Thursday, May 8, 2014


2013 was a great year for male actors. Had the Academy the prerogative to name up to ten Best Actor nominees as it can nominate up to ten Best Pictures, the talent pool would not have been diluted at all. Given how many excellent performances weren't even nominated (Tom Hanks, Oscar Isaac, Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Redford) I was bound to be skeptical toward whoever won the award. It didn't help that media people had coined a word -- "McConaissance" -- to describe Matthew McConaughey's dramatic rise in critical esteem in the last few years. Back in 1996 McConaughey was the male equivalent of Julia Ormond, i.e. overhyped and overrated. His supposedly star-making performances in A Time to Kill and Contact were dreadful, though I concede that he began to show promise as early as 1997's Amistad. McConaughey's star never fell as completely as Ormond's, but by a certain point he had become a laughing stock. But over the last two or three years the actor has been on a roll, at least with the critics. To put himself over the top, he resorted to the actor's old standby: self-mortification. To play real-life AIDS victim Ron Woodroof, McConaughey lost a lot of weight, surrendering his once-vaunted beauty. Academy voters are suckers for such things, I scoffed. Was McConaughey really even in the league of his fellow nominees like Chiwetel Ejiofor, much less the actual best actors (in my view) who'd been denied nominations?

Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club is a Schindler's List for the age of AIDS. By now I doubt that's a novel observation, but if not it bears repeating. The comparison is categorical, not qualitative. In both films, the hero is a venal wheeler-dealer who does good deeds for selfish motives, at least at first. It can be argued in favor of Dallas Buyers Club that Ron Woodroof isn't given a teary speech repenting his homophobia, his sexism, his drug and alcohol abuse, etc., etc. He remains a prickly, abrasive figure throughout, and McConaughey deserves much of the credit for that. Woodroof was an electrician and rodeo enthusiast -- a rodeo clown becomes his angel of death, though the motif thankfully isn't overdone -- and in many ways a typical redneck. We see him expressing disgust as the story opens in 1985 upon learning that Rock Hudson has AIDS and was thus a homosexual. Our only hint that he has any more mind than his buddies is that many of them don't even know who Hudson is. After he collapses and is hospitalized, Ron rejects the diagnosis of AIDS, and the warning that he has only a month to live, presuming that only "cocksuckers" get it. As his symptoms grow worse, he reveals an unexpected but crucial facet of his character. Woodroof is an autodidact, capable of crash-course self-education on topics of urgent interest. People like him are often indifferent toward if not distrustful of institutions and institutional procedures. His refusal to submit to the FDA testing of AZT, in which he might receive a placebo instead of the real drug -- he offers to buy the stuff directly -- sets him on the course of alternative, clandestine medication. Understandably impatient with the slow pace of FDA testing, and increasingly distrustful of AZT's scorched-earth effects on the immune system -- Woodroof becomes a smuggler and purveyor of unapproved if not illegal remedies for people unwilling to wait but willing to take chances. Like others at the time, he tries to get around the FDA ban on selling these remedies by forming a "buyers' club" in which members pay a monthly fee to receive drugs as needed. His practices put him at odds with the FDA and other bureaucracies, but his own persistence seems to vindicate him. Given a month to live in 1985, Woodroof lives until 1992.

You always hear that Hollywood has some sort of liberal bias, but you couldn't tell that from all the films that disparage the by-the-book bureaucratic procedures of the regulatory state. In Dallas Buyers Club the government only gets in the way of Woodroof's efforts to save his own life and make money by saving others. Actually, left-wing and right-wing alike can confirm their biases from watching this film. Small-government types can deplore the cumbersome, arrogant bureaucracy that delays the availability of apparently effective remedies. Anti-corporate types can infer that the FDA was in bed with the makers of AZT. As for AZT itself, the film can't help but appear to echo Woodroof's almost-paranoid distrust of it, though if you pay attention you can conclude that the real problem was with the dosage rather than the drug.

If there's anything "liberal" about Dallas Buyers Club it's Woodroof's overcoming of his homophobia through his friendship with the transsexual Rayon (fellow Oscar winner Jared Leto). Ron's initially repulsed by Rayon, as he is by the gay man who greets him at a public meeting where he shows up to collect brochures. There's a first glimmer of respect when Rayon beats him at cards in the hospital, but then comes a realization that he can use Rayon as his sales agent in the gay community, in the places he's reluctant to visit himself. But whether Ron really repudiates his past prejudices is open to question. When he forces one of his former friends to shake Rayon's hand in a grocery store, Ron's clearly less concerned with forcing the man to respect Rayon than with humiliating him and avenging his own past humiliation by his old cronies. It's safer to say that Woodroof respects individuals capable of asserting themselves with toughness, as Rayon does when negotiating a cut of Ron's business, or when their doctor (Jennifer Garner) stares down Ron's sexism by declaring herself "a fucking doctor!" What I really like about McConaughey's performance is that Ron Woodroof never fully turns into a good (in the sense of likable) guy. He's never really ennobled by his adventures. To the end, there's something narcissistic if not selfish about him, and something self-righteous that makes his rants against AZT less than fully reliable.

For most viewers, the proof that Woodroof is (or becomes) a good man is the bonds he forms with the other heroic characters, the doctor and the transsexual. But more so than Schindler's List, Dallas Buyers Club seems to say that someone doesn't have to be good to do good. It's unclear whether Woodroof even sees himself as a hero; he's simply out to ride the bull as long as he can, doing anything he can to keep his seat. As for McConaughey, I thought he overplayed the yahoo side of Woodroof in the early scenes, though that was probably necessary to heighten the contrast over time. From then on he's rock solid, from his foolhardy impersonation of a priest for smuggling purposes to the way he conveys that Woodruff's light is going out in the late scenes. I don't think he was the year's Best Actor, but that's no disgrace in such a competitive field, and now that I've seen his work I'll at least say that McConaughey belongs on anyone's short list.

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