F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. Then again, Fitzgerald probably never met anyone quite like Ben Affleck.

For nearly a decade, the actor’s career seemed charmed. At 25, he took home an original screenplay Oscar for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” the indie blockbuster he co-wrote and co-starred in with best buddy Matt Damon. Stardom soon followed, with leading roles in a slew of blockbuster action pics.

Then Affleck’s streak as a box office and media darling took a hit. He appeared in a string of flops and went on industry sabbatical.

As it turned out, leaving the world of $100-million-plus budgets and eight-figure paydays was the best thing that could have happened to Affleck. It gave him a way to reinvent his career.

Since 2002, he and screenwriting partner Aaron Stockard had been working on a spec adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel “Gone Baby Gone” for producer Alan Ladd Jr. In 2006, with script in hand, Affleck approached Ladd with a proposal: He would direct, with his brother Casey in the lead.

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Part genre pic, part politically charged melodrama, “Gone Baby Gone” does not feel like the work of a novice. Affleck assembled an experienced cast (Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris) and crew (lenser John Toll, editor William Goldenberg), and avoided cookie-cutter slickness.

“The most important thing for me was that we make something that felt real,” says Affleck. “Any artifice, any falseness whatsoever, would undermine everything. I wanted to create an urban setting where people are really struggling, a place with moral ambiguity, and then immerse the audience in that world.”

“Gone Baby Gone” opened in October to positive reviews and went on to gross nearly $20 million domestically. “I think of Ben as a top filmmaker,” says Ladd. “He’s immensely talented. He’s got great instincts. I’d work with him again in a second.”

PROVENANCE: Born in Berkeley, Calif.; grew up in Boston
INSPIRED BY: John Huston’s “Fat City” and the urban dramas of Sidney Lumet, for “how the environment and the narrative inform each other, the raggedness of the scenes and the deeply flawed protagonists.”
REPS: Agent, Patrick Whitesell (Endeavor); attorney, Sam Fischer (Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer)