The ''Hollywoodland'' star manages to shake off his career troubles

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It takes only a few minutes in last fall’s Hollywoodland for Ben Affleck to pull off what seemed impossible: He moves us while subtly evoking Gigli. In the film, Affleck plays George Reeves, the 1950s star who gained fame as TV’s Superman, but who privately yearned for respect as a film actor. When he lands a role in From Here to Eternity, he proudly attends a sneak preview, only to have his big moment ruined by audience catcalls — ”It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”— the second he appears on screen. Affleck’s eyes burn as he suffers in silence, struggling to hide a shame so painful the movie suggests it drove Reeves to suicide.

Mention the scene to Affleck now and memories of his own career troubles (Gigli, Jersey Girl, Bennifer…) seem to soften his otherwise booming voice: ”I think any performer would be lying if they told you that that wasn’t one of their worst fears, to have an audience laughing at what they’re doing. Maybe fear of that, you know, is why I wanted to work so hard in Hollywoodland, [to] make sure when I played George Reeves, there was nobody in the theater who saw anything but George Reeves.”

It appears his efforts have paid off. Hollywoodland has earned Affleck best-actor honors at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, a Golden Globe nomination (his first as a performer), and even some dark-horse Oscar buzz. It also marks the 34-year-old’s triumphant return from a nearly two-year, self-imposed hiatus. Why the disappearing act? Affleck believed that the fallout from his relationship with Jennifer Lopez was keeping audiences — and worse, directors — from seeing him as anything other than a celebrizine cover boy.

”In some ways, playing [Reeves] is a little like a catharsis,” he explains. ”I don’t have to feel, like” — he utters the next word with a deep sigh, as if he’s letting go of a long-held burden — ”embarrassed anymore. I think it’s helped me cross a considerable hurdle. And it’s nice to feel that.” But Affleck makes clear that the hurdle in question was not his personal life: ”The only thing I regret are the times I took movies just to work.”

It all goes back, he says, to Good Will Hunting. Affleck sincerely believed that the proverbial labor of love with pal Matt Damon (for which the two won an Oscar for best screenplay) showcased his very best as an actor. However, he explains with a rueful smile, ”I remember when Harvey Weinstein was doing his [awards] campaign [for Hunting], where they try to find a quote for everybody — the New York Times quote, the Washington Post quote. My quote was like the Dallas Sideshow Free Ha’penny Opera: ‘Affleck…is decent.”’

After no Talented Mr. Ripley scripts came his way, Affleck resolved to become a commercial actor, pursuing big-budget effects films like Armageddon. But when he did attempt what he calls ”the performance thing” — as in 2000’s Bounce with sometime paramour Gwyneth Paltrow — critics and audiences collectively shrugged. ”Then I was like” — Affleck throws his arms up — ”’Well, fine! I’ll go do Pearl Harbor.’ Which is my own vanity being my downfall.”

Director Kevin Smith, who cast Affleck in his first leading role in Chasing Amy, agrees: ”I can understand the whole ‘I’ll do one for them and one for me’ philosophy, but for a while there he was doing more for them than he was for himself. I mean, you do a movie like Paycheck and it’s kind of ironic.” (Affleck reportedly made $15 million for Paycheck, which his reps deny.)

It took the shutting down of Affleck’s personal and professional lives for him to step back and resolve that there would be no more living in the glare of the spotlight and no more big-budget, movie-star meal tickets, even in the successful Jack Ryan franchise. Thus the black SUVs have ceased stalking his every move (save for paparazzi who seek shots of him with his wife of a year and a half, Jennifer Garner, 34, when they’re out with their daughter, Violet, 1). Newly fit, refocused, and centered, Affleck is also fielding offers for better roles in more interesting films, like this month’s assassin thriller Smokin’ Aces. These days, ”it doesn’t matter if [a film] is good for my career, or if it makes a bunch of money. I don’t have to freak out about the mortgage.”

Affleck’s even returned to screenwriting: Gone, Baby, Gone, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 1998 novel, will be his debut as a writer-director, and he’s in the midst of editing it now. But today, sitting in a Los Angeles postproduction suite, fiddling with an empty key chain as gunshots bang out from a cutting room nearby, Affleck is clearly stressed. Even though Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and his brother, Casey Affleck, are in the film, he worries that audiences might not take to a morally complex kidnapping drama that’s not a conventional ”crime story with a twist.” However, of this much Affleck is certain: ”I loved not [acting in] it. Loved it. Looooved not being in the movie.”

My Brilliant Career: Ben Affleck
Indies, blockbusters, and everything in between.

The Voyage of Mimi 1984
”I was [a kid] when I did this science show. Sometimes I think I grew up too fast.”

Dazed and Confused 1993

Mallrats 1995
”I’m horrible — stiff, uncomfortable, pasty, chubby, weird-looking, terrified.”

Chasing Amy 1997

Good Will Hunting 1997
”We never expected anyone to see it, which was why [it] was successful.”

Armageddon 1998
”That was when I felt, ‘Hey, I’ve made it.”’

Shakespeare in Love 1998

Bounce 2000

Pearl Harbor 2001

Changing Lanes 2002

The Sum of All Fears 2002

Daredevil 2003

Gigli 2003
”There were reshoots to turn the second half into a romantic comedy. It was kind of a total disaster.”

Hollywoodland 2006

Smokin’ Aces 2007

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  • 126 minutes
  • Allen Coulter