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Ben Affleck 'Real Time' flap: Liability for 'Gone Girl' or nonissue?

Ben Affleck 'Real Time' flap: Liability for 'Gone Girl' or nonissue?
From left, Ben Affleck, Bill Maher and Sam Harris on "Real Time With Bill Maher." (Janet Van Ham / HBO)

Ben Affleck had a busy weekend, to say the least. The "Gone Girl" star saw his marital murder mystery open in a pitched box-office battle, while critics and cultural commentators debated the film's artistic merits and the Internet buzzed over whether Affleck flashes a split-second of nudity.

Amid all that, the 42-year-old actor and filmmaker also appeared on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" on Friday evening and got into a heated debate about Islam, of all things. Although "Gone Girl" has nothing to do with that subject, the appearance pushed a hot button at a time when the movie is seeking — and has thus far received, judging by Fox's tallies of successful markets — an audience from across a wide swath of mainstream America.

Entering into contentious political and religious debates has tripped up Hollywood stars before, but Affleck might just avoid such a fate. First, a recap:

During his "Real Time" appearance, Affleck took offense to Maher comparing Islam to "the mafia" and fellow guest Sam Harris, author of "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion," calling the religion a "mother lode of bad ideas." (Journalist Nicholas Kristof and former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele also participated in the show and weighed in, somewhat more on Affleck's side.)

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An impassioned Affleck called Harris and Maher's comments "gross" and "racist," asserting that the two were conflating the beliefs of Islamist fundamentalists with those of all Muslims. Maher and Harris maintained that liberals should be more outspoken about criticizing many Muslims' stances on such topics as women and LGBT issues. Unsurprisingly, Affleck, Maher and the other guests were unable to crack the conundrum by the end of the segment.

Reactions to Affleck's remarks have predictably ranged from outrage to support and everything in between, but by and large he seems to be faring better than, say, Clint Eastwood after his infamous "empty chair" speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention or Mel Gibson's notorious 2006 DUI incident.

For Eastwood, his 12-minute improvised diatribe against President Obama met with mixed reviews and was widely ridiculed on social media, and it came at an inopportune time as well: just three weeks before the actor's baseball movie "Trouble With the Curve" opened. The film found plenty of empty seats of its own, grossing just $35.7 million domestically, though it would be a stretch to connect the movie's failure too strongly to the speech.

Gibson represents a more pointed example of an actor's politics interacting with box-office numbers: His "Apocalypto" opened just months after he allegedly made anti-Semitic and sexist comments to police during a DUI stop, an incident that cast an ugly shadow over the film's marketing and promotion. With the film's greatest asset having turned into a persona non grata, "Apocalypto" grossed a decent but hardly spectacular $50 million on an estimated $40-million budget.

Affleck hasn't inspired the level of needling Eastwood did, and his comments, no matters one's politics, were certainly far less incendiary than Gibson's, so the appearance could end up a tempest in a teapot. "Gone Girl" didn't look like it suffered any fallout over its opening weekend as it grossed $37.5 million domestically, surpassing analysts' projections and edging out the low-budget horror movie "Annabelle."

The incident gained traction as the weekend wore on, so the film's second weekend could serve as a test. If there's a contingent of moviegoers turned off by Affleck's politics, they could vote with their wallets at "Gone Girl" in the coming days. So far, though, turnout hasn't been an issue. If anything, perhaps a bit like the media frenzy in the film itself, the flap only seems to be keeping the movie and its star in the limelight.

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