The James Clayton Column: Sympathy for Ben Affleck

Actor/director Ben Affleck may be receiving acclaim for The Town, but will he and stars like him, James wonders, forever be associated with tabloid gossip rather than creative skill?

Imagine for a moment that we are some time far in the future and that you’ve taken your senile relatives on a trip to their summerhouse and allotment on the Moon. Suddenly, the levitating visio-screens that sit on every surface cut from the repetitive footage of the War in Antarctica and are interrupted by an ‘Entertainment Newsflash Sponsored by L’Oréal’. Sadly, actor and director Ben Affleck has just been announced dead.

“Who’s Ben Affleck?” asks one of the senile relatives (they might not actually be senile. They might just be playacting to annoy you). “Ummm,” responds another, “oh aye… he went out with Jennifer Lopez, y’know… the singer and current Senator of Puerto Rico.”

“Oh, yeah, I like her and her line of insta-colonic irrigation lingerie,” the forgetful relative replies before adding, “Funny that he kind of vanished, though, and didn’t really do much when they split up. I tell you what, that Pearl Harbour was a bag of shite…”

The news then flashes a front cover spread of Affleck and Lopez from a 2003 issue of Heat magazine as a sort of obituary shot and fades into adverts and the ‘Bruce Forsythdroid’s War in Antarctica Warriors of the Week’ segment. (“Didn’t they do well?”)

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There’s a lot of far-fetched stuff in that vision, but I do genuinely worry for Ben Affleck. It sounds pessimistic, but people do have an amazing ability to cling on to crap and trivial rubbish and overlook the good stuff. To quote Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon, “It’s like a finger pointing at the Moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.”

Metaphorically, showbiz news, gossip and ‘hype and scandal’ celeb culture is the dirty fingernail. People’s eyes aren’t even managing to see the lunar orb, let alone the rest of the night sky.

It’s upsetting that Brad Pitt is better known for all the Brangelina bullshit than for his outstanding acting turns in 12 Monkeys, Snatch, Fight Club and Burn After Reading, to name a select few. Likewise, it’s a shame that the name ‘Owen Wilson’ doesn’t make the average cinemagoer remember classic comedy collaborations with Wes Anderson but is more likely to raise remarks like, “Oh, the blonde whiney guy with the broken nose who was in You, Me and Dupree.

I have similar fears that, when his time comes, the TV obituaries for Jim Carrey will overlook such sensitive, powerful work as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and get stuck in looped images of him gurning in The Cable Guy or playing OTT green-face in The Mask. In similar style, it’s tragic to think that Affleck’s media epitaph will be “half of Bennifer and star of the Gigli, the ultimate A-list bomb”.

Public image and legacies are warped and cruel things. Hollywood history may callously cast Affleck as a two-dimensional leading man of gossip rag dramas, a couple of ostentatious Michael Bay movies and the much maligned movie adaptation of Marvel’s Daredevil comics. That would be tremendously unfair considering the acting he’s done in more substantial material, his directing credits and his political activism. This guy picked up a screenwriting Oscar for co-scripting Good Will Hunting and yet his name is all too often instantly associated with an ill-fated marriage to J. Lo.

I feel even sorrier for Ben Affleck because The Town is a classic crime-drama and, alongside doing a pretty deft job at directing the film, Affleck is excellent as the main character, Doug MacRay. It’s an ambitious movie that explores human relationships, class, loyalty and many more aspects of the American Dream’s underbelly. MacRay is a solid, empathetic character on which to build it all and in the role Affleck is grounded, believable and compelling.

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Without going into the finer plot points and spoiling it all for those yet to take in The Town, the guy’s history runs like follows. He was born in the bank robbery capital of America (Charlestown, a.k.a “The Town”) and was raised by a ne’er-do-well dad and the kind of class-entrenched expectation that you pursue the path of crime and never leave the neighbourhood.

His promising ice hockey career slid off the rink and his mother left when he was a little boy with his father leaving little Doug to wander the streets asking locals if they’d seen her. (That’s brutal. You may want to take a moment to pause, dry your eyes and make sure that the senile relatives haven’t floated off into orbit.)

His best mate (played by the awesomely intense Jeremy Renner) is a trigger-happy psychopath whom he can’t cast off. He’s completely at the mercy of Pete Postlethwaite’s green-fingered kingpin (the world’s most frightening florist) who forces MacRay and his gang to hold up the Fenway Park baseball stadium. For a Boston Red Sox fan, I suppose that’s like being ordered to rob your own child’s piggy bank.

Then, of course, he falls in love with the witness to the robbery that opens the film and can’t be straight with her or successfully cement their relationship because otherwise all the heat comes down on him. The FBI are closing in, Jon Hamm has a shotgun and the net’s getting tighter. Desires and dreams are just out of reach, intrigue and jeopardy dog his every move and MacRay is constantly thwarted with hope of a happy ending looking increasingly unlikely as The Town winds onward.

Just as I want Doug to make his idealised escape to Florida with lover/former hostage Claire (Rebecca Hall), I’d like to see Ben Affleck freed from the crap that clings to his name. The guy deserves a break to just make interesting movies in peace without the loathsome past staining every single review or article about him.

We need to put all the bullshit – gossip mags emblazoned with “Bennifer” and “Brangelina” headlines and a dirty Daredevil costume – in a box, shove it in a rocket and send it to the dark side of the Moon where not even the abandoned relatives rejected by an indifferent Earth will encounter them. The garbage will just rust and rot away, swept around by a non-CGI alternative to WALL·E, namely the Bruce Forsythdroid that also got dumped in outer space just for being so irritating.

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Maybe then Affleck’s public image and legacy will be completely saved and no one will think J. Lo or Pearl Harbour when they hear his name. They’ll just say, “Ah, yeah, The Town. That’s a riveting, really good film. He’s a smart guy is that Ben Affleck…”

James’ previous column can be found here.

James’ movie-spoof comic strips are right here.