If indeed “Argo” beats the odds and the history and the stats and manages to take the Best Picture Oscar in a few weeks, Ben Affleck, in lieu of recognition as a director, will be able to take the stage at the Dolby Theatre and hold an Academy Award aloft as producer. But as we all know, it wouldn’t be his first time clutching the little golden guy. That moment came on March 23, 1998.
With all of the awards attention paid to “Argo” this season, I recently decided I’d pop in the 15th anniversary Blu-ray of “Good Will Hunting.” It has been quite some time, easily 10 years, since I last saw it and after last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival “Modern Master” tribute to Affleck, I felt compelled to go back and give it another look.
I’ve always thought it was an expert piece of work. Affleck and co-writer Matt Damon wrote the script for the film while living on Hill Street in Eagle Rock, just maybe a mile from my place in that northeast Los Angeles neighborhood. It has therefore always been a bit of an inspiration for me as a screenwriter, which maybe goes some way toward explaining my enthusiasm for Affleck’s story this season. And that it yielded a win for Affleck and Damon’s work on the page has always been an Oscar highlight for me (even if I would have gone with Paul Thomas Anderson’s work on “Boogie Nights” that year — indeed, Affleck himself might agree with that).
The script does so many things so well, though. It establishes character effortlessly. It builds secondary relationships, like Sean Maguire and Gerald Lambeau, with an elegant eye toward theme. It takes the right combination of real-life detail and matches it with a refined sense of visual storytelling to make something grounded but uplifting. And, perhaps best of all, it ends really, really well.
It has also, in some ways, always seemed like a lesson captured, young Damon and Affleck finding their way through art and celebrity right in front of us. Affleck told a story at the Santa Barbara tribute about costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor leaning away from the duo’s mall store-bought wardrobes, but they insisted. And in hindsight, he saw that she had a point, and it said something about realizing that the cinema isn’t life. It’s larger than life. So even realism has to be charged with a sort of fantasy of the reality if it’s going to connect deeply and broadly. And “Good Will Hunting” has always been a nice example of that, to me.
“In retrospect, it’s been clear to me that Gus brought a lot of maturity to that movie,” Affleck said at the tribute. “It could have been really adolescent if he hadn’t pulled back on some things.”
That’s very true, too. Perhaps best exemplified in the perspective of Maguire in the film. Robin Williams won an Oscar for his performance of the character, fit with his own Oscar clip in a long, patient shot of Maguire laying down a breed of maturity young Will Hunting hadn’t begun to know. That was just one of a number of examples in the script that revealed a pair of writers wise beyond their years.
I love going back to that clip of them winning the gold, too. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau presented, an odd couple for the odd couple. Lemmon ecstatically read their names and they sat there, frozen. Can you imagine? You put your life into this script, you’ve been chipping away at acting gigs, and you’ve hit the jackpot.
Affleck delivered the bulk of the speech, Damon reminding him of this name and that throughout. It was just a cool moment. It was also the first Oscar telecast I ever watched with a real interest in who won what, so I guess I was in an impressionable position.
Of course, Damon did something very different with that newfound fame than Affleck did. But Affleck came back around and found his stride as a serious filmmaker. Whether the Oscar for producing “Argo” is his or not, it’s been an interesting trajectory to watch. And, as Damon told press at the Berlin Film Festival today when the inevitable question came up, “He”ll be fine either way.”
Check out Affleck and Damon’s full speech from the 70th annual Oscars below.
By the way, if you haven’t read through Boston Magazine’s oral history of “Good Will Hunting,” it’s a real treat and you should give it a look.