Monday 23 October 2017

The Damon Identity

Whatever the role, most genuine film stars always play themselves. The likes of George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen or Bruce Willis have a kind of immutable screen persona that transcends individual projects and reassures audiences that whatever happens, they're in safe and familiar hands. Matt Damon, though, is a bit different.

He's a bona fide star alright, having fronted one of the biggest grossing action franchises ever made. But rather than play a version of himself all the time, Damon has a mysterious and indefinable persona and -- for a box-office star -- remarkable range.

In the past couple of years alone he's played a South African rugby captain, a deluded embezzler, a US marine in war-torn Baghdad, a reluctant spirit medium and a raffish 19th-Century Texas ranger. And in his latest film, which opened here yesterday, Damon is a suave US congressman who becomes convinced that mysterious forces are meddling with his life.

The Adjustment Bureau, which co-stars Emily Blunt, is an intriguing paranoid sci-fi thriller based on a short story by Philip K Dick. Damon is David Norris, a handsome and charismatic US congressman who's running for Senate when he meets a young woman (played by Emily Blunt) who changes his life.

Elise Sallas is a free-spirited, fun-loving English dancer, and Norris is instantly smitten. But when he tries to see her again he finds himself thwarted at every turn by a sinister organisation called the Adjustment Bureau, who seem to be working for some God-like higher power that insists everything goes exactly according to its plan.

Damon has a kind of blank, everyman quality that allows him to shift convincingly between very different roles, and in The Adjustment Bureau he does a very good job of playing a man who's been able to coast through life on charm until he's confronted with a situation he can't schmooze his way out of.

Through his work with directors like Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Paul Greengrass, he has turned himself from a callow leading man into one of the predominant screen actors of his time, and he's handled his career with commendable savvy.

Matt Damon's career is very much bound up with that of his close friend Ben Affleck. The two went to school together, took up acting together and moved to Hollywood at around the same time. They broke through to stardom at the same time too, and the contrast in how they subsequently dealt with it is interesting.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 8, 1970, Matt was only two when his parents divorced, and he was raised in modest circumstances by his mother. He and Affleck met as children, and later attended the same Cambridge high school. They had a lot in common: Affleck's parents were divorced too, and they shared an early passion for acting. By the time they were 16, both boys were jobbing actors, and when Damon landed a role in a big-budget western he left Harvard to make his name in Hollywood.

Geronimo: An American Legend turned out to be a flop, and the 22-year-old Damon was left stranded in Hollywood scrabbling for work. He picked up small roles through the mid-90s in films like School Ties and Courage Under Fire, but was going nowhere until he and Affleck managed to get backing for a script they'd written.

Good Will Hunting (1997) was originally written as a thriller set in south Boston, where an exceptionally intelligent working-class boy is targeted by the FBI. When Castle Rock bought the screenplay, the company's president, Rob Reiner, advised them to drop the thriller aspect and focus more on the relationship between troubled blue-collar maths genius Will Hunting and his kindly psychiatrist.

This was good advice, but when Castle Rock balked at the idea of the totally unknown Affleck and Damon playing the lead roles as well, the pair turned to Miramax instead with the assistance of writer/director Kevin Smith. Miramax bought the rights from Castle Rock, and Damon was cast as Will, with Affleck playing his best friend, Chuck Sullivan.

Robin Williams played the shrink, Gus Van Zant directed, and the film was a huge hit, with Damon and Affleck winning an Oscar at the 1998 Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay.

At a stroke, the film careers of both young men were made, but the pair would cope with sudden success in very different ways.

Affleck became a highly paid leading man, but chose his scripts carelessly, and his career was nearly destroyed altogether when he began dating Jennifer Lopez.

Damon opted for a steadier approach. He was taken aback by the experience of sudden fame. "It was surreal," he said. "The change is nearly indescribable -- going from total obscurity to walking down a street in New York and having everybody turn and look."

But he kept his head. Within a few years of his breakthrough, he'd worked for Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker), Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) and Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr Ripley, in which he proved himself well capable of playing a psychopath).

But in Hollywood you're only as good as your last gig, and after a run of duds in the early 2000s, Damon suddenly found himself out of favour. "Things really started drying up," he later remembered. "Roles I thought I had in movies suddenly disappeared."

It was Jason Bourne who saved him. Not much was expected of The Bourne Identity (2002), which on the face of it sounded like a rehash of a rather old-fashioned Cold War novel by Robert Ludlum. But the film was one of the big hits of 2002, and helped Matt Damon to reinvent himself as an all-action hero.

The three Bourne films would go on to make a billion dollars at the box office, and they gave Damon the freedom to pick and choose his roles.

"After Bourne I really had the freedom to make the films I wanted to make," he said. "So I did Syriana, The Departed and The Good Shepherd, based on how good the scripts were and who was directing them." He's also had the confidence and intelligence to pepper action films and heavier dramas with the odd comedy, for instance the Ocean's Eleven films. He's even appeared in recent episodes of the US comedy show 30 Rock, playing Liz Lemon's flaky boyfriend.

His brilliant work playing a self-deluding con man in The Informant! earned him an Oscar nomination in 2009, and he's starred in Clint Eastwood's last two films, Invictus and Hereafter.

Most importantly of all, Matt Damon has had the good sense to keep himself out of the pages of Hello! magazine. In 2005 he married a former bartender from Argentina called Luciana Barroso, and the couple now have three children together.

He's a huge star but has maintained a level head, and has no illusions about the business he's involved in. "It doesn't matter if you're a nice guy or a prick," he once said, "if your movies do well, there's a job waiting for you in Hollywood. It's not any more complicated than that."

The Adjustment Bureau opened nationwide yesterday

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