By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It has taken 10 years of hard work and indie movies, but Ben Affleck finally has moved past his "Bennifer" nightmare.
Affleck, 40, once a tabloid staple who risked becoming a laughingstock during his romance with Jennifer Lopez and their movie flop "Gigli," is back on top in Hollywood, winning accolades for his work both in front of and behind the camera.
Fifteen years after Affleck shared an Oscar with Matt Damon for their first screenplay, "Good Will Hunting," buzz is building over a likely second Academy Award nomination next month. It would be Affleck's first since 1997.
"Finally, people now are ready to go, 'Wow! He's at the very top of the food chain,'" Damon told Reuters.
Affleck's latest film "Argo," a part-thriller, part-comedic tale of the real-life rescue of six American diplomats from Iran in 1980, this week picked up five Golden Globe nominations and a nod from the Screen Actors Guild for its top prize of best ensemble cast.
The film, which Affleck directed, produced and stars in, has also delighted critics and brought in some $160 million at the worldwide box office.
In "Argo," Affleck's clean-cut looks are hidden under a long, shaggy 1970s hair cut and beard as he plays CIA officer Tony Mendez, who devised a fake film project to spirit six hostages out of Tehran after the Islamic revolution.
The kudos Affleck is now receiving follows the embarrassing headlines he attracted over his 2002-2004 romance with Lopez.
"It was tough to watch him get kicked in the teeth for all those years because the perception of him was so not who he actually was," Damon said.
"It was upsetting for a lot of his friends because he's the smartest, funnest, nicest, kindest, incredibly talented guy. ... So that was tough. Now I'm just thrilled. ... He deserves everything that he's going to get," he added.
With a huge, pink diamond engagement ring for Lopez and gossip about matching Rolls Royces, the pair dubbed "Bennifer" starred in the 2003 comedy romance "Gigli," which earned multiple Razzie awards for the worst comedy of the year.
SELLING MAGAZINES NOT MOVIES
Damon, by contrast, was seeing his career surge with "The Bourne Identity," "Syriana" and "The Departed." But he recalls Affleck's pain.
"He said (to me), 'I am in the absolute worst place you can be. I sell magazines, not movie tickets.' I remember our agent called up the editor of Us Weekly, begging her not to put him on the cover any more. Please stop. Just stop," Damon said.
About a year after splitting with Lopez, Affleck married actress Jennifer Garner, had the first of three children with her, and started writing and directing small but admired movies like "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007 and 2010's gritty crime film "The Town."
Last month, Affleck was named Entertainment Weekly's entertainer of the year, largely on the back of "Argo."
The actor-turned-director said that managing the various tones of the film was his hardest challenge.
"I had to synthesize comedic elements and the political stuff and this true-life drama thriller story. ... It was scary and it was daunting," Affleck told Reuters, saying he powered through by "overworking it by a multiple of ten."
A trip to the Oscars ceremony in February is now considered a shoo-in by awards pundits, but Affleck is not convinced that success is sweeter the second time around.
"It's harder. On the one hand, coming from obscurity, you have a neutral starting place. Because of the tabloid press and over exposure, I was starting from a deficit," he said.
"It can be very unpleasant to be in the midst of a lot of ugliness. But I just put my head down and decided ... I was going to work as hard as I could, and I never let the possibility enter my mind that I might fail - at least consciously. Subconsciously, I knew I could fail and I was really scared, so it made me work harder."
(Additional reporting by Zorianna Kit; Editing by Will Dunham)