Say what you want about the cruelty of Hollywood criticism — few industries ever give such big welcome-back hugs. Consider the sad case of Ben Affleck, once a big-league star, now a pitiful one, habitually associated with such non-big-league terms as “washed-up,” “craptastic” and – worst of all – “done.”

Sarah Royce

The beauty of Hollywood, however, is that the door is always open for a second act: Earlier this week, Affleck took top male acting honors at the Venice Film Festival for his portrayal of real-life TV Superman George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” It’s quite a surprising turnaround for the star of “Gigli,” “Jersey Girl,” “Daredevil,” “Paycheck,” “Surviving Christmas” (et cetera, et cetera, crap ad infinitum), nor is the award small potatoes, either. Affleck joins the lofty ranks of greats like Toshiro Mifune (“Yojimbo”), Albert Finney (“Tom Jones”) and Jack Lemmon (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), a far different company to keep than, say, Jason Mewes.

The celebrity comeback has long been a notoriously popular trick, although often with television as the medium. Just look at the deserving triumph of such limelight returns as Kiefer Sutherland (“24”) and the once-Radioshack-bound Teri Hatcher (“Desperate Housewives”). By now, however, the comeback is such a valuable device for driving industry buzz that television has gone ahead and set up a (very successful) “celebreality” comeback machine – “Celebrity Fit Club,” “The Surreal Life,” “Dancing With the Stars.” Hey, it worked for Jessica Simpson. And Flava Flav.

Ben’s bounce back to the A-list acting fold would be a much harder trick than merely partying or cheating his way onto the gossip page. After all, if a true “comeback” meant simply returning to the public eye, it would always be just a mea culpa away, no matter what the initial deterrent: Self-imposed isolation (Demi Moore, Jane Fonda). An extra 150 pounds (Kirstie Alley). Continuous, rampant coke addiction (Robert Downe Jr). Hookers (Hugh Grant, Eddie Murphy, Charlie Sheen).

Ben’s particular vice, other than a few tabloid-noted interests in booze and gambling? Bad movies. Admittedly, there’s some bad acting here and there as well, but I’m of the school that Affleck is usually better than his material. If there’s one thing that’s truly wrong with bomb-prone Ben, it’s either his luck or his agent, as the directors he’s signed up for have been, largely, as phenomenally atrocious as their scripts (the wunderkind behind “Deuce Bigelow,” for instance). Even worse than bad movies, Ben has ended up making money-losing ones, and this, of course, is Hollywood’s cardinal, utterly unacceptable sin.

John Travolta once found himself in a similar situation. Post “Grease,” post-“Saturday Night Fever,” post-“Look Who’s Talking III,” what’s a dance-inclined, comically lightweight actor to do for a little respect?

Sleaze long his hair, holster an automatic and partner up with Samuel L. Jackson for some Tarantino-style hard drugs and brutal violence, obviously. With “Pulp Fiction,” Travolta went straight from chasing around talking dogs with Kirstie Alley to stabbing Uma Thurman in the heart with a hypodermic needle. If you look up “comeback” in next year’s Webster’s, that’s got to be its new definition.

There’s another sort of stigmatized career slump to avoid. At least Travolta wasn’t labeled box office poison, like Katherine Hepburn. In Travolta’s case, it was his range that was underrated; it was Hepburn’s appeal. Her own person was deemed unlikable, an ice queen too distant to relate to the public. Now, almost seventy years and a handful of classics later, Hepburn remains widely revered in our cultural subconscious for just that haughty self-assurance.

So which is it for Affleck – is he underestimated by the critics, or simply misread by the public? How much of the bile spewed his way for the last few years has really been for a lacking set of acting chops, and not just his grossly overpublicized relationship with a certain Ms. Lopez?

It’ll be a while before we truly find out. Affleck only has one more film in the pipeline, presumably due to the business of a burgeoning family life, and it’s not out until next summer. But prospects are cheerier for Ben than they’ve been in a long time. He might have been down, he might have been out, but he just might soon be back.

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