Ben Affleck’s upcoming trip to the Academy Awards is widely expected to end with the “Argo” director cradling a gold statuette.But as the 40-year-old actor-writer-director nears his presumed moment of glory on the stage of the Dolby Theatre, it’s worth remembering that his first trip to the Oscars ended the same way for the then-25-year-old actor-writer.
And the audience that saw Affleck’s first Oscar triumph 15 years ago was no doubt bigger than the one that will watch “Argo” either win Best Picture or suffer a shocking upset at the hands of some other film.
I attended rehearsals from the 70th Oscars show in March 1998 and was backstage during the ceremony – where, it’s safe to say, the 25-year-old Affleck and his 27-year-old childhood friend Matt Damon were the talk of a show also known for the 11 wins for “Titanic” and the largest U.S. Oscar audience ever, 87 million viewers.
Affleck was there for “Good Will Hunting,” which he and Damon had written partly as a way to give themselves better roles than they’d been getting.
The Boston-set drama put the pair on the map and received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Gus van Sant), Best Actor (Damon), Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams) and Best Supporting Actress (Minnie Driver). Affleck was passed over in the acting categories (his first Oscar snub!), though the Original Screenplay nomination was consolation enough.
They were also booked as presenters on the show, and the day before the show they arrived at the Shrine Auditorium an hour earlier than their scheduled call time for rehearsal. Affleck took his mum.
In those days, the show would recruit the teenage kids of staffers to man the swag table on rehearsal days, handing out Oscar hats and sweatshirts to the celebs who came to rehearse and assisting with the dispensing of the lavish gift baskets that had grown to tens of thousands of dollars in value.
Normally, the kids would take the presenters as they came, without undue lobbying for position — but every so often they’d all be jockeying to wait on the same celebs, which is what they did for Affleck and Damon.
The two young nominees came to the Shrine with the wide-eyed wonder that first-time presenters often showed. When Affleck’s mother asked if she could take pictures inside the auditorium, the show’s publicist went to its security chief, who rescinded the usual ban just for Mrs. Affleck.
“We went in there and they had the little cardboard cutouts of the actors in the seats they were going to sit in, and we just kept taking pictures,” Affleck told TheWrap years later. “We couldn’t believe they let us in. We took pictures with the cutouts of James Cameron, Kim Basinger, Jack Nicholson … “
After they rehearsed, Affleck and Damon walked out the artists’ entrance and into a sea of staffers’ kids.
Rather than collect their swag and leave, though, they hung around for a good 20 minutes, happily chatting and posing for photos.
At one point, Danny Shapiro, the 11-year-old son of executive consultant Robert Z. Shapiro, took note of the formidable competition that “Good Will Hunting” was facing and whispered to Affleck, “Kick ‘Titanic’s’ arse.”
Photo: Good Will Hunting
Affleck broke into a huge grin and gave Shapiro a hug. “You’re gonna go far in this life, kid,” he said. “You speak your mind.”On the way to the car with his mum, Affleck spotted writer Bruce Vilanch. “It’s going to be all ‘Titanic’ jokes, isn’t it?” he asked of host Billy Crystal’s monologue.
“No,” Vilanch insisted. “We’re egalitarian.”
In fact, one of the highlights of Crystal’s opening sequence was when the host, in his traditional medley of song parodies themed to the Best Picture nominees, turned Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” into “Matt and Ben”: “Matt and Ben, you are the ones/Your script was tight, and damnit, so are your buns.”
When Affleck and Damon came into the wings of the stage an hour later to serve as presenters, stage manager Dency Nelson greeted them with a couple of bars of “Matt and Ben.” Affleck laughed. “Wonderful,” he said of Crystal’s song.
Then, just before he walked out onstage, Affleck reached into the pocket of his tuxedo pants, pulled out a set of keys and dropped them on an unoccupied chair in the wings. “You’ll take care of these?” he said to a stagehand. “The car is not that nice, and the phone, you gotta punch a code in.”
Toward the end of the show, the pair were back on the stage to accept an Oscar for Original Screenplay, which was given to them by the notable team of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. “I just said to Matt, ‘Losing would suck and winning would be really scary,'” said Affleck when he got to the microphone. “And it’s really, really scary.”
Here’s the video of Affleck and Damon’s very charming acceptance speech:
“It was so new, and so incredible,” Affleck told TheWrap. “It was such a dream come true in the purest sense, and such a thrill—not just the award, but every little stop along the way.
“We had no idea what we were doing, but it was a great, thrilling time.”
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