Ben Affleck Is Hollywood’s BoJack Horseman
Ben Affleck’s Hollywood journey through tabloids, sobriety, and accountability brings to mind another complicated figure: BoJack Horseman. Hear us out.
How did Ben Affleck become a walking portmanteau? Maybe it started when he hooked up with Jennifer Lopez; their relationship was, after all, the first to earn a tabloid nickname. (RIP Bennifer.) But the wordplay didn’t stop there. When Affleck married Jennifer Garner a year later, tabloids attempted to brand their union “Garfleck.” (It never quite caught on.) When Affleck put on a mask to play DC’s most famous vigilante, Affleck became “Batfleck”—and when Batman v Superman’s dour press tour made him a meme for existential angst, he transformed once more into “Sadfleck.”
Affleck is no stranger to a career low or two, especially thanks to unsavory gossip. But in this new chapter, Affleck has faced something more serious: groping allegations, which first emerged in 2017. Affleck is still getting work—three movies this year and counting. But his films have also been bombing. Most notably, Justice League tanked before Affleck stepped down from the role as Batman. Live by Night, which Affleck directed, also fizzled.
In profiles, like one published in February by the New York Times, there remains a sense that Affleck needs to be forgiven for… something. It’s unclear whether Affleck or anyone else knows what it’ll take for him to get there. But as he and his surrogates wade their way through this mess, I must admit, I cannot stop thinking about BoJack Horseman.
In his new film The Way Back, which premieres Friday, Affleck plays a basketball coach struggling with alcoholism. Last October, TMZ captured footage of Affleck, who had recently celebrated one year of sobriety, drunk after a Halloween party. Affleck has used the film’s press cycle as an opportunity to get candid about his struggles with alcohol use, as well as his divorce from Garner. But as Times reporter Brooks Barnes noted in his profile last month, Affleck’s fate as a star rests in someone else’s hands.
“Moviegoers, women in particular, will ultimately decide: Is forgiveness for transgressions still something that society in all of its Twitter-fied polarization allows?” Barnes wrote. “To some, Affleck is still the guy who broke Garner’s heart and who was accused of groping a talk-show host in 2003.”
The timing of Affleck’s attempted comeback feels significant. At this point, years out from when the #MeToo movement first took hold in Hollywood, the entertainment industry has reached a more nuanced stage of self-examination. Last summer, Aziz Ansari landed a Netflix special—which he used, in part, to discuss a #MeToo accusation against him. And weeks before Harvey Weinstein would be convicted for third-degree rape, two of 2020’s buzziest TV finales—for The Good Place and BoJack Horseman—centered on questions of forgiveness and redemption for humanity. In BoJack’s case, the finale focused on the central horse man’s fate in the wake of a #MeToo allegation—and what kind of relationship, if any, his friends choose to have with him going forward.
As glib as the comparison sounds on its face, Affleck and BoJack have a striking amount in common. Affleck, like the fictional horse man, has a family history of mental health and substance use issues. Both Affleck and BoJack make frequent appearances in tabloid media. Toward the end of the Netflix series, BoJack checks himself into a cushy rehab center named Pastiches; Affleck has visited the real-life facility Promises multiple times. Both men have a complicated relationship with class. And BoJack, like Affleck, achieved a level of fame that guarantees an almost unconscionable amount of power—and lack of accountability—only to have the rug pulled out from under him when people started paying attention.
Soon after allegations of sexual misconduct first emerged against Harvey Weinstein, Ben Affleck released a statement. He said he was “angry” about Weinstein’s abuses and simultaneously avoided mentioning whether or not he’d previously known about any of them. Soon after, actress Hilarie Burton accused the actor of groping her during an episode of MTV’s TRL. There was video of the incident. He apologized.
But Burton was not the only woman to come forward back then; she’s simply the only one whose accusations Affleck has been consistently asked to acknowledge. At the same time Burton made her claim, make-up artist and writer Annamarie Tendler also accused Affleck of groping her bottom at a 2014 Golden Globes party. TV writer Jen Starsky said she was at the same party, where multiple friends had the same experience as Tendler. Interviewers often only ask Affleck about Burton’s claim as though it occurred in isolation—so he has never fully accounted for his behavior.
In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, film fans have increasingly discussed who in the producer’s orbit was complicit in his behavior. Actors including Brad Pitt have come up, as have directors like Quentin Tarantino. The stench surrounding Affleck stems, in part, from that discussion—because beyond being a Weinstein protégé, Affleck seems to have become part of the machine that enables those like him.
Weinstein played a major role in vaulting Affleck to superstardom. It was Miramax that came to Good Will Hunting’s rescue when things stalled between Affleck, Matt Damon, and Castle Rock, which had initially bought the rights. That made Affleck the youngest writer to receive an Oscar for original screenplay—a distinction he holds to this day. It was Miramax that cast Affleck in its award magnet Shakespeare in Love alongside his girlfriend at the time, fellow Weinstein acolyte Gwyneth Paltrow. And it was Miramax that produced his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone.
When Affleck released his 2017 statement about Weinstein, Rose McGowan called him out alongside Burton, implying on Twitter that Affleck had known about some of Weinstein’s misdeeds. “‘GODDAMNIT! I TOLD HIM TO STOP DOING THAT’ you said that to my face,” she wrote in the tweet. “The press conf I was made to go to after assault. You lie.”
Affleck has vowed to donate all of his residuals from Weinstein Company and Miramax collaborations either to the arts nonprofit Film Independent or the anti-sexual assault organization RAINN. But when he’s asked to ruminate on the deeper implications of his ties to Weinstein, the conversations seem to fall short of really addressing the issue—in part, because no question ever seems to encompass the full scope of the damage done.
So, what do we do with Ben Affleck now?
What made BoJack Horseman a compelling hero was his earnest desire to be a good person. One of the most emotional moments of the show’s run came in the first season, when BoJack pleaded with his friend Diane to tell him he’s a good person. “I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive,” he said, “but underneath all that, deep down, I'm a good person, and I need you to tell me that I'm good.”
At the root of BoJack’s begging is shame—about his family history, about his career, about himself. Shame is something that Affleck, too, has dealt with in the public eye for a long time. Speaking with the Times about his divorce, the actor said, “Shame is really toxic. There is no positive byproduct of shame. It’s just stewing in a toxic, hideous feeling of low self-worth and self-loathing.”
Whether or not Affleck convinces the world that he sincerely wants to change both himself and the industry for the better, he will likely have work in Hollywood for as long as he wants it. It’s still rare for anyone to be truly “canceled” in any real sense; Affleck’s own brother Casey has maintained a career in Hollywood despite sexual harassment allegations, which he has denied.
But reputations are a different thing—and Affleck’s narrative going forward remains to be seen. The one thing we can be sure of is this: For once, the answer won’t fit in a cheeky portmanteau.