In the early 1990s, former Boston-area schoolmates Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were earning their livings as young character actors in small roles in movies and television. Damon had written a short story about a young janitor with a genius for mathematics as a student at Harvard, so the duo decided to turn that idea into an original screenplay. They were thinking it might be the only way for them to boost their careers and shine among so many young Hollywood actors. At the very least, if the film got produced, they would have another project on their acting resumes.
The result turned out to be Oscar-winning screenplay for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” which opened in theaters 20 years ago this month. Watch their exuberant acceptance speech on the video above.
It was a struggle for Damon and Affleck to sell their script. Rob Reiner and his Castle Rock production company were the first to express interest before Miramax took over the project with Mel Gibson as the initial director. When Gibson declined, the film was brought to indie director Gus Van Sant, who already had success with the films “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho,” and “To Die For.”
But the movie still did not have a firm commitment. It was only after Robin Williams agreed to take the role of Will’s psychiatrist, Sean Maguire, that the project received full support from Miramax. The result was a critical and commercial success which made instant stars of Damon and Affleck and earned Williams his first Academy Award on his fourth try after losses for “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “The Fisher King.”
The film received a total of nine Oscar nominations for the 1998 ceremony (tied with “L.A. Confidential” for second place behind “Titanic” with 14):
Best Picture – Lawrence Bender (lost to “Titanic”)
Best Director – Gus Van Sant (lost to James Cameron, “Titanic”)
Best Actor – Matt Damon (lost to Jack Nicholson, “As Good As It Gets”)
Best Supporting Actor – Robin Williams (winner)
Best Supporting Actress – Minnie Driver (lost to Kim Basinger, “L.A. Confidential”)
Bes Original Screenplay – Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (winner)
Best Editing – Pietro Scalia (lost to “Titanic”)
Best Original Song – “Miss Misery” by Elliott Smith (lost to “Titanic”)
Best Original Score – Danny Elfman (lost to “Titanic”)
Though Damon lost Best Actor to Nicholson, he joined such stars as Woody Allen (“Annie Hall”), Warren Beatty (“Heaven Can Wait,” “Reds”), Roberto Benigni (“Life Is Beautiful”), Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V”), Laurence Olivier (“Henry V”), Sylvester Stallone (“Rocky”), Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility”), and Billy Bob Thornton (“Sling Blade”) in a select group of actors who have written themselves to Oscar-nominated performances.
Since that triumphant night in 1998, Damon has since received acting nominations for Best Supporting Actor (“Invictus”) and for Best Actor (“The Martian”). Just last year he was nominated as a producer for Best Picture nominee “Manchester by the Sea.” Affleck received his second Academy Award victory as a producer for 2012 Best Picture winner “Argo,” the only other Oscar nomination so far in his career.
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