Ever found yourself regretting passing sentence on a person’s talents or character, pompously dismissing them, only to be forced to admit to being horribly wrong? In the last few years Matthew McConaughey has forced many a film-goer to repent.
Philip Rham confesses
We are bombarded by programmes and stories in the media about make-overs, be it for ramshackle neglected houses and flats or Gordon Ramsey in his predictable way bullying some frankly appalling restaurateur into making his or her business a half-decent going concern. Indeed we are allowed to witness complete physical transformations of people, their hair, teeth, wardrobe, minor – and indeed major – plastic surgery to emerge into the light as new butterflies from their cocoon. However, when it concerns a person’s professional life, you have to sit up and notice. And in recent years there has been none more eye-catching than the career of Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey.
I have to confess I was a bit of a snob and dismissed him out of hand as an admittedly attractive hunk who personified the rugged Texan countryman but with not much going on upstairs, if you see what I mean. Alright, then a typical bimbo airhead jock. Somewhat in the manner of John Wayne, as soon as you saw his name on a cast list, you knew what you were going to get. “Oh he’s just playing himself. There’s no real acting going on. Not like Philip Seymour Hoffmann, God rest his soul. Now there’s an actor and a half!” went the typical reaction. Alas Hollywood loves type-casting and pigeon-holing and actors accept it, as, especially at the beginning of their “careers”, they worry whether they’ll ever work again. So when McConaughey made his first break-through film “Dazed and Confused” in 1993, the pattern was set for him to be cast in the same mould in a string of (VERY) light-weight films. His rugged good looks and laid-back Texan dude persona ensured he played – well – just those kinds of characters. Indeed he quickly achieved leading man status in “A Time to Kill” (1996), “Amistad” (1997) for Steven Spielberg so much so that he made the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in 1996. So the scene was set and despite some bad boy episodes in his native Texas, which – let’s be frank – only enhanced his reputation, he embarked on a string of popular but immediately forgettable rom-coms in the noughties with the likes of Jennifer Lopez (“The Wedding Planner”), a risible effort with Kate Hudson (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”), a flop with Penelope Cruz (“Sahara”) but McConaughey succeeded in real life with his female star, if you get my meaning. Anyway I will not bore you with the whole list. Suffice it to say, the bank manager was happy but alas our rugged hero was, more or less, dismissed by mainstream film critics. Being voted “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine in 2005 kind of summed up his career thus far.
Then something happened near the end of the decade. Was it because he started a family with his Brazilian model wife Camila Alves – they now have three children together – or was it that McConaughey suddenly decided to make the change, persuade the movers and shakers in the Hollywood goldfish bowl that he had so much more to offer as an actor? He obviously knew he had it in him but, even though he would have felt the responsibility to earn the money to support a growing family, he took the plunge and took time out to hold out for a part he truly believed in. That is a very brave thing for an actor to do, I can tell you. Indeed he deliberately homed in on the independent art film circuit, turned his back on the mainstream, so to speak and chanced his arm.
And so along comes “Lincoln Lawyer” in 2011 with the incomparable William H. Macy and lo and behold, you have to keep pinching yourself that this amazing portrayal of a lawyer on the edge, running the whole gamut of emotion is actually being played by Matthew McConaughey. We are witnesses to a well-modulated progression from relaxed and cocky success story to a man riddled with professional doubt and a moral conscience who finds himself bowled along like a pebble in the on-rushing stream of twists and turns this film noir involves you in. Suddenly everyone was talking about how brilliant McConