The Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, marks the 25th anniversary of its theatrical release in 1997.
The film would earn $225 million worldwide against a production budget of $10 million. The box office to production ratios in the 1990s-2000s are statistics that we’ll rarely see again. You might have a film that takes off every once in a while but after the pandemic and shorter theatrical windows, we’ll never see them again. Of course, the only reason why the budget was so high is because they filmed on film. When you throw Robin Williams into the equation, you’re only going to film more material. Of course, this ends up paying off because his choices only make it a better film.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) works as a janitor at M.I.T. and is one of the smartest people on campus. Only he is not a student at the university. Everything changes when Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) writes a problem on the blackboard. The first person to solve it is Will and he does so anonymously. Lambeau decides to write another challenge and catches Will in the act. Naturally, he thinks that Will is vandalizing the blackboard! Shortly thereafter, Will meets Will meets Skylar at a bar. The only downside for him is that Skylar is graduating from Harvard. She’s moving to California upon her graduation in order to attend medical school at Stanford.
There’s an encounter with a gang that leads to Will getting arrested. He only gets out of major consequences when Lambeau arranges for him to study math and participate in therapy. It takes a bit to get going but Will finds himself opening up to Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Maguire tells Will that he had tickets for the Red Sox game where Pudge Fisk hit the home run. Of course, he ends up skipping Game 6 of the 1975 World Series because he has to see about a girl. Pay attention because they’ll call back this line towards the end of the film. Anyway, both Sean and Will challenge each other. Sean’s wife dead and he’s yet to move on, not that anybody could blame him. Without Sean challenging Will, he wouldn’t have opened up with Skylar and give the film its ending.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were a pair of unemployed actors when they decided to start writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting. They figured, why not. Nobody was hiring them at the moment and filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Richard Linklater were doing it on their own. The rest is history, of course, because both have gone on to have a hell of a career. They won a screenwriting Oscar together. After being snubbed for directing, Affleck would later win another Oscar as a producer on Argo.
In another universe, Castle Rock Entertainment could have produced the film but they decided to pull out. One of the best notes from Rob Reiner was to change course from a thriller to a drama focusing on Will and Sean. This note would pay off because Good Will Hunting won two Oscars in nine nominations. It’s at this point when Ben Affleck approached Kevin Smith, who put him in touch with Jonathan Gordon. Smith knew when he read the script that “it could when an Oscar.” If not for Kevin Smith, the film would have ended up in limbo because there was a small limited window to find another studio for the film. That’s how it ended up with the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein.
One of the Weinstein suggestions would have seen Gene Hackman playing Dr. Sean Maguire. Thank G-d that this did not happen and the same goes for the universe where antisemite Mel Gibson directs and plays Sean. This is a role that was made for Robin Williams and the film is made all the better through Gus Van Sant’s direction. I grew up watching Williams play in comedy roles but I always relish the chance to see him do drama. He is perfection in the role as he adds layers to his performance. Williams did some 20 variations of the final line in the film but there’s only one take where he delivers the line in the film. His dedication to the craft really shows what we lost with his passing.
There are some parts in the film that do not age well. I do not know if it is a Robin Williams ad-lib or taken verbatim from the script but there is a joke about sex change operations. This film came out in 1997 and while the terminology has since changed, it’s still a bad joke at the expense of the transgender community. It’s a joke that I thought nothing of at the time I saw the film. Of course, I was having my own gender issues at the time but didn’t realize why. Meanwhile, there is a derogatory slur spoken elsewhere in the film. Again, it may have been common at the time but it’s not a word anyone should be using.
Good Will Hunting may follow a formulaic arc but Gus Vant Sant’s direction and Robin Williams and Matt Damon’s performances elevate the film.
DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant
SCREENWRITERS: Matt Damon & Ben Affleck
CAST: Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgård, and Minnie Driver
Miramax released Good Will Hunting in theaters on December 5, 1997. Grade: 4.5/5
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