Ben & Ben

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Ben Affleck flashes his forgive-me smile and says, “I’m not really a whoremonger.” This plangent one-liner is from his new movie “Jersey Girl,” but the gaga-for-gossip public would not have been surprised if it had come from Affleck’s recent chats with Jay Leno and Larry King, or from a “Saturday Night Live” skit the other week when he guest-hosted. And no, Jennifer Lopez didn’t pop in, the way Affleck’s ex-ex-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow did the last time he hosted “SNL.”

The Ben-Jen (or, ugh, Bennifer) affair was mild as Hollywood kafuffle goes. They fell in love, got engaged, broke it off. This sort of embarrassment must happen to the unfamous a million times a year; it used to happen to Julia Roberts several times a week. In an awful reverse synergy, the breakup was paired with a famous flop movie they both starred in: “Gigli.” Part of this stemmed from the magnitude of the flop. “Gigli” wasn’t car-crash bad; that kind of movie gets rubberneckers into the theaters. It was the sort of catastrophe people avert their eyes and minds from. It was starving-kids-in-Ethiopia bad.

Now the former couple got draped in crepe. They were butts of late-night monologues, and received the ultimate honor-horror, their own episode of “South Park,” in which Ben falls violently in love with a rival J.Lo — Eric Cartman’s hand-puppet. The media attention was ravenous, the verdict instant and unanimous. Jen had got B-Affled; and Ben had sunk so far down, he was B.Lo. In a trice, he’d lost his claim to movie stardom.

Which raises the old question: How to distinguish between a movie star and a celebrity? Both are commodities, but one gets consumed in a crowded movie theater, they other in a checkout line. Right now, Affleck is Type B. His affair with Lopez sold magazines and newspapers, says one prominent publicist, “but they are all the wrong magazines and newspapers, particularly for an actor who wants to be taken seriously.” Another high-ranking flack adds, “He’s got to stay out of the tabs. This town is fickle. There’s always the next Ben Affleck coming up.”



CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS

All these Cassandras with their damaged-goods analyses might make it seem that Affleck can’t get fannies in the seats. Let’s look at the numbers. He’s co-starred in two Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters: “Armageddon” ($202 million domestically, another $251 around the world) and “Pearl Harbor” ($199 million domestic). Maybe the story and special effects were the stars of these films, but at least Affleck didn’t get in the way of robust numbers; he ably filled the straightforward leading-man role, or hole, which is tougher than it looks. Of his starring roles in the last two years, “Changing Lanes” cadged a respectable $67 million in the U.S. and Canada; the unmarvelous superhero epic “Daredevil” made $103 million); and “Paycheck,” a wan John Woo effort, took in $54 million over the holidays. That leaves “Gigli,” which did a paltry $6 million — less than a standard Affleck indie pic like “200 Cigarettes” ($6.7 million).

These stats may not justify Affleck’s standard $15 million salary, but consider this: most of the films were pretty bad. If there’s one irrefutable definition of a star, it’s that he gets people to pay money for lousy movies. By this standard, Burt Reynolds in the 70s is the ultimate movie star. The “Smokey” and “Cannonball Run” series are on nobody’s list of guilty pleasures, let alone pop masterpieces, but they surely were hits. If Affleck isn’t in Reynolds’ league as a box-office magnet, his middling success in crappy movies shows that he could be really popular in a really good one.

Another definition of a star is someone who carves out a definable, attractive personality — a mold that audiences want to see poured into different stories, and, often, want to emulate. But Affleck’s image is more complicated, maybe more compromised. Tall, dark and conventionally handsome, he’s certainly photographable, but that’s screen quality, which is not quite star quality. “People like Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford,” one Hollywood insider says, “have longevity because guys like them; guys wanna be them. And I just don’t think guys look at Ben Affleck like that. This is really crass, but to me it always looks like he passed gas. He has this smirk like he’s covering up something.” It’s true that Affleck is not a stalwart, man’s-man type; but that could be because he has a sense of humor about himself.



CRUISING THE COMPETITION

And if “there’s always the next Ben Affleck coming up,” then where are all the other current Ben Afflecks? Sure, plenty of comic stars — Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and the coming crew of Will Ferrell and Jack Black — make films that gross big-time. But, clowns aside, there’s a relatively shallow pool of American leading men in their 30s. (Cruise, George Clooney, Brad Pitt: they’re over 40.) Affleck’s pal Matt Damon has had hits and flops, though fewer of each than Ben. Each actor did a franchise thriller in 2001: Matt, in Robert Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity,” grossed $127 million at the North American box office; Ben, in Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears,” earned $118 million (which, by the way, was in the ballpark of earlier Clancy novels-into-films starring Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford). But Damon hasn’t starred in any other hits this millennium, and last year’s “Stuck on You” was the first Farrelly Brothers flop in their last five tries.

Edward Norton has shown some muscle lately in thrillers with strong ensemble casts — “The Score” ($71 million), “Red Dragon” ($92 million), “The Italian Job” ($106 million) — though he tanked in the one serioso film he had to carry on his own (“25th Hour,” $13 million). John Cusack keeps getting cast in leads, but not in hits (“Runaway Jury,” $49 million; “Identity,” $51 million). Whereas young men used to be groomed by the big studios, cast in one tailor-made production after another, these actors bound from action picture to indie, as Affleck has: from Jerry Bruckheimer (“Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor”) to Kevin Smith (“Chasing Amy,” “Jersey Girl”), from starring in potential franchise pictures (“The Sum of All Fears,” “Daredevil”) to doing cameos in tiny films by friends.

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