Ben's big fall

Special to The Times

WHEN he was host of "Saturday Night Live" a couple of weeks ago, Ben Affleck made an opening-monologue joke out of "the slow-motion train wreck I like to call my life." Self-deprecating humor can be a powerful antidote for the troubled famous. But in this case, a prominent agent saw the solution as part of the problem. "How many times can you make fun of bad choices in your career?" he asks. "I live a lot by the expression, 'How can we miss you if you don't go away?' "

In fact, many in the industry believe that Affleck -- whose career started so auspiciously when he and his friend Matt Damon stormed into a box-office hit and an Oscar for best screenplay with the 1997 sleeper "Good Will Hunting" -- needs to take a break before he can get a break. His latest film, "Surviving Christmas," has just been savaged. The film tanked over the weekend, grossing only $4.5 million and arriving in seventh place.

Affleck has not only been seen in a string of unfortunate movies, he has also been ubiquitous. He lobbied Congress to raise the minimum wage, and he put in various appearances for charity in May, won the California State Poker Championship in June and made the rounds at the Democratic National Convention in July, appearing on "Hardball With Chris Matthews," "The O'Reilly Factor," "Crossfire," "The Today Show," "Larry King Live" and "Good Morning America." He's been a faithful presence at Red Sox games.

Affleck may be working and playing hard, but at this point he's also seriously overexposed. No doubt his image was severely damaged -- fairly or not -- by a love affair in which he appeared to lose himself completely. On top of that, his last several movies have bombed ("Gigli") or at best gotten a cool reception from critics and audiences ("Jersey Girl").

The actor is hardly the first celebrity to have had a run of bad movies. He's not the first to engage in a high-profile romance with another celebrity. All sorts of stars have engaged in all kinds of shenanigans and paid a smaller price. But for whatever reason, Affleck has been ensnared in a series of unfortunate events, and the question now is whether he can recover.

One thing he could use is a break from the tabloids and fanzines. They have vivisected him since his ill-fated hookup with Jennifer Lopez, chronicling such mesmerizing moments as Affleck comforting Lopez when she had a toothache.

But while the critics see Affleck as a big pinata and the tabloids see him as a reader magnet, few industry professionals seem to be gloating over Affleck's travails. Even some with no stake in Affleck regard his difficulties with sympathy.

Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who gave Affleck his break in "Good Will Hunting," says Affleck deserves that consideration. "He's one of the sweetest people I've ever met in this industry," Weinstein says, "and certainly one of the most charitable."

A number of executives who have worked with Affleck praise him in similar terms. "I think he's a really nice, sweet guy," says Terry Curtin, the outgoing marketing chief at Revolution, who dealt with the star on "Armageddon" and the notorious flop "Gigli." "I don't think there's any evil, egotistical thing with him. I think this is a tough town to be in."

There was a certain romance to the way Affleck and Damon burst onto the scene: two bright, good-looking boys who seemed so innocent and so blessed. Now the contrast between the two is striking. Damon has emerged as a seemingly confident star with notable roles in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and the powerhouse "Bourne Identity" franchise. While Affleck's publicist, Ken Sunshine, insists that everything is hunky-dory with the star's career, he has obviously stumbled hard.

Just a couple of years ago, the picture looked entirely different. In early summer of 2002, Damon was coming off two flops: "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "All the Pretty Horses." "The Bourne Identity" was rumored to be a disaster. Affleck was the one doing fine as the new Jack Ryan in "Sum of All Fears." He had a few big commercial successes under his belt; even the maligned "Pearl Harbor" grossed almost $200 million domestically. Then everything changed.

Many in Hollywood believe that Damon has more talent -- even in "Good Will Hunting," he was the lead actor (and nominated for an Oscar) while Affleck had a supporting role. But Affleck is sexier, and sometimes that's even better than talent. Then again, Damon has been focused on his work, while Affleck has had other interests.

To agent Patrick Whitesell, who represents both stars, any comparison between the two is irritating. "Good Will Hunting came out in 1997," he says. "It's been years since these guys came on the scene together.... Matt's experiencing a very fortunate time right now, and Ben's recent movies haven't worked as well as we'd hoped."

When it comes to the actual career choices that have led to a string of bombs, many point out that it's easy to spot a disaster with the help of hindsight. Whitesell says "Gigli," in particular, sounded like a great idea. "Halle Berry was committed to the picture," he says. "It was right after 'Monster's Ball' and she committed to it. That movie at the time was a high-profile project. Clearly it didn't work, but there was a lot of steam behind that movie."

The next movie, "Paycheck," was going to be directed by John Woo, and it also sounded promising. And director Kevin Smith thinks his own film, "Jersey Girl," was doomed by "Gigli" backlash.

In the opinion of his friends as well as his agent, Affleck, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is primarily a victim of the relentless media fascination with his relationship with Lopez. "The phenomenon of Us Weekly was built on them," Whitesell says. "That kind of coverage robs movie stars of their mystique."

