Ask me what my favourite Matthew McConaughey performance is. Go on, you know you want to. Obviously not Dazed and Confused or Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, definitely not his loathsome romcom era with movies like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days or The Wedding Planner, nor even The Lincoln Lawyer or Magic Mike. Bet you’re going to suggest his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club, aren’t you?
Wrong! I’d go for his short but inspiring cameo in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but this is a review to demonstrate why DBC follows a well-trodden path of gongs going to less than the best performances and/or for the wrong reasons. For the record, at the 86th Academy Awards the contenders for Best Actor were as follows:
- Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club as Ron Woodroof
- Christian Bale – American Hustle as Irving Rosenfeld
- Bruce Dern – Nebraska as Woody Grant
- Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street as Jordan Belfort
- Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave as Solomon Northup
A lot of biopics, you’ll note. I’d have gone for Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave, personally, but maybe the Academy considered that too obviously politically correct, and instead chose a role where a Texan cowboy electrician (as in electrician who also rode in rodeos, not to mention riding a fair assortment of women bareback, the source of his downfall), an unreconstructed homophobe with a background in macho Texan culture (“I ain’t no faggot.”) He acquires HiV simply through believing gays and druggies are at risk, courtesy of the misinformation common in the 1980s.
Two nasty traumas in quick succession lead to the character being hospitalised and diagnosed, but he chooses to be in denial some while longer and thereby allows full-blown AIDS to take effect – aided and abetted by his lifestyle of continuous rounds of cigs, bourbon, sex and cocaine.
Then comes the epiphany. Ron changes his lifestyle, researches AIDS retroviral drugs, goes to Mexico for treatment in a sleazy clinic, and eventually battles against the all-powerful FDA to allow ordinary people – mostly gay and drug using AIDS sufferers – to benefit by smuggling drugs into the USA from Mexico and elsewhere. Unwittingly he becomes/became a folk hero to the very people he would have once despised, and indeed forms a close friendship in the movie with a fictional composite character, a transsexual AIDS sufferer called Rayon, played by fellow Oscar-winner Jared Leto.
The Method being the method, McConaughey and Leto went to extraordinary lengths to prepare for their roles. From Wikipedia:
McConaughey lost 47 pounds (21 kg) for the role, going from 183 pounds (83 kg) to 136 pounds (62 kg). He reportedly stayed indoors in his Texas mansion for six months to become paler and ceased socializing and had to find new ways to entertain himself, which made him “smarter”. When he reached as low as 143 lbs, his eyesight began to fail. He began to feel extremely weak to the point that he would be sore from doing five push-ups and his legs would lock up after running 30 feet.
Leto lost over 30 pounds (14 kg) for the role and confessed to having stopped eating to lose weight quicker; his lowest record weight was 114 pounds (52 kg)… (He) shaved his eyebrows and waxed his entire body. He stated the portrayal was grounded in his meeting transgender people while researching the role. He stated that he had faced a real man with HIV and AIDS when he moved to Los Angeles in 1991. He worked really hard on Rayon’s voice and refused to break character during filming, on which director Vallée expressed, “I don’t know Leto, Jared never showed me Jared.”
The dedication is undeniable, and there’s no doubt the Texan McConaughey looks very like he is wasting away: gaunt, eye-ringed and barely able to walk the walk, let alone find the energy to fight back. Quite possibly the very feat of playing the part contributes to the ringing endorsements gained. Having gained the verité, and for all the humour and zeal of Woodroof, the character is not easy viewing, but then neither should he be. And, also in-keeping with the method, McConaughey’s performance does not feel like a performance, which can only cause for praise and acclaim.
So the question I have to ask is this: what is it about McConaughey’s portrayal of Woodroof that makes me feel the role was over-praised? Ultimately, the answer has to be that I did not believe in him, however authentic he made himself, though I’d certainly give him credit for living up to the script, which he is quoted as saying is “incredibly human, with no sentimentality.”
Let’s start with this, for which the actor is certainly not to blame: if I were to criticise the movie, as a polemic about AIDS it probably came 12 year too late, and arguably could have taken the theme further and focussed more on the AIDS pandemic even then. Had it been made at the time Woodroof had died in 1992, chances are that it would not have been distributed to a mainstream audience, let alone won major honours. Maybe that says more about the risk adversity of the Studios and the apparent lack of willingness of audiences to be challenged.
Having seen The Theory Of Everything on the same day as I saw Dallas Buyers Club, and written a critique of biopics in the process, particularly the revision of history to enhance the dramatic content and resulting in their appearing just a tad twee and too convenient. The scales falling from Woodroof’s eyes occur, in the context of a two-hour film, quicker than you could reasonable expect, even allowing for the sudden realisation that he has a fatal illness and that the state is punishing sufferers. There is little sense of how the illness has changed him from outright hatred, via grudging respect and business partnership, to apparent admiration, almost love. It seems so out of character you want to know more about how this came about. The missing link is insight to what makes the man tick, how he can reinvent himself, the spark that enables him to disown all that he recently held dear.
I’d have liked to seen more of an internal dilemma within Woodroof, to demonstrate his cultural roots clashing with his new-found respect for Rayon, and how he reached the point from trying to beat up his mates for calling him a “faggot” to forcing TJ (Kevin Rankin) to shake Rayon’s hand in a supermarket. Indeed, Ron and Rayon bicker like husband and wife on occasions, though when he returns to find Rayon has received the deadly AZT and died, Ron is utterly distraught and blames evil Dr Sevard (Denis O’Hare), boss of the one (fictional) medic with whom he has formed an alliance, Dr Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner, because you can’t have a mainstream film without a beautiful woman in a leading role?)
In fact, politically DBC could be argued to side against the state on the side of the folk hero, as if he were Jesse James or Butch Cassidy. He might not send law men to an early grave, but Woodroof wins battles, and now it is culturally acceptable for gay people to be on the winning side. You wonder when and how he came by his passport to traverse the globe in search of meds, and apparently how many of his runs enabled him to smuggle the non-approved drugs so successfully, but apparently that is what happened.
The film is at its best where compassion and pathos are demonstrated, particularly the bitterness of the campaign agains the FDA, notably where Woodroof turns up at a public meeting hosted by the FDA to hand out leaflets and to decry their propaganda, ultimately with the words, “People are dying!” In this respect it shares some qualities with the likes of Silkwood and Erin Brockovich in the determination of an ordinary person to tell the truth and win hearts – no bad comparison.
Perhaps the answer is a second viewing without my focus being skewed by another movie? Truth be told, I preferred TTOE, though maybe as a Brit I am biased there. I was not won over by DBC and did not feel anything like as emotionally engaged as I’d expected to be, which is a pity. Seems I was in a distinct minority, but then you can’t please all the people all the time. I think someone said that once. Meanwhile, a friend has simpler criteria: she said the film did not hold her attention, and that is arguably as good a rationale for what makes a movie work than any other than I’ve heard.
Anyway, RIP Ron Woodroof, and I hope you bask in the posthumous plaudits resulting from your actions. And I hope those who gained longer life as a result of your intervention appreciated how you changed history. As for McConaughey, I look forward to him demonstrating acting credentials without the benefit of physical suffering next time.