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On Jan. 25, on the eve of the Producers Guild Awards ceremony that could presage the best picture Oscar fate of his film Argo, actor/writer/producer/director Ben Affleck was presented with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s highest honor, the Modern Master Award. Affleck was movingly feted and presented with the festival’s statuette by his childhood friend turned fellow Oscar-winning scribe turned fellow movie star Matt Damon — click here to watch video from the front row — following a roughly two-hour Q&A session moderated by noted film critic Leonard Maltin that touched upon virtually all of the highs and lows of his 20-year career. The event took place at Santa Barbara’s historic 2000-seat Arlington Theatre, which was sold out — as it also is for tributes to Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) on Jan. 26 and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) on Feb. 2 — and packed with local movie buffs, prominent journalists and some of the 100-plus Academy members who live in the area.
A subject on everyone’s mind, but not touched upon during the ceremony, is the fact that Affleck was not nominated for the best director Oscar despite helming one of the year’s most popular and critically-acclaimed films. Argo, which cost $44.5 million, has made $115.75 million thus far; was awarded “the Golden Tomato” this week for having 2012’s highest rating on the review-aggregation website RottenTomatoes.com; and was recently awarded best picture and best director prizes at the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe awards. The shocking snub, however, has given pause to many knowledgeable pundits who might otherwise predict it to win the best picture Oscar since only one film in the last 80 years has won best picture without its director also being nominated. But a win for the film at Saturday night’s PGA Awards, the first guild awards ceremony of the season, would convince many holdouts, including myself, that the film has the support among Academy types — as opposed to the journalists who have weighed in on the race thus far — that it needs to win the top Oscar. Indeed, it was the PGA Awards that turned around the Oscar fortunes of The Hurt Locker (2009) and The King’s Speech (2010) after they lost the same two prizes that Argo has won.
At the presentation, however, the focus was mostly on the past, not the future. Affleck took the stage after a montage featuring highlights from his acting and directing work. “That was really a lot of memories,” he said upon taking the stage. “Heavy on the making-out scenes — I’m glad my wife’s not here!” He noted that his wife, the actress Jennifer Garner, whom he met when both were working on Pearl Harbor (2001) and fell in love with when they were working on Daredevil (2003) — two films that he implied he would otherwise like to forget — was home with the couple’s three children, who range in age from seven to not yet one.
The 40-year-old’s trademark charm was on full display throughout the rest of the evening. He acknowledged that he has a bifurcated filmography” with “10 or so movies I’m really in love with” and “the others [I] just want to turn off.” He was self-deprecating and surprisingly candid about his less acclaimed output, calling Reindeer Games (2000) a “mediocre movie” and joking that the montage could have been “a little lighter on Pearl Harbor.” He was likable, joking about his reluctance to be a hardass as a director — “I’ve only ever fired one guy and swapped two guys’ roles,” he said, and admitted that Morgan Freeman (of whom he did a spot-on imitation), not he the director, dictated how many takes Freeman would shoot on Gone Baby Gone (2007). And he was generous about the importance of collaboration in an art-form in which the movie star or director often receive the lion’s share of credit.
Affleck said that he knew he wanted to be an actor from the age of 10; got an agent at 13; and, at 14, began taking flights with his pal Damon from their hometown of Boston into New York for casting calls. He credited his high school theater teacher Gerry Speca with giving him a pep-talk upon his graduation that convinced him he could make it as a professional. He got his first major parts in Richard Linklater‘s Dazed and Confused (1993) and Kevin Smith‘s Chasing Amy (1997), which he said he still counts among the films of which he’s proudest. And then he and Damon sold to Harvey Weinstein Good Will Hunting, a script on which they had worked, with the goal of providing meaty parts for themselves (he said they envisioned it as “an acting reel”), and wound up not only playing the leads but winning the best original screenplay Oscar. “We never imagined it would end up quite the way it did,” he said. After that film’s success, he recalled, “It became a whole other life.”
Over the ensuing few years, he admitted, he lost his course. He began appearing in massive blockbusters of increasing absurdity — such as Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbor — the making of which he described as “Madness, just madness.” He did play a few small parts in very good films, such as Shakespeare in Love (1998), which he said he recognized as “clearly the best script I’ve ever read,” and Boiler Room (2000). But he became better known for his high-profile relationships with Gwyneth Paltrow and then Jennifer Lopez, and their resulting tabloid appearances, than for his work. Eventually, he became, to many, a joke. He knew it (“I got really overexposed …”) and he didn’t like it (“… and really disillusioned”), so eventually he made a conscious decision to “withdraw myself from the circus.” He relocated to Georgia and dropped out of the public eye for the better part of a year.
When he returned, it was in a supporting part — star-crossed George Reeves in Hollywoodland (2006), for which he received great acclaim, Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe nominations and the Venice Film Festival’s best actor prize — and a first-time director. Of the latter experience, he recalled, “I was terrified,” but also very committed. After seeking advice from other actor-directors — he cited Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Mark Ruffalo and future Argo producer George Clooney — he dove into his new profession, and has emerged with three fine films to his name: Gone Baby Gone, The Town (2010) and now Argo, each of which produced one acting Oscar nomination and have been celebrated for their time/period authenticity. (He said, “Audiences like to be taken into different worlds — Avengers world, or Middle Earth or bars in Boston you wouldn’t go into.”) He clearly has a particularly soft spot for Argo, which, he notes, is “kind of eerily current … in terms of our relationship with Iran and how we got here.”
As Maltin wrapped up his questions, Affleck mused, to great applause: “I know exactly what I’ve achieved because I know how hard I’ve worked. That’s the only shot I have at being successful.” He added that being a father has made it “profoundly important to me to do work that has integrity,” since “the central challenge of one’s lifetime is trying to make good people.”
Then Damon emerged to present him with his statuette. He recalled Affleck’s youthful prowess at dissecting movies and suggesting how they might be improved, and said, “That’s what made him such a great writing partner — he could problem-solve.” He joked, “That’s the same skill that got him in a lot of, well, mediocre movies. You know, 10, 15 years ago, I’d read a script of a movie he was doing — he’d signed on to do the movie, and I’d read it, and I’d go, ‘Why are you doing this? There’s a horrible problem in act one, and they don’t solve it in act two and it gets worse in act three.’ And he goes, ‘I know, but if you do this, this, this and this the movie’s gonna be fantastic.’ And I go, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ The problem was he wasn’t directing the movies.” Then, more seriously, he added, “So here he is now. He’s made three fantastic movies, one better than the next… This last one, Argo, is a legitimately great movie… No one’s gonna be surprised if it wins the Oscar for best picture.” He then called Affleck “undeniably two things — my very old friend and a very young master” and called him up to the podium. The two embraced, and Affleck accepted his prize.
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