Ben Affleck: From tabloid darling to A-list triple threat

Ben AffleckBen Affleck on the set of 'Argo' (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

"Frankly, I had something to prove when I got older. Down the road in my life. So I had something fueling that desire to work twice as hard, and I also had a little bit more maturity and perspective on it."

So said Ben Affleck in a recent interview with NPR, describing the desire and subsequent work ethic and has led to him becoming one of Hollywood's most respected auteurs -- indeed, a hot young(-ish) triple threat who can write, direct and act. He's one of the go-to top dogs at Warner Bros., a studio notorious for setting very high standards with their favorite filmmakers -- and, as of this morning, he's the Oscar-nominated co-producer of "Argo" (though he was notably not nominated for Best Director).

It wasn't always like this. In fact, all this success makes for what could be seen as a second chapter in Affleck's career, a radical reinvention instigated by an extremely talented artist rendered almost obsolete by a much-publicized (and eventually disastrous) romance and a slew of subgrade acting gigs.

Born Benjamin Geza Affleck-Boldt in Berkeley, on August 15, 1972, Affleck and his family soon after left California for Cambridge, MA. It was there that the eight-year-old Affleck first met his neighbor, the ten-year-old Matt Damon, marking the beginning of a longtime friendship (or "bromance" as it's often been called) and creative collaboration. Affleck and Damon first appeared together in "School Ties" (1992), a drama that examines racial and religious bigotry at a '50s prep school.

Affleck went on to become one of the most popular young actors of the '90s, terrorizing incoming high school freshmen to the point of psychosis in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" (1993), keeping his dignity through the cheapie adaptation of Dean Koontz's "Phantoms" (1998) and insisting he's not gay as a hapless bartender in "200 Cigarettes" (1999). Affleck first worked with geek auteur Kevin Smith on "Mallrats" (1995) and went on to become the filmmaker's unofficial muse, showing off dramatic chops in "Chasing Amy" (1997) and almost causing the apocalypse as a bitter angel (opposite Damon) in "Dogma" (1999). He also made for quite the action star, holding his own against Bruce Willis and saving the world from a runaway asteroid in Michael Bay's "Armageddon."

Affleck even won an Oscar in the '90s. He and Damon received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for "Good Will Hunting" (1997), a Boston-set drama chronicling the volatile relationship between a temperamental math genius (Damon) and his equally troubled psychiatrist (Robin Williams), with Affleck providing the film's moral center as the unflappable best friend. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film became a sleeper hit -- and one of the most quotable films of the '90s, thanks in part to the characters' distinct New England accents ("How about dem apples?").

Unfortunately, as the '90s came to a close, things started to fall apart for Ben Affleck. The turn of the century didn't bode well right from the start, as he began 2000 with the release of the much-maligned heist flick, "Reindeer Games" and appeared later that year opposite his ex-sweetie Gwyneth Paltrow in the completely forgettable romcom, "Bounce." His second collaboration with Michael Bay, "Pearl Harbor" (2001), didn't go over very well with either audiences or critics, and his good work opposite Samuel L. Jackson in "Changing Lanes" (2002) went almost completely unnoticed thanks to ill-advised starring turns in cheap comic book flicks ("Daredevil" in '03), would-be franchise reboots ("The Sum of All Fears" in '02) and Kevin Smith's widely reviled attempt to break away from his beloved View Askewiverse ("Jersey Girl" in '04).

Still, Affleck's floundering career looked like the American dream next to his personal life, as for a good chunk of the first half of the aughts he was regularly referred to as "Bennifer," the mutant entity conjured by the tabloid media that combined Affleck with his eventual fiance, Jennifer Lopez.

Their romance was troubled enough behind closed doors, as Lopez's notorious knack for being one of the most high-maintenance celebrities on the planet reportedly made for some tension in the relationship (to say the least). Add a thousand flashing cameras and dozens of rumors along with a laughable co-starring vehicle ("Gigli," a 2003 romantic crime comedy that some consider to be the worst movie ever made) and you've got a recipe for doom.

"At the time, I knew on some level, 'This is insane,'" said Affleck about the Bennifer years in a recent interview with GQ. "What was that guy's name who killed his wife and dumped her off the side of a boat? Peterson. I remember thinking he actually gets slightly better treatment than I do in the press. I was the designated person to loathe. The amount of venom -- I must have touched some specific little place in the consciousness. People decided that I was the frat guy, even though I've never been inside a fraternity, or the guy who beat them up at school, even though that wasn't me at all."

Affleck admits that he contributed to the whole mess in some way, even though he wasn't quite aware of what he was doing at the time.

"These car dealerships would often say, 'Hey, do you want to drive around a car? Go take it as long as you like. You can drive this Rolls-Royce for nothing, for free.' The Boston kid in me thought, 'This is great! What a deal! I can just drive this car around. Let my friends drive it.' But then this image of a young guy in a Rolls-Royce was very off-putting to people. Probably be off-putting to me now if I saw it. And I didn't quite have the wherewithal to be smart about that at the time."

Despite a wedding planned for September 14, 2004, the couple called it quits earlier that year, citing irreconcilable differences -- with both each other and the media. Affleck more or less disappeared from the public eye after that, emerging with the occasional supporting role in lower-profile projects like "Hollywoodland" (2006) and "Smokin' Aces" (2006) and quietly marrying his "Daredevil" co-star, Jennifer Garner, in 2005.

"It was a really, really good thing that happened to me around the time that it was nice to have something good happen," said Affleck about his marriage to Garner. "And she's just a great woman and a great friend."

It was here that Affleck's career took a major turn, becoming simpler and much more fiercely focused. Affleck turned himself into a film director, making his debut behind the camera with "Gone Baby Gone" (2007), a crime drama and modern-day morality tale adapted from the novel by fellow Bostonian Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River"). Adapted by Affleck and Aaron Stoddard, "Gone Baby Gone" featured a terrific, all-grown-up performance by Ben's younger brother Casey as a private investigator looking into the kidnapping of a single mother's (Amy Ryan) infant daughter. The film was critical hit, earning Ryan an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and citing Affleck as a hot new directorial talent.

After his well-received turn as a morally compromised congressman opposite Russell Crowe in "State of Play" (2009), Affleck took on the challenge of also starring in his next directing effort, "The Town" (2010). The Boston-set crime thriller chronicles the downfall of a group of crack bank robbers after their ring leader (Affleck) begins to romance one of the bank employees they took hostage on their last job (Rebecca Hall), a woman who doesn't know that the charming new man in her life is also the masked criminal who once held her at gunpoint. The film was a hit with both audiences and critics, with Affleck proving that he was quite the skilled action director with the intense heist scenes and both Jeremy Renner (who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and Blake Lively making strong impressions with their scene-stealing supporting roles.

Which brings us to today, as "Argo" has, indeed, proved that Ben Affleck is just getting better and better with each directing gig. As he enjoys the Best Picture Oscar nomination for the CIA thriller (and, really, he deserved a nomination for Director), we can only speculate on what's next for him behind the camera (it's not "Justice League," which he respectfully -- and wisely -- turned down from Warner Bros.). Whatever it ends up being, it's probably a safe bet to assume that it will make for yet another significant landmark in the filmmaking career of the man who many are calling "the Comeback Kid."

Affleck will next be seen on screen in Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder," opening April 12, and recently wrapped "Runner, Runner," a crime thriller co-starring Justin Timberlake and Gemma Arterton that's set to hit theaters on September 27.

Watch Ben Affleck and the stars of 'Argo' talk to Yahoo! Movies: