Ben Affleck, pop culture quiz

Adam Sternbergh asks the right question. Why is Ben Affleck such a big star? His career has not been distinguished by great films, or even by very popular ones. Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, his predecessors in the parthenon, had big hits and several of them. Ben’s stardom is much bigger than his middling career seems to warrant.

But Sternbergh boots the answer! What is missing here is Oscar night 1998. This was the year when Ben and Matt won for Good Will Hunting. But what was more telling than the award was that they showed up to receive it.

It was left to Joan Rivers to sum up the obvious. “You are the only guys here your age! We’re glad you’re here!” And indeed Ben and Matt where the only ones under the age of 35 in attendance. They had come from an award but, as Joan pointed out, really, they were the prize.

It felt as if something generational was happening. Ben and Matt had agreed to show up and Hollywood, always sensitive to demographic realities, was eager to give them an Oscar for their trouble (and, oh yeah, that film, whatever). It was no cynical payoff. Ben and Matt were genuinely pleased to be there but it was like a visit from royalty. They were making a gesture, generously, happily, but it was a gesture nevertheless.

The reason Ben and Matt were such a hit, the reason they got Oscars for showing up, is the story of the 1990s. This began with the demographic exclusion that took place in the very late 80s, it matured into the great Seattle refusal of the opening years of the decade and it became by mid decade the great indie alternative in film–a development so robust it could make Steve Buscemi a household name without any studio work and see to the rehabilitation of the career of Harvey Keitel–an event most thought impossible. The 1990s may have started with the wrenching discovery that Generation X was not wanted on the voyage and by mid 90s it turned out that it was Hollywood that had missed the boat.

People under 35 weren’t at the Oscars because they had been refused in the first case, refused to come in the second, and were just much too busy to make it in the last.

Everything that Sternbergh says is no doubt true but this, I think, is the real reason Affleck is such a big star in spite of his not so stellar record. He didn’t exist, so Hollywood had to invent him.

[for the Sternbergh article in question, go here]

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