrinthine crime thriller about two private investigators (brother Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) hired to track down a missing child. It also happens to be one of the best films of the year, in our opinion.
Given the past 10 years, it's something few people would have anticipated, since Damon went on to star in intellectual, emotionally nuanced films ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "The Departed"), while Affleck hooked his star to Michael Bay ("Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor").
But if Damon can become the world's biggest action star, can Affleck become more known for his work behind the camera? Believe it, insisted "Gone Baby Gone" co-star Amy Ryan — even if she didn't.
"I had an audition, I looked at the sheet, and it said Ben Affleck as the director," she recalled. "And I was like, 'Is that a misprint? Is he starring in the movie?' "
He wasn't, of course, but in a not-so-subtle way, his choice not to star in the flick was directly influenced by the starring roles he has had recently — in movies like "Man About Town" (direct to DVD), "Surviving Christmas" and "Jersey Girl" — Affleck said.
"[Have] I eaten a lot of undeserved sh--? Yes, I have," Affleck said, adding that the idea to adapt the Dennis Lehane novel sprung directly from his hope to get out of the firing line from some of those criticisms. "One of the appeals to me of directing is that it's a way of being involved in filmmaking that is not being on the poster of the movie."
It's a history that may have contributed to his great skill in working with actors, Ryan said, in that he enabled them to take risks by providing them a safety net.
"He [had] this great trust in the actors," she enthused. "He really would let you go and at the same time [was] there to catch you. He was right there all the time saying, 'No, that's not enough,' or, 'That's too much.' I knew I was in good hands."
Although he has a small part in the upcoming romantic comedy "He's Just Not That Into You" alongside Jennifer Aniston and Scarlett Johansson, if "Gone Baby Gone" marks an auspicious debut for the actor behind the camera, well, it's only the beginning, Affleck grinned, saying that he's already eyed several projects as potential follow-ups.
"My hope is it leads to a point where I get to establish myself as an actual director," Affleck said, adding that he hopes people one day recognize him as "not just a kind of dilettante actor trying to pose as a director but actually kind of legitimate. That's my hope."
America, take note: "Gone Baby Gone" proves "Good Will Hunting" was no fluke. Not to take Ben Affleck seriously this time would mean the joke was on us.
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