Oscars spotlight: Pour one out for Ben Affleck’s performance in ‘The Tender Bar’

Few actors have done as much to reinvent their acting personas over the last two years as Ben Affleck. After scoring some of the best reviews of his career for 2020’s “The Way Back” – a performance that stayed on the fringe of last year’s awards conversation thanks to his Critics Choice Award nomination in Best Actor – Affleck backed up the praise with lauded supporting work in 2021 features “The Last Duel” and “The Tender Bar.” The result of his good work – and some very well-timed press coverage this year – has Affleck trending toward his first-ever Oscar nomination for acting following wins as a screenwriter (for “Good Will Hunting”) and producer (for “Argo”). He is currently in ninth place in the Gold Derby odds in what is a wide-open Best Supporting Actor race.

Those rooting for Affleck as Oscar voting opened on January 27 are not without standing. Affleck and his candidacy received a boost earlier this month thanks to the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where the actor grabbed his first-ever individual nomination from the guild, landing among the supporting actor nominees for “The Tender Bar.” Affleck previously received three ensemble nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, winning with the casts for both “Shakespeare in Love” and “Argo” (he and the cast lost their bid for “Good Will Hunting”).

“I have to say the thing that’s so cool about that is Ben really showed up, and he stuck his neck out, and yes, he’s gotten a SAG award nomination and a Golden Globe nomination. He deserves it, “The Tender Bar” director George Clooney said of his star in an interview this week. “He put his neck out there, and he really worked hard on this, and he hasn’t been acknowledged much as an actor, and he’s a really wonderful actor.”

Based on the memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer, “The Tender Bar” is about a young boy who grows up on Long Island in the late 1970s and early 1980s with aspirations of becoming a writer and encouragement from his affable uncle, Charlie (Affleck), a local bartender.

Speaking recently in an interview with Entertainment Weekly conducted by Affleck’s longtime friend Matt Damon, the actor said he knew the role of Charlie “was kind of mine to screw up.” 

“I couldn’t imagine there wasn’t a long line of people that wanted to take this part, so I really respected [Clooney’s] confidence and faith in me, and I wanted to do well for him,” he said of his director. “I wanted to do it for myself.”

An Oscar nomination for Affleck would be unexpected but not necessarily a total surprise. The once and future Batman has stayed in the Best Supporting Actor conversation for months, first for his comic and villainous turn in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” and then later for the Clooney picture. But it’s no surprise “The Tender Bar” has edged ahead for awards voters – even if Affleck’s work in “The Last Duel” has generated more memes and tweets. It’s a warm-hearted performance in a cozy family drama, and the character allows Affleck to play into both his inherent charm and good-humored cynicism. Plus, as Clooney suggested, “The Tender Bar” allowed Affleck to reach depths of performance he hasn’t previously mined. Anyone who watched Affleck’s early work in “Dazed and Confused” or the films of Kevin Smith know he’s comfortable playing an unctuous heel like he does in “The Last Duel,” but “The Tender Bar” is something different for the actor: he comes at the role straight and the character isn’t bogged down by ulterior motives, failed morals, or buried trauma. 

“I looked at this as a real showcase for Ben, and you know, Ben’s been through the wringer. He’s been as high as you could get,” Clooney said this week. “He stood on the stage and won a couple of Oscars. He knows what it’s like to be at the top of the game, and he also has had some rough patches. Some of them, as he has said many times, self-inflicted, but he’s a fighter, and he’s been out there, and he showed up on this one in such a big way and in such a gracious way, and he’s been doing it for a bit, and it’s fun to see the reactions towards him, and it’d be lovely if the same sort of attention was carried on [to the Oscars]. I think he would deserve it.”

That Affleck landed among the SAG Awards nominees is notable – especially since he was included over widely presumed locks such as “Belfast” stars Ciaran Hinds and Jamie Dornan and even rising contenders such as “West Side Story” co-star Mike Faist. It hasn’t been all good news for his candidacy, of course – Affleck missed the BAFTA Awards longlist in the supporting actor category, while Hinds, Dornan, and Faist all made the cut, and the general buzz around “The Tender Bar” is so slight that, were he nominated, Affleck would likely be the lone nominee from the film – but it puts the actor in an enviable position. That the film has wide availability on Amazon can anecdotally only help, as can Affleck’s recent media blitz.

“I want to do the things that would bring me joy. Then we went and did ‘Last Duel’ and I had fun every day on this movie. I wasn’t the star, I wasn’t likable. I was a villain. I wasn’t all the things I thought I was supposed to be when I started out and yet it was a wonderful experience,” Affleck told Damon. “And it was all just stuff that came along that I wasn’t chasing.

“My only thing is that now I live in fear every time I do another movie, I’m like, Do I still feel that, am I still good? I’m afraid it’s going to go away, you know? Because it’s elusive,” he added. “But I’m happy now. I’m feeling it now. And I do think I’ve gotten better. I think people generally get better with the age and experience.”

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