Wide Angle

There’s a Reason Matt Damon Is Back in the Press for Making a Dumb Comment

It’s the curse.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck winning an Oscar, and clearly cursed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

In the 25 years since Good Will Hunting introduced the world to “Matt and Ben,” Boston best friends turned Hollywood power duo Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have been consistent presences in pop culture, and recent weeks have proved no exception: While Affleck’s reunion with his ex Jennifer Lopez has been the talk of the summer, Damon has been making the rounds to promote his new movie, Stillwater … which promptly backfired earlier this week in a disastrous interview that now has him “clarifying” whether he condones a certain homophobic slur.

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So here we have Damon enmired in controversy over an unforced error, while meanwhile, Affleck has been canoodling with his hot, rich girlfriend on a yacht in the French Riviera—my, how the tables have turned! Because wasn’t it just recently that Damon was a box-office golden boy—and Affleck a laughingstock with a giant tattoo of a fake bird on his back? What could explain such a clean switch? Are their fates somehow inversely linked? For one to be on top, must the other fall?

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It’s a question Slate has explored before, in a 2013 piece where writer Sharan Shetty asked, “Is there a Good Will Hunting curse? Are Damon and Affleck stuck in a zero-sum game? Are they doomed to forever see-saw, with their careers trading off in fame and glory?”

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The answer then was a resounding yes. Whatever wizard Damon and Affleck managed to cross in their Cambridge days must have been very powerful, because eight years later, the curse seems to be going strong. Well, mostly, anyway, depending on how you interpret things—let’s examine the evidence.

Immediately Post-Hunting, 1998–2002

After the pair’s screenwriting Oscar win, Damon found some critical and commercial success with movies like Saving Private Ryan, Rounders, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but his stock fell slightly when he followed those up with flops like The Legend of Bagger Vance and All the Pretty Horses. During the same period, Affleck took on a splashy role in a big hit, Armageddon, and a supporting role in the acclaimed Shakespeare in Love, though some of the other movies he appeared in (remember Forces of Nature?) were decidedly more middling. Still, Affleck was trying out the traditional white-bread American-hero leading-man thing, and he landed high-profile gigs like Pearl Harbor and The Sum of All Fears. Both would underperform at the box office, while things picked up for Damon with a supporting role in Ocean’s Eleven in 2001 and then a starring one in what would turn out to be a hit franchise, The Bourne Identity, in 2002, but Affleck was arguably the hotter star in these years. Both of their dating lives made for gossip fodder at the time, by the way, as Damon dated Winona Ryder and Affleck romanced Gwyneth Paltrow.

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Curse Beneficiary: Affleck
Cursed: Damon

Most of the Aughts, 2003–2009

We all know Affleck hit a professional low point after his infamous and perhaps unfairly maligned relationship with Jennifer Lopez ended (the first time): These were the GigliJersey GirlSurviving Christmas years. Damon had a few disappointing showings of his own, like Stuck on You and The Brothers Grimm, but sequels in the Ocean’s and Bourne franchises were there to buoy him, and eventually he gained some additional cachet with critics to boot for his work in movies like The Departed and The Informant! Damon had also made what seemed like a canny move to keep himself out of the tabloids: He quietly began dating his future wife, who was a bartender when they met, in 2003. Meanwhile, though, Affleck was biding his time and preparing for a comeback, earning some awards recognition for Hollywoodland, directing his first movie, Gone Baby Gone, and appearing in the surprisingly successful He’s Just Not That Into You … while continuing to show up in some stinkers along the way. His domestic life with squeaky-clean queen of the minivan majority Jennifer Garner, who he married in 2005, also set the stage for an image rehab.

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Curse Beneficiary: Damon
Cursed: Affleck

The Turning of the Tides, 2010–2014

There were some highlights for Damon during these years, including True Grit and Contagion, plus out-of-left-field choices like Behind the Candelabra and a run on 30 Rock, but there were also some prominent bombs, We Bought a Zoo and Elysium chief among them. Affleck, though, had re-emerged stronger than before, earning praise for acting in and directing first The Town and then Argo, for which he nabbed a Best Picture (but not Best Director, many were quick to note) Oscar. In his acceptance speech for that award, he famously awkwardly hinted at troubles in his marriage with Garner, but he even seemed to figure out a way to make that work to his advantage: After Argo, he played a dirtbag husband in Gone Girl, and when the movie became a blockbuster and genuine cultural phenomenon, it also read as a savvy commentary on his personal life.

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Curse Beneficiary: Affleck
Cursed: Damon

The Turning Back the Other Way of the Tides, For the Most Part, 2015–2019

The Martian was a huge hit in 2015, he had another Bourne movie in 2016, and 2019’s Ford v Ferrari was well-received, all of which would seem to mark Damon the clear victor of this period, during which Affleck’s marriage with Garner ended, he struggled with sobriety, his directorial follow-up to Argo, Live by Night, flopped, and his stretch as Batman in the D.C. Extended Universe was critically reviled. But 2015 was also the year of Damon’s ill-advised diversity comments on Project Greenlight, a precursor to the self-created mess he currently finds himself in. Damon had usually able to keep his good reputation intact due to his habit of staying offline and out of the gossip press, but this was the beginning of the end of that. Still: These were rough Affleck years.

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Curse Beneficiary: Damon
Cursed: Affleck

The Tides Are Doing Something Weird, 2020–

As we slide to the present, Affleck has been on another strangely captivating rehabilitation tour. Some of the people who have professed to have less patience for Damon’s traditional straight white male movie star persona than they used to seem to be the same ones who have come to appreciate Affleck (never mind that he is also straight and white) for his very messiness. Yes, his reunion with Lopez has been glorious to behold, but so was his relationship with Ana de Armas, and so was the phoenix tattoo—for some people, all his struggles have come to seem endearing.

Damon, meanwhile, was not only apparently still using the word f—–t in casual conversation until recently, but thought it was a good idea to tell a reporter a cute story about it. Oh, and no one went to see his Amanda Knox movie.

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Curse Beneficiary: Affleck
Cursed: Damon

If the curse continues to operate as we expect it to, this too shall pass, but the question is how quickly: Will Affleck maintain supremacy for the next few years, or will Damon snatch it back sooner than that? The Last Duel, which is scheduled to come out in October, will be an important movie for curse-watchers and curse-naysayers alike to watch, as it will mark the first time since Good Will Hunting that Damon and Affleck appear in a movie they’ve written together. It’s set in medieval times, and who knows, maybe that will appeal to the wizard behind the original curse enough to consider putting an end to this whole saga. Or maybe the real dark magic is about to come to the fore.

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