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Marriage saved Ben Affleck’s career. Now what? [Updated]

(Courtesy Us Weekly)

[Updated June 30: Yup, they are getting divorced.]

Ben Affleck’s professional life has long been inextricably intertwined with his love life. It was true in the early-2000s when his overexposed, roller coaster romance with Jennifer Lopez dovetailed with a series of cinematic bombs — and it’s just as true in recent years, with his astonishing Hollywood comeback largely tied to his picture-perfect marriage to the effervescent Jennifer Garner.

So what happens now that the celebrity press is sharpening its knives over reports that the A-list couple — married nearly 10 years with three children –are on the verge of a split? It’s been a daily drumbeat of ominous stories — the duo making a miserable-looking frozen yogurt run in Los Angeles, a moving truck appearing in their driveway (though the more decorous People magazine insisted that they’re just renovating). “How many days until Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck get divorced?” Defamer recently asked, noting that under California law, different alimony laws apply to marriages that last beyond a decade, and their anniversary is next week. Us Weekly noted the occasion with a somber “Fighting for Their Marriage” cover.

Granted, we have no idea what’s going on in their relationship, nor do we believe in when-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire; lots of other VIP couples have emerged from a cloud of divorce rumors perfectly intact. (Reps for the couple have stayed quiet in the face of media inquiries — publicists for Affleck were unavailable for comment.) So we’ll focus on a question that still bears asking: What do these stories mean for Affleck and his all-important public image?

[Ben Affleck brought a moment of gravity to the People’s Choice Awards]

You can mark the pivots of Affleck’s famously up-and-down career by what was going on in his personal life. A charter member of the Kevin Smith indie clique in his early acting days, Affleck rocketed to stardom at age 24, thanks in part to his lifelong best-friendship with Matt Damon, with whom he wrote and co-starred in “Good Will Hunting.” Together, they won the 1997 Best Screenplay Oscar. He hooked up with red-hot ingenue Gwyneth Paltrow as she was headlining a series of awards-buzz movies. With his role in her “Shakespeare in Love” lending him a bit of class, Affleck made the jump to the blockbuster leading man with smash hit “Armageddon.”

Then things took a dive. Around the time of misfires like “Reindeer Games” and universal let-down “Pearl Harbor,” Affleck’s off-screen life completely overshadowed his work. He went to rehab in 2001. The next year, he started dating pop star/actress Jennifer Lopez. As with Paltrow a couple years earlier, he caught up with J-Lo at the absolute top of her game. But she was already a tabloid magnet, thanks to a splashy affair with Diddy and a quickie marriage to Cris Judd — and her rapid rebound with Affleck (they were engaged within months of her divorce) became a sideshow spectacle: “Bennifer.” As Mindy Kaling once described  it, “Bennifer was so big it was as though two people had never been in love before, and they had discovered it.”

After Lopez and Affleck postponed their wedding because of “excessive media attention” (so many photographers were staked out that they considered hiring three “decoy brides”), his career started to tailspin as well. They co-starred in “Gigli” in 2003, widely considered one of the most terrible films of all time, while superhero vehicle “Daredevil” was a flop.

Bennifer broke up soon after and Affleck stepped out of the spotlight. “All this s— just kind of blew up,” Affleck later told Details magazine, calling 2003 the worst year of his life. He became a punchline. (Our colleague Ruth Marcus once wrote that “the CIA and the White House may have the most publicly rocky relationship since Ben Affleck and J. Lo”; or as Jen Chaney noted for the Post, “the Motion Picture Prohibitive Screen Advertising bill died faster than a Ben Affleck flop at the box office.”)

The one upside? Affleck became acquainted with co-star Garner during “Daredevil,” and a year after the movie’s release, they started dating. At the time, she was a rising star from the critically-acclaimed TV spy drama “Alias,” possessed with an ineffable It Girl likeability. Dating a beloved star couldn’t have come at a better time for Affleck, still shaking off public mockery and bombs like “Jersey Girl” and “Surviving Christmas.” The pair eloped in 2005 and soon after had a baby girl, Violet.

Just as Affleck was reshaping his reputation as a devoted family man, he slowly started to climb his way back to respectability in the industry. He won acclaim for smaller supporting roles in smart films like “Hollywoodland” and “State of Play.” Then, he took his talents behind the camera with “The Town,” directing the crime drama set in Boston.

[Ben Affleck plays a guy with ‘a face you want to punch’ in ‘Gone Girl.’ How does he do?]

Even as the Internet continued to buzz with rumors about indiscretions, Affleck’s newly refined image powered him through: By now, he and Garner had two adorable daughters, and who wanted to knock the golden family? He and Garner cemented a “just like everyone else” image, letting their kids dress in age-appropriate mismatched clothes and play outside, pleasing fans who loved how mundane it all seemed. (Sample comment: “beautiful little girls! and they seem to have a “normal” life… so refreshing to see!”)

Affleck’s career resurgence matched his family bliss as he directed “Argo,” which took over the 2013 award season, winning the Best Picture Oscar and firmly re-establishing him among the Hollywood elite.  His Oscar speech raised some eyebrows with a comment directed at his wife — “I want thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases… it is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.” But he was mostly applauded for acknowledging that marriage isn’t perfect. Again, so normal!

Garner appeared in front of Congress to fight against paparazzi taking photos of children. Affleck was frequently recognized for his heavy involvement in his Eastern Congo charity initiative; his appearances on Capitol Hill were so frequent he was asked again and again when he’s running for office.

[Ben Affleck drops obligatory ‘Batman’ reference in Congressional testimony]

Now, though, everyone’s sifting over Affleck’s Oscar-night words again. Though he scored big with a starring role in “Gone Girl” last year, the negative stories have started to ramp up. Last fall, he was kicked out of a Las Vegas casino for allegedly counting cards. In the past few months, the tabloids and gossip blogs have been keeping close tabs on where they are on each other’s birthdays (apart) and if they’re wearing wedding rings (Affleck wasn’t, that one time, for whatever that’s worth).

After some of the stories, Affleck and Garner appear to have made an effort to be seen in public together, of course with their kids. But it’s worth noting that up next for Affleck is the already controversial “Batman v. Superman,” and superfans are not pleased that Affleck is taking on the Batman role. If history teaches us anything, this could represent another valley for Affleck — especially if he doesn’t have the image of a perfect marriage to fall back on.

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(This post has been updated.)