[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]
I can’t muster up too much sympathy for a Hollywood star whose personal branding woes haven’t prevented him from earning more money than most of us ever dream of seeing, but from an image point of view, I do feel bad for Ben Affleck. Even after all these years and all his good work, he’s still struggling to be taken seriously.
It’s a cautionary tale on the power of branding—and how it’s much harder to rehabilitate an ailing brand than to create a good one from scratch.
Affleck got his start in indie films like Dazed and Confused and Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (and virtually all of Smith’s movies), and although those films often drew cult followings, his characters were less than golden boys. Then, when he made his major breakthrough, in 1997’s Good Will Hunting, which he co-wrote with boyhood friend Matt Damon partly out of frustration at being cast only ever in supporting roles, he was often overshadowed by his very-much-a-golden-boy partner. But the film netted nine Oscar nominations, and Damon and Affleck were on the map after winning for best original screenplay.
Cut to a decade and a half later, and Affleck’s brand seems to be floundering. His film Argo, which he directed, was beloved by critics, widely considered one of the best movies of 2012 and successful at the box office. He won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards for best director. And yet, when the Academy Award nominations were announced, he got dissed: Argo was nominated for best picture, but Affleck wasn’t put up for best director. (That very night was the Critics’ Choice ceremony, where he cheekily started his acceptance speech by saying, “I would like to thank the Academy….”)
But the lack of an Oscar nomination was widely seen as a major snub. As New York film critic David Edelstein wrote in a recent lament about why he dislikes the Oscars: “Ben Affleck went in 30 seconds from golden boy to looooooser—until his win (and reception) at the Golden Globes restored a measure of dignity. There’s nothing more pathetic than a film trotted out in December to qualify for a nomination that doesn’t materialize: No matter how worthy, the media consigns it to oblivion.” Perez Hilton went one step further: “Ben Affleck VINDICATED After Oscar Snub!”
Still, the Golden Globes are not the Oscars—speaking of brands—and recognition at the Globes, even beating out Tarantino, Bigelow and Spielberg for best director, isn’t nearly as prestigious as a nod from the Academy. Affleck still doesn’t seem to be part of that club.
So what gives?
Bennifer. Affleck is still struggling to be taken seriously, some 10 years after he dated Jennifer Lopez. Even though he’s now one of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors, people are having a very hard time forgetting the cheesiness and excess of that relationship—he reportedly gave J. Lo a $3.5 million engagement ring, let her write a song called “Dear Ben” about how much she loved him, and filmed Gigli with her. It was one of the worst movies in history, and it earned them a Razzie Award for worst screen couple, one of many embarrassing anti-accolades.
Hollywood, tabloids and tabloid readers are slow to forget. Although Affleck has turned his life around, marrying (and—more unusual and impressive—staying married to) respected actress Jennifer Garner, having three children, moving into directing, and undertaking intense charitable efforts here and in Africa especially, what too often comes to mind is still J. Lo and Gigli.
He has done serious artistic work, directing acclaimed, slightly gritty films such as The Town and Gone Baby Gone, as well as work on changing his image and personal brand. Without being contrived about it, he has taken many steps that should have showcased the artistic side of Ben Affleck—how he’s grown up and moved beyond the fake-tanning boy toy he (perception-wise) was a decade ago—and yet he still struggles to be taken truly seriously by the Hollywood elite.
Like a down-and-out character in one of his Boston-based films, all he can do is keep on keeping on. Brand reinvention takes time, especially when the outdated brand was also outsize.