Amid every dreary, tragic, isolated thing going on in the past year, an unlikely star emerged as the top contender for keeping the internet’s interest: Ben Affleck.
In a time when some celebrities were taking extravagant vacations while many of us were stuck on our couches due to the raging coronavirus pandemic, Affleck has been frequently spotted living a pretty relatable life. Like us, he has appeared to do his very best just to get through his everyday existence. And over time, his perceived ups and downs became something to cheer on or something to commiserate with.
Who could forget the time he got locked out of his house and had to scale the security gate, or when he didn’t let his face mask stop him from smoking a cigarette, or when he haphazardly balanced a precious Dunkin’ iced coffee on a stack of packages he was bringing in from the rain?
Over the years, the public perception of Affleck has evolved from bright young star to overhyped party boy to reformed family man to struggling divorcee. It’s a journey that’s ultimately resulted in the endearing uncle aura he exudes today. That aura has felt intimately relatable during the pandemic and continuing lockdown restrictions, and it has vaulted him into the minds and hearts of many who see themselves in his exploits.
Affleck’s recent blossoming in the public eye began with the help of a recent relationship.
The dawning of coronavirus stay-at-home orders across the U.S. in March 2020 coincided with the beginning of Affleck’s relationship with his Deep Water co-star Ana de Armas. And thanks to the celebrity-gossip-industrial complex, we were hit with a barrage of near-daily paparazzi photos of Affleck and de Armas leisurely strolling around their Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Twitter fan account Ana de Armas Updates (@ArmasUpdates), which was blocked by de Armas herself in April, was a major force behind the surging interest in BenAna in the early months of the pandemic. Racking up nearly 26,000 followers, the account’s frequently tongue-in-cheek posts about the couple’s outings provided fodder for intense speculation over whether their public appearances were staged and, as a result, what exactly was going on between them.
The account, and many others, were deeply curious about the coupling, which was only helped by the many pictures of them that circulated in the pandemic’s early days. When many people were looking for anything to distract themselves from a firehose of bad news, Affleck and de Armas’ emergence as a new pseudo-power couple served our baser instincts to devolve into celebrity gossip as a distraction from our own difficult reality.
“For stars as famous as de Armas and Affleck, the paparazzi will often be there whether they like it or not,” Vanity Fair‘s Emily Kirkpatrick wrote at the end of 2020. “But during a year when so much of the Hollywood publicity machine has been put on hold and social distancing has kept TMZ’s interlocutors at bay, many stars seem to have become more comfortable with letting those long-lens photos drive the public narrative for them.”
Affleck has long been a tabloid favorite, but the lack of celebrity news in the early days of the pandemic made his visibility all the more striking. With the entertainment industry on pause due to COVID-19 precautions, and many of the rich and famous staying home, there wasn’t much to pay attention to except the few stars, like Affleck and de Armas, making random outdoor appearances.
As Affleck charted his own attempts at a comeback onscreen, to largely favorable reviews, his offscreen life became as captivating to some as what played out in the movies. His highs were our highs and his lows our lows. This was Ben Affleck’s world and the rest of us were happy to watch.
His relationship with de Armas was a development that added new layers to the strange allure of Affleck’s public persona. How could Affleck possibly make de Armas laugh so hard? Where did they get their matching heart necklaces? How much Dunkin’ can one man consume? Rhetorical questions, but that hasn’t made them any less entertaining to ask and treasure as the pandemic has worn on.
Affleck has been a polarizing figure in Hollywood. From the days of his overly-publicized relationship with Jennifer Lopez—a.k.a. Bennifer—to the saga of his back tattoo to the many photos of him smoking, the tabloids haven’t always cast the 48-year-old actor in glitz and glamor. But over the past few years, Affleck’s gritty magnetism has become somewhat of an internet staple.