Smith agrees that the coverage has affected the way critics and members of the public perceive Affleck. To him, there may be an element of bigotry. "It probably had to do with a handsome white guy and a Latino girl," he says. " 'She lends him street cred and he lends her class' -- people would literally write that.' " And Smith says people don't seem to like to see real-life couples together on the big screen. "I was making 'Jersey Girl' and I was delighted they were dating because it showed in their performances," he says. "But apparently people grow sick of that pretty quickly."

Whatever the causes of the Bennifer backlash, Smith thinks it led to an outsized response to the reviled bomb "Gigli." "[Bashing] 'Gigli' became a way to express your disdain for the relationship," Smith says.

Whitesell also sees the response to "Gigli" as outsized. "A month later, 'Beyond Borders' comes out and does less business, costs the same if not more, and nobody said a word about it," he says.

As for Curtin, who had to sell the movie, she remembers Affleck's behavior during this period with gratitude. "He was fantastic during the whole 'Gigli' thing," she says. "It's hard, knowing long before you hit the marketplace that you're going to fail.... He was well aware, he knew what all the liabilities were and he got out there. He did a lot of publicity." Smith believes that "Gigli" has had a spillover effect on subsequent movies, including his film "Jersey Girl," as well as "Surviving Christmas."

"He's just unfortunately become the whipping boy, and it's lasted longer than I think it should have," says Smith. "Hugh Grant got caught with a hooker and he didn't have to take it this badly. Eddie Murphy got caught with a tranny hooker, and he did not have to take it this badly either."

But a marketing executive who has worked with Affleck doesn't see him merely as a hapless victim of the tabloids. "Who gave them the fodder?" this executive asks. "I don't blame Us Weekly, because if you're going to go out and buy your girlfriend a 6-carat diamond ring and roll up to premieres in a white Bentley like John Travolta in 'Saturday Night Fever,' you are giving them what they want."

Another executive who dealt with the couple says it is always difficult to confront stars about their behavior. "We couldn't get him to stop showing up in the Bentleys and camel-hair coats," this executive recalls. "It started with her. When you're a rock star, you're supposed to be running around in boas and completely bigger than life. When you're a movie star, you need to be able to be identified with."

In fairness, Lopez did not make Affleck fodder for the tabloids all on her own. Even before that romance bloomed, Affleck made news for sometimes excessive behavior. He established himself as a high roller in 2000, when he was reported to have handed over $140,000 in winnings as tips at a casino.

There were widely reported rumors of a substance-abuse problem, and in August 2001, Affleck checked himself into the cushy rehab facility Promises. In that context, his off-the-deep-end behavior with Lopez makes sense, says a publicist who has dealt with the couple. "She's a pretty powerful personality," this observer says. "And she's stunning to look at. She's so much prettier in real life than you can imagine -- and very charismatic. I can completely see how that happened."

Affleck's friend Smith sees the situation in more romantic terms. "The dude fell in love big-time," he says. "He went overboard.... But I get it. The dude was in love -- totally in love."

In love or not, Affleck continued to be a man about town. In August 2003, he was reported to have paid a notorious visit to Brandi's Exotic Nightclub in Vancouver. Whitesell says of that expedition that Affleck is hardly the only Hollywood star to visit a strip club. He and Smith both say that Affleck continues to suffer from disproportionate scrutiny even though he and Lopez are history.

"The coverage must have sold magazines," he says. "No matter what he does, they're going to cover him unless he goes and lives in the basement of his house and sends people out to bring him groceries," he says. "He came to my house and there were three SUVs trailing him."

Aside from the J.Lo of it all, there has been a string of box-office bombs. Some say part of the blame for the bad choices must be shared by his agent. And Whitesell is willing to accept it. But he also represents Damon, which illustrates that faulting a representative is a bit simplistic. "I don't blame Patrick," says a rival agent. "He's not a booker. He puts time and thought into his clients' careers."

Producer Michael De Luca points out that his friend has continued to work on his projects even knowing that bad press is inevitable. "I think that's really uncommon," he says. "I think he's a stand-up guy." At the same time, many of Affleck's supporters say he needs to take a break. At this point, an agent says, "I just think there's Ben fatigue." "The great lesson that Paul Newman and Robert Redford taught me is that you come out, you promote your movie and then you run away and hide," says Weinstein.

According to Whitesell, Affleck may have given up on trying to avoid the spotlight. "This guy's been driven insane for a year and a half by paparazzi, and granted he's contributed a little bit to it," he says. "But at some point, you say, 'What can I do?' " Still, he says Affleck will make himself scarce after he fulfills some existing commitments. He and Sunshine also say that Affleck will continue to be a star and probably will write and direct. "He might even run for office some day," Sunshine says. "But it's not going to happen right away."

After all the exposure, it's surprising to remember that Affleck's still a young man. "He's 32 years old, and he can do any genre of movie -- leading man, comedy, action. He isn't going anywhere," Whitesell says.

"He'll continue to work as much as he wants to in the movie business." Weinstein agrees. "Everybody has streaks, everybody has slumps. Ben's a terrific actor and a great guy with an incredible personality and talent. I think the sky's the limit when he wants to focus. And he will."

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