Twenty years ago, the great Austin-based indie film Dazed and Confused made Matthew McConaughey a star. Seemingly overnight, the Texas native—who played the small but iconic role of David Wooderson, the sleazy, drawling charmer in his early 20s who still hangs out with high-school girls because “I get older, they stay the same age”—went from arthouse anonymity to Next Big Thing. Writer/director Richard Linklater had discovered a diamond in the hills of Central Texas, and soon everyone was talking about McConaughey’s big-screen charisma, brooding depth and Newmanesque looks. John Sayles, Joel Schumacher and Steven Spielberg all came calling. I remember at least one magazinecalling McConaughey the “New Brando.”
It’s 20 years later, and McConaughey has been no Marlon Brando. For every Lone Star there have been five rom-com trifles like Failure to Launch and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. For every serious performance that appeared to make good on that early Wooderson promise, there have been several in which McConaughey seemed more interested in taking his shirt off and cashing a check than in contributing anything meaningful. Somewhere along the line McConaughey fell in love with simply being in the movies, and any aspirations to art were thrown out the window.
But McConaughey may be finding himself again as an actor. His performances in Bernie, Mud and Magic Mike may not have been on Brando’s level, but they had depth. Which meant something after a decade wandering in the wilderness of profitable but empty nonsense. And now, with the recently released Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey has finally come through with a performance that justifies at least some of that two-decade-old belief that this handsome, muscular, towering man is capable of something substantial. All it took, it turns out, was a willingness on McConaughey’s part to make himself less handsome, less muscular and less towering.
McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a real-life HIV-positive man in mid-1980s Dallas who sets up a “membership club” where other HIV-infected people can buy the drugs he’s illegally importing from Mexico. McConaughey lost 40 pounds to prepare himself for the role, reducing himself to a skeleton and adding his name to a small but growing list of venerated actors willing to mar their bodies for a part.
For some, like Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull and Christian Bale in The Machinist, that kind of physical transformation was necessary for realism’s sake. This is true for McConaughey as well (at the beginning of the movie Woodroof is given 30 days to live), but in his case the results seem to cut deeper, all the way to his soul. Perhaps more than any other actor who’s put himself through extreme body transfiguration for a role, Matthew McConaughey needed it—to find out what he’s really capable of, to inhabit a character, not just make him good to look at. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey appears liberated, even renewed, by the degradation of his body, as if the curse of beauty had been keeping him boxed up, unable to become the men he portrays because he’s always so busy looking like Matthew McConaughey.
Later this month the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce the nominations for this year’s Oscar awards, and McConaughey is expected to get a Best Actor nod. It looks like his fiercest competition will come from Robert Redford and Bruce Dern, both Hollywood legends who starred last year in small, introspective films in which very little happened, meaning viewers were free to study the lines of their faces, contemplate their legacies, and bemoan the injustice that they’ve never won a Best Actor Academy Award. If these three men are nominated, things could get interesting. Academy voters love actors who starve themselves almost as much as they love old actors who’ve been around for a long time but have never won an award. It’s transformation versus redemption.
But here’s the thing: McConaughey’s performance provides both. It’s everything voters could ever ask for—the Holy Grail of award-worthy performances. If the Academy truly loves a redemption story, and truly believes that a great acting job is a matter of metamorphosis, both of the actor and by the actor, then Matthew McConaughey, at long last, is their man.