The Carpetbagger: Ben Affleck, Now an Underdog With ‘Argo,’ Is on the Rebound

January 19th, 2013

Ben Affleck said to ask him anything. “Nothing is off limits,” he said, adding later, “There’s nothing that you can ask me that hasn’t been asked of me before.”

Not true. One thing that Mr. Affleck has only recently had to answer for is how it feels to be snubbed by the Oscars. As the director, producer and star of “Argo” he was considered a shoo-in for a best director nomination, typically crucial in any campaign for a best picture prize. But last week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overlooked Mr. Affleck the filmmaker, though his movie earned other nominations, including best picture.

By Sunday, when he won two Golden Globes, for directing and producing (along with George Clooney and Grant Heslov), he had a line ready about the snub.

“We got nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture,” he said backstage. “If you can’t be happy with that, your prospects for long-term happiness are pretty sad.”

All along “Argo” had seemed in step with the awards machinery. In August it was shown at the Telluride Film Festival, where “The King’s Speech” had earned the attention of critics, and in September its premiere drew a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, just like the future Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire.” And as he has made the promotional rounds Mr. Affleck has sounded confident and informed, in his filmmaking and political history at least. What he was not prepared for was going from early front-runner to late-season underdog. But underdog, as veteran Oscar watchers know, is the pole position to be in for the race.

Though only three films have won best picture without a corresponding best director nomination — “Driving Miss Daisy,” in 1989, was the latest — Mr. Affleck’s fortunes, at least judging by the good will that attended his Globes victory, seem to be on the rebound. And it’s not as if he’s unfamiliar with having to rebound.

“I was nobody auditioning, and then I was seen as this young, emerging talent, writer, Oscar winner” — for the “Good Will Hunting” screenplay — “and then I was seen as this blockbuster actor, and then I was seen as this kind of train-wreck actor” (insert your own “Gigli” joke here) “and then I was seen as this resurgent director,” he said in a recent interview in New York. “And now I think I’m kind of seen as just sort of somebody in Hollywood who works.”

“Argo,” the true story of how the C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez (Mr. Affleck) used a fake sci-fi flick as cover for his rescue of six American diplomats trapped in Tehran during the 1970s hostage crisis, appealed to him because it played out on a broader scale than his first two hometown directorial efforts, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.” “I didn’t want to just keep doing movies in Boston,” he said. (Bostonites, hold your fire: Mr. Affleck plans to return for an adaptation of “Live by Night” by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novel “Gone Baby Gone.”)

Mr. Affleck’s own performance was inspired by the implacable, reserved Mr. Mendez, a former Master of Disguise.

“I met him at this sort of famous C.I.A. hangout bar, and I thought I’d find all of these interesting hooks to use to play the character,” Mr. Affleck said. “Instead I found this very sort of withdrawn, kind of opaque guy, and I sort of panicked.” But he decided to protect the reality and subvert the usual conventions of hard-charging, heroic protagonists. “I’d rather have a guy whose instinct is to fade into the background,” he said, “who is asked to stick his neck out to save these six people.”

Mr. Mendez, now retired and on the circuit promoting the film, based in part on his autobiography, joined the interview, praising Mr. Affleck for his attention to detail and veracity. He had even offered Mr. Affleck some of his own 1970s clothing to wear, sport coats and polyester prints.

“There was a green turtleneck, which I drew the line at,” Mr. Affleck said.

“That was my main shirt,” Mr. Mendez said. “For an Irish filmmaker you got to have a green turtleneck.”

Mr. Affleck: “Don’t admit that to people.”

Mr. Mendez: “It’s what we call a distracter — kind of like you are.”

The costumer Jacqueline West and the production designer Sharon Seymour labored to create the right period feel. “I wanted to spread the wardrobe and the cars out, so it wasn’t just everybody was there from 1979,” Mr. Affleck said. The look for John Goodman’s character, John Chambers, a real Hollywood makeup artist, was deliberately 1960s. (“You know, people get stuck in their eras,” Mr. Affleck said. “I’m stuck in ’93. That’s how I do it. Cargo pants are back.”)

Mr. Affleck was also keen to home in on the workaday quality of spy life, especially the way it both connected and frayed its employees and their families. “The sacrifices that were being made were being done in silence,” he said. “We live in a culture now where you go on a talk show and say, ‘This is what I’ve done,’ or ‘This is the kind of victim I am.’ We’re very public with that sort of thing.”

By contrast he wanted to pay tribute to C.I.A. officers who risk their lives yet take no credit. “As Tony often says, it’s not a place of deranged assassins,” he said. “It’s a place of people who’ve come in to work, work really hard, care about life, care about their country.”

Marrying that vision with the satirical Hollywood story line was the challenge that most worried Mr. Affleck. Mr. Clooney, Matt Damon (Mr. Affleck’s childhood friend and “Good Will Hunting” co-writer), his brother Casey Affleck, pals like Bradley Cooper and select nonentertainment industry confidants served as sounding boards, helping convince Mr. Affleck that he had nailed the tone.

“It’s a little bit of what I did with ‘The Town,’ ” he said. “I kind of wrapped what I thought was thoughtful, thematically interesting drama in the hard candy of shootouts and gun chases.”

Though he called “Argo” “the best thing I’ve been involved with in my career,” there is one thing he fears will haunt him. With the screenwriter Chris Terrio (also an Oscar nominee) Mr. Affleck included the vulgar punch line that pivots through the movie, a catchphrase that puns on its title and is not quite fit for print.

“I almost wish we didn’t do it,” Mr. Affleck said, “even though I think it works, because I have doomed myself for at least a few years of strangers coming up to me on the street” and playfully cursing him in the name of the movie.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 19, 2013

The Carpetbagger column on Thursday, about Ben Affleck, the director, producer and star of the film “Argo,” misstated the origin of a vulgar and obvious punch line used several times in the movie. Tony Mendez, who as a C.I.A. officer in 1979 helped six Americans escape from Iran — the subject of the film — has written that a colleague “once told a group of us a profane ‘knock-knock’ joke, with the word ‘Argo’ in the punch line.” The line was not coined by Mr. Affleck and the screenwriter Chris Terrio.

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