The Miseducation of Ben Affleck: How ‘The Tender Bar’ and ‘The Last Duel’ Could Turn the Oscar Page (Again)

Despite two Oscars, Ben Affleck always seems to be playing catch up in awards conversations. Will George Clooney and Ridley Scott's films change that?

Ben Affleck - The Tender Bar - The Last Duel

Ben Affleck is an accomplished actor, producer, writer and director, proven by his two Academy Awards. So why does social media chatter generally refer to each of his new and effective outings worthy of Oscars consideration as a “comeback?”

In the middle of his newest film “The Last Duel,” it dawned on me. Nothing regarding his interpretation of Count Pierre d’Alençon should work with his sensibilities as an actor. Yet he completely steals the show in one of three segments designed to belong to Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver). Unfortunately, the Hollywood machine, critics and consumers have taken his abilities for granted. Perhaps it was the paparazzi’s focus on Bennifer (and its current sequel, Bennifer 2.0) or his openness regarding his struggles with sobriety. Either way, he’s shown himself, on multiple occasions, to be an uncommonly invigorating actor when placed in the right hands.

My realization came three days after a BAFTA member screening of George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar,” in which Affleck once again steals focus. His Uncle Charlie acts as a surrogate father to young J.R. Moehringer (Tye Sheridan, moving closer to his big Hollywood and Oscar moment) and is the type of conventional big brother to Dorothy (played exquisitely by Lily Rabe, an awards-worthy candidate if the movie catches on) everyone knows if you grew up in the tri-state area.

Unabashedly and charmingly genuine, Affleck brings a smile to your face in each scene he inhabits in the Amazon Studios film, showing similarities to past supporting actor nominees like Ethan Hawke’s inconsistent father from “Boyhood” (2014) or John Hawkes’ meth-addicted Uncle Teardrop from “Winter’s Bone” (2010) — supporting characters that are flawed but give the essential acumen for their film’s protagonists to grow. Christopher Lloyd, playing the rugged and potty-mouthed grandfather to J.R., is also due for his dance with the Academy, and checks off many of those same boxes. There could be supporting actor traction for both of them.

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Claire Folger/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

In 1998, Affleck, along with his best friend Matt Damon, won best original screenplay for “Good Will Hunting,” in which he also played Chuckie, the ride-or-die confidant who taught us how to hustle money at a job interview. Afterward, Hollywood created two separate paths for the two youngest screenplay winners in Oscar history. Damon’s following three projects were “Saving Private Ryan,” “Rounders” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Affleck followed up with “Phantoms,” “Armageddon” and “Shakespeare in Love.” You can see that each starred in their own Oscar favorites, but how the two were utilized over the next 20-some years has varied.

Though he’s often been a punching bag for tabloids and snobby cinephiles, Affleck has been far more gifted than given credit. For every “Pearl Harbor” (2001) and “Gigli” (2003) to mention, revisit his turns in “Boiler Room” (2000), “Gone Girl” (2014) and his Golden Globe-nominated turn as “Superman” star George Reeves in “Hollywoodland” (2006). When placed in the right hands, he rises to the challenge, even at times exceeding expectations.

His career seemed to undergo a metamorphosis in 2007 with his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone,” an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel. Surprising many with his assured hand behind-the-camera, critics and awards voters didn’t know what to do with Affleck’s evolution into a capable filmmaker outside of nominating Amy Ryan in supporting actress. You also have to credit him with boosting his brother Casey’s campaign that same year for his supporting turn “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” as his impressive lead performance in “Gone Baby Gone” bolstered his reputation.

Appearing to have found his niche, Affleck moved into his 2010 sophomore effort “The Town,” this time taking on the leading role of bank robber Doug MacRay. He was flirting with the awards bodies and Academy voters this time, picking up noms from prestigious groups like the PGA and WGA. Ultimately, the awards circuit ended with a sole mention for Jeremy Renner in supporting actor.

Then came “Argo,” the thrilling look at the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Iran in 1981. BAFTA, Critics Choice, Globes and SAG all gave the film its top prize, which the Oscars then followed, even after a snub for Affleck in best actor and, more notably, director. “I want to thank the Academy,” Affleck said while accepting the best director prize at the Critics Choice Awards. The ceremony took place on the same day that the Oscar nominations, and his snub, were revealed. After that, his Oscars dance is history.

Even after winning best picture, which he shared with “The Tender Bar” producing duo Clooney and Grant Heslov (Ted Hope is also serving as a producer), it hasn’t been a foregone conclusion that Affleck is one of our best. Perhaps the growing positive image was stained by taking on Batman in the Zack Snyderverse or the misfire of his next directing venture “Live By Night.” However, still, you find something remarkable like his turn as alcoholic Jack in last year’s “The Way Back” (2020), which was swallowed up in the noise of the early days of the pandemic.

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Claire Folger/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

Far more commercial than people would suspect, “The Tender Bar” is a crowd-pleaser in a year where voters and audiences are seeking more upbeat entries. Adapted from J.R. Moehringer’s memoir of the same name and written by Oscar-winner William Monahan, “Tender Bar” may find traction in the adapted screenplay category, especially given the thin nature of the competition this year.

Something is interesting about Clooney’s eight outings as a director. He doesn’t seem to have a signature aesthetic across his films. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that could explain why I believe that his movies post-“Good Night, and Good Luck” are so divisive. For example, I find “The Midnight Sky” to be the magnum opus of his entire filmography, and it received a mixed reception. However, those same detractors for his cerebral space movie will speak on the merits of “Suburbicon” (2017), something far more challenging to talk highly about. It’s still unclear how the Academy at large will respond to this new coming-of-age film, which harkens to classics like “Stand by Me” (1986), which director Rob Reiner was snubbed for. As Clooney has been nominated in eight separate Oscar categories, it would be foolish to count him out of the conversation for best director and best picture, but both could be long shots for “The Tender Bar.”

In “The Last Duel,” Affleck provides a fascinating depiction of a sex-crazed royal who mirrors the boys club mentality and the silencing of women’s voices that still permeates today. Director Ridley Scott makes his #MeToo movie in a genre he has excelled in. His 2000 epic “Gladiator” won best picture. “The Last Duel” likely won’t be the Oscar vehicle for either Affleck or Scott, as “The Tender Bar” and Scott’s upcoming “House of Gucci” seem to be more in line with what the Academy will respond to. Artisan categories such as production design, costumes and sound could be on the table for the period drama. At the same time, Emmy-winner Jodie Comer’s turn as Marguerite de Carrouges, playing three different “interpretations” of the historical figure, could pop up in best actress line-ups on the regional awards circuit.

An important note to address by all studios is the crutch of relying on the MPAA rating system to inform viewers of brutal scenes that could be triggering, like rape and other forms of sexual misconduct. I favor messaging at the top of the movie and/or a visible symbol on all marketing materials. We need to show more sensitivity and compassion to these victims.

So can Affleck make headway with the Academy this year, or will it continue to look elsewhere? Let’s see how he works the campaign trail this season.

“The Last Duel” opens in theaters on Oct. 15, while “The Tender Bar” is scheduled for Dec. 17.

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