In the wake of the Bennifer years, Affleck was sometimes seen as the Tinsel Town poster boy for rich white male entitlement—an image that wasn’t mitigated by the movie roles he took on. Following the release of Gone Girl in 2014, AskMen published a deep dive into what was seen as widespread dislike for Affleck. Critic Radheyan Simonpillai described perceptions of the actor as a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” while getting in a nasty dig at Lopez.
“The ‘Bennifer’ fiasco was more than a decade ago, and Affleck has since grown up, becoming a family man with Jennifer Garner,” Simonpillai wrote. “Yet his past affiliation with the hollow pop stardom that is J. Lo did taint the public’s perception of Affleck. He was no longer the bright kid who co-wrote an Oscar-winning movie with his best friend Matt Damon. Instead, Affleck was the flash-in-the-pan talent who revealed himself to be just another Hollywood beefcake, making stinky action movies like Pearl Harbor and Paycheck. For every Chasing Amy or Good Will Hunting, there were five more disasters on the level of Daredevil, supporting the idea that Affleck lacks talent.”
Even Gone Girl director David Fincher said that he was inspired to cast Affleck as Nick Dunne, a smarmy professor who may or may not be behind his wife’s disappearance, because he felt his real-life persona fit the role so well.
“In Gone Girl there’s a smile the guy has to give when the local press asks him to stand next to a poster of his missing wife,” Fincher told Playboy. “I flipped through Google Images and found about 50 shots of Affleck giving that kind of smile in public situations. You look at them and know he’s trying to make people comfortable in the moment, but by doing that he’s making himself vulnerable to people having other perceptions about him.”
In recent years, Affleck has been more open about challenges he has faced in life, like his struggles with addiction.
“People with compulsive behavior, and I am one, have this kind of basic discomfort all the time that they’re trying to make go away,” Affleck told the New York Times in February 2020. “You’re trying to make yourself feel better with eating or drinking or sex or gambling or shopping or whatever. But that ends up making your life worse. Then you do more of it to make that discomfort go away. Then the real pain starts. It becomes a vicious cycle you can’t break. That’s at least what happened to me.”
Shortly after that interview, with de Armas’ star quickly rising following her acclaimed performance in Knives Out, the couple’s budding romance became an intriguing and bizarrely comforting fixture of the pandemic. In a year where nothing made much sense, Affleck’s intense aura of existential dread seemed to be punctuated by occasional bursts of what appeared to be happiness. It was nice.
The A-list actor, was suddenly enjoying a renaissance of sorts, even if it wasn’t directly related to this career.
But then things took a turn. As 2021 entered, Affleck and de Armas’ relationship exited. On Jan. 18, People reported that the couple had officially broken up. Photos surfaced of a life-size Ana de Armas cardboard cutout being thrown away outside of Affleck’s house.
“This is something that was mutual and something that is completely amicable,” a source close to Affleck and de Armas reportedly told People. “They are in different points in their lives; there is deep love and respect there. Ben continues to want to work on himself. He has three jobs lined up and he’s a solid father at home. They are both happy with where they are in their lives.”
A masked man was photographed depositing the de Armas cutout—which Affleck’s kids had used to troll the paparazzi last June—and some speculated that the man doing the trashing was Affleck’s brother, Casey Affleck. In a Jan. 21 interview with ET, Casey denied any involvement in the viral moment.
“No, that’s not me, and I can’t even really say if they have totally broken up for good or whatever. I would leave that to them to speak to,” he told ET.
Truly, who would want a life-size cardboard cutout of their ex in their house? Still, it was a singular moment that seemed to underscore the harsh realities of 2021 setting in.
It seemed there would be no more photos of Affleck and de Armas jovially walking their dogs and laughing together. Instead, the new year seemed poised to only offer shots of a weary-looking Ben collecting his daily Dunkin’ order by his lonesome.
Relationship gossip has since been replaced by so-called #BreakupBen, a new persona that has ensured Affleck’s continued internet presence. If anything, it has made him even more relatable as the first grim anniversary of the pandemic looms.
Who knows what Ben Affleck’s future, or our own, will hold? We’ll all just have to wait and see.