“Be the lean horse for the long ride. I figure I am in the third round of a fifteen round fight.”
Matthew McConaughey, circa 2002
Last week, Matthew McConaughey shocked the world as he stood up to accept a Golden Globe for his role in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club (2013). As the film’s leading man, McConaughey had been nominated into a highly competitive category. He faced the nuanced high-seas manliness of Tom Hanks and Robert Redford, as well as two weighty performances by Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Although I happen to worship McConaughey, I certainly didn’t expect him to win anything this year. It was thrill enough just to see him nominated.
But then there he was, giving the kind of profoundly self-satisfied acceptance speech that one can only either savor or despise. (“I’m really glad [the film] got passed on so many times, otherwise it wouldn’ta come to me.”)
When the Academy announced the Oscar nominations a few days later, Hanks and Elba were left out. But McConauhey made the cut, sitting pretty alongside contemporary favorites like Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio.
And a few days after that, he took home a Screen Actors Guild win.
As of the date of this post, several analysts have McConaughey listed as the frontrunner of the Actor in a Leading Role category, including Variety, Awards Circuit, Indiewire, and GoldDerby. (In fact, I struggled in vain to find anyone with a contrary position).
This kind of unanimous bandwagon appreciation feels as unprecedented as it is unexpected. Indeed, 2013 marks the first year that McConaughey has been a bona fide awards season contender. (Provided, of course, that we disregard his slew of Teen Choice Award nominations between 1999 and 2005, in respected categories such as “Sexiest Love Scene” and “Choice Liplock.”)
Most affectionately, McConaughey is remembered for his first major role, playing the delightfully creepy David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s stoner opus Dazed and Confused (1993). Others entertain a less sympathetic characterization, figuring him a seriously irrelevant faux-bro commonly found in crap chick flicks like The Wedding Planner (2001), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), and Failure to Launch (2006).
But whichever school of thought you come from, the same is true: this is a man known mainly for his conspicuous lack of a serious acting career.
So what happened?
The McConaissance happened. As many others have noted for several months now, Matthew McConaughey is smack dab in the middle of an unlikely artistic rebirth. Understandably, most of the focus has been on his work this past year. In addition to his fantastic work in Dallas Buyers, he managed to render his five minutes of screen time in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) truly unforgettable. And that, mind you, was in the context of three hours of astonishing acting by fellow nominee Leonardo DiCaprio. A lesser actor would’ve been crushingly outshined.
You may think this radical uptick in professional success came out of nowhere. It didn’t. In fact, it’s been a long time coming. In order to truly grasp the buzz, it’s necessary we take a detailed look at the last few years of this intriguing man’s career.
A Brief History of the McConaissance
By my reckoning, the McConaissance has been in effect for three solid years now, and can be traced back initially to his lead role in The Lincoln Lawyer (2011). Ostensibly, this was clever but standard courtroom fare, adapted from one of a thousand legal thriller novels just like it. But as some reviewers noted at the time, the film was legitimately elevated by McConaughey’s listless and obsessive performance. His sunken, bloodshot eyes engaged the viewer with the plot’s keen sense of desperation and intractability. For anyone who happened to be paying attention at the time, this movie and its unlikely star was a pleasant surprise.
After a supporting role in Richard Linklater’s very funny true-crime mockumentary Bernie (2011), he went on to play the title character in William Friedken’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’s shockingly obscene play Killer Joe (2011). Quite like Letts’s Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County (2013), Killer Joe felt a bit like a bundle of serpents devouring each other. McConaughey himself stood out as remarkably competent, drawing out the screenplay’s irony with spooky confidence and exhibiting a sense of ice-cold moral distance with his every move and locution (not unlike his work on HBO’s True Detective).
The film’s ambitiously controversial finale, which I will not spoil except to warn that you’ll never look at chicken wings the same, earned it an NC-17 rating. (Friedken himself was indignant at the idea of cutting it down to an R-rating, claiming it’d destroy the artistic integrity of the work.) The brutal subject matter of Letts’s play distinguishes the project from other McConaissance-era films, and remains easily the bravest role McConaughey has taken on to date.
Next, McConaughey went on to star in the exceptional indie film Mud (2012), in which he plays an angsty teen’s slack-jawed, preciously delusional fugitive-cum-mentor. Coming-of-age stories sometimes feel contrived, often painting standard narrative pictures that feel a bit too easy to relate to. But Jeff Nicols’s film was both thoughtful and sophisticated.
The script confronts juvenile machismo, too easily mischaracterized as hopeless romanticism, as it comes to terms with fraying paternal authority and the social limits of mythologized masculinity. An intelligently passionate performance by young Tye Sheridan coupled with absolutely stunning cinematography and film editing would have been enough to make this movie special.
But it is McConaughey who forms the film’s craggy heart. His seamless ability to reconcile threatening maleness with such utter frailty is truly rare. Delightfully, he succeeds in showing the audience what Ellis himself sees in Mud, placing us squarely in league with the protagonist’s complex motivations. The movie, so flawless in virtually every respect, would have been imperfect without him.
That same year, he stole Channing Tatum’s thunder in Steven Soderbergh’s sly treatment of male sexual performativity and underachievement, Magic Mike (2011). I remember seeing this movie in theaters, and let me tell you: the only person having more fun than the repressed housewives in the audience was Mr. McConaughey himself. Playing an aging but undeniably charismatic stripper came all too naturally. McConaughey produced brilliant comedic mileage rooted in confident libidinal exhibitionism that somehow, it seems, only he could truly own. For many viewers, this was the first sign in a decade that it was okay –once again –to love McConaughey for McConaughey.
The rest is history. He dropped over 40 pounds, knocked it out of the park in Dallas Buyers, and mainstream critics decided it was time to take him seriously as an actor.
But Is It Time?
Nonetheless, whether or not he deserves an Oscar this year requires a deeper look.
First of all, the Dallas Buyers backlash is real. Most recently, we’re hearing that the movie’s real-life antihero, Ron Woodroof, was not a homophobic person. At all. In fact, his ex-wife says that he was openly bisexual. Friends remember him as decidedly non-heterosexual. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time a “based on a true story” script took its liberties with the facts. But given that Mr. Woodroof’s bigotry is kind of the entire basis of his characterization, it’s natural to feel we may have been unduly misled on this one.
But even before this “controversy,” this film had some arguably deeper problems to think about. When the film was gaining traction last Fall, some questioned seriously the wisdom of focusing the first major AIDS-related film in decades on a venomously homophobic character. For Slant Magazine’s R. Kurt Osenlund, the critical success of Dallas Buyers is disturbingly symptomatic of a much larger problem mainstream pop culture has with addressing the gay community.
It’s 2013, and I don’t want baby steps. I don’t want James Franco and Macklemore telling me it’s okay to be gay. I don’t want to see Jared Leto go frail and wear a dress for a role I could have seen when I was 12. And I sure as hell don’t want to see the first major movie about AIDS in 20 years to be about a goddamned queer-hating hick.
Osenlund’s criticisms should be taken seriously (read the whole thing). Call it the “Mackelmore Problem.” Indeed, there is something very troubling about art that at its surface purports to champion victims of oppression, but in reality serves only to gratify and legitimize a privileged majority.
Second, the film’s momentum is threatening to swallow its substance. In particular if it takes Best Picture, Dallas Buyers will be drifting dangerously close to entering “overrated” territory, à la Argo (2012), The Artist (2011) and The King’s Speech (2010).
The same goes for McConaughey himself. Yes, I understand that radical physical transformation is associated with a line of distinguished actors from Robert DeNiro to Charlize Theron to Christian Bale, and that it manifests strong dedication to the craft. But as of late, it’s all anyone seems to talk about, as if acting ability can be reified and measured in pounds.
It can’t. And that’s what the McConaissance has to teach us. McConaughey’s ascendancy did not happen overnight, despite what the current pop narrative says. It was a gradual and deliberate effort spanning several years and a half dozen projects. It required shrewd career decisions and a legitimate desire to work on small films by visionary directors like William Friedken, Jeff Nichols, and Steven Soderbergh.
That said, I want to go out on a limb here. I’ve sat here and written over 1500 words on why Matthew McConaughey is so great, but I hope he does not –does not –win come March 2. I would rather see him stay hungry. After his lost decade in the 2000s, we can’t risk him resting on his laurels.
He’s done far too much of that already, and the lean horse has a lot more rounds to go before the long ride is over.