Man at His Best

How Matt Damon Has Remained One Of The Greatest Movie Stars

Of the Hollywood elite, Damon remains on top.

BY COREY ATAD | Aug 1, 2016 | Film & TV

Getty / Nicholas Hunt

“I believe," says Bill Simmons, in the ad for his new HBO series Any Given Wednesday, "that every DiCaprio movie would be just a little bit better as a Matt Damon movie." An outlandish statement that makes one wonder what that version of The Revenant would look like, but is also not without some truth. Simmons has long offered the theory that Matt Damon could play any Leo role, but Leo would never be able to sub in for Damon in, say, The Martian. He's probably right. That hardly makes Damon the better actor, but it signals his versatility, as well as his unique appeal. With his winsome style, Damon can charm us as the sociopathic Tom Ripley, make us fall for the dopey LaBoeuf in True Grit, and imbue the personality-free Jason Bourne with enough life to make audiences crave his return nearly a decade after The Bourne Ultimatum.

Among the Hollywood elite, Matt Damon has one of the most impressive resumes.

There's no shortage of good actors in Hollywood, but among the Hollywood elite, Damon has one of the most impressive resumes. It started early on, appearing in School Ties. He went on to star in Good Will Hunting—he also co-wrote the screenplay and won an Oscar for doing so—Saving Private Ryan, Rounders, Ocean's Eleven, and many more. Perhaps more impressive has been his willingness to take oddball roles in unexpected films like The Informant!, True Grit, Behind the Candelabra, Margaret, and an incredible cameo in EuroTrip. Almost every time Matt Damon shows up in a movie, you're pretty much guaranteed a good performance, regardless of whether the film is any good.

Versatility is key, but Damon's real appeal comes from a much more basic place: his lack of vanity. Where the DiCaprios of the world treat acting like a sport—a game of increasingly extreme roles designed to win acclaim and awards—Damon has stood out by being true to his innate qualities as an actor. Not that Damon immune from vanity—what actor is?—but the arc of his career reveals a simple, relatable approach: do the work, and do it well, and move on to the next thing. Few other stars of Damon's caliber take such a diversity of roles without showboating for recognition at every turn. It'd be easy to see the general public turn on the nice boy from Boston if he started making himself a part of the Oscar conversation every year.

The Bourne series is a perfect study of Damon's appeal. The Bourne Identity introduced us to Jason Bourne, a man who literally does not know who he is, where he's from, or why he's doing anything. Utter confusion and a lack of humour are his only defining traits. Enter: Matt Damon. With his easy good looks, and a charming determination in his eye, he turns Bourne from boring cypher into a character who can anchor three—maybe more?—films with ease. He even manages to bring deadpan humour to life in the role, something Jeremy Renner attempted to no avail in his disastrous outing as Aaron Cross in The Bourne Legacy. Renner himself is a very good actor—and good looking, and charming—but audiences were never going to accept the switcheroo. Renner, for all his qualities, always seems he's trying just a little too hard to win your approval with a knowing wink. It's antithetical to the appeal of the series. Damon needs no winks.

With his easy good looks, and a charming determination in his eye, he turns Bourne from boring cypher into a character who can anchor three films with ease.

The other end of this spectrum is Damon's breathtaking work in The Informant!, his best performance. Sadly underseen and underappreciated on release, The Informant! tells the true story of an agribusiness employee who agrees to blow the whistle for the FBI, all the while inventing most of the evidence and embezzling company funds.

Written by Scott Z. Burns, and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film gives Damon a lot to chew on. His character is equal parts brilliant and dopey, with a silly mustache and some extra pounds packed on for the sake of comedy. The film is also overrun by near-constant voice-over, often completely unrelated to the events on-screen, with Damon relating the character's bizarre interior monologue to the audience. Most importantly, Damon approaches the role like he does every other. He plays it straight, with simple determination, and a sense of comfort in exactly who this person is.

Damon's success in maintaining his subdued Hollywood persona is in part due to the continued resonance of his origin story. Despite maturing over the years, becoming an activist, and keeping his private life relatively out of the spotlight, Damon still has something of the image the world was introduced to in the '90s. That goofy kid, standing nervously on stage at the Oscars with his best friend, Ben Affleck, accepting the Best Original Screenplay award, thanking "everybody back in Boston." That's still the Matt Damon of the public imagination. He's the ultimate version of the nice, smart, funny kid from the city who made good. Some—like Ben Affleck did in the early aughts—would try to run far away from that sort of image, but Damon has embraced it, and made it an invaluable element of his attraction.

From: Esquire US.

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