To most moviegoers, it seemed as if Matt Damon and Ben Affleck burst suddenly onto the Hollywood scene and achieved instant celebrity. The story line was irresistible: childhood buddies, both struggling actors, write a screenplay, for which they will win an Oscar. A Hollywood studio picks up the project and casts the writer/actors in starring roles. The film is a commercial and critical success, and the two young men are suddenly on Hollywood's "A List" and the cover of countless magazines.
In reality, Damon and Affleck's success came after 20 years of friendship, hard work, connections, and persistence. Growing up in Cambridge and living two blocks from one other, they were best friends from the time they were in elementary school. They shared a passion for baseball, Dungeons and Dragons, and movies. Both were active members of the high school drama club, and both dreamed of becoming professional actors. When they got parts in commercials, they took the money they made and opened a joint bank account to fund audition expenses.
Affleck had a head start on Damon. Affleck, Sr. was an actor and director who had worked in Hollywood before moving his family east to join the Theatre Company of Boston when Ben was a baby. His father's connections helped Ben land parts in commercials and educational TV programs while he was still in grade school. Matt Damon, on the other hand, had to persuade his investment-banker father and educator mother to take his acting dreams seriously. A straight-A student, he took acting lessons and worked hard to master his craft. By the time he was 16 he was ready to leave school and, with his friend Affleck, try his luck in New York City. His disapproving parents refused to pay for the trip, so Damon used funds from his joint account with Affleck.
In New York, Affleck introduced Damon to his agent. Damon's movie career began when he was cast in the hit film "Mystic Pizza." But his beginner's luck did not last. While Ben Affleck moved to Hollywood, Matt Damon went home to Cambridge and entered Harvard College. He threw himself into his studies but kept feelers out for movie roles. When he landed a part in the Old West epic "Geronimo," he dropped out of Harvard, 12 credits shy of graduating, and headed to Hollywood and a reunion with Ben Affleck.
Before long, their careers were again stuck in neutral. Damon had written a screenplay at Harvard. He and Affleck reworked it and began shopping it around Hollywood. In 1992, Castle Rock Entertainment bought it, but the deal fell through. The producers wanted to save money by filming some place other than Boston and to cast better-known actors than Affleck and Damon in the leading roles. Using his father's connections, Affleck approached Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax. Weinstein loved the story. He agreed to film on location in Boston and to cast the screenwriters as the leads. Filming began in the spring of 1997; by Christmas, both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were stars.
A box office hit, "Good Will Hunting" grossed nearly $140,000,000. The movie was especially popular in Boston. People from Southie credited the film with capturing the fiercely loyal, quick-witted, sometimes violent character of their neighborhood. Dozens of residents were cast as extras, so that, as one local noted, "the clothing was right, the way they acted, the accents, the cars they drove." There is some irony in the fact that the movie won praise for its accurate depiction of South Boston. It works, one critic wrote, partly because the writers knew the worlds they were depicting so well. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon grew up in the shadow of MIT, but they had to imagine life in the tight-knit working class community of South Boston.
The Boston Globe, April 6, December 18, December 25, and December 27, 1997.
The Matt Damon Biography
The Ben Affleck Biography
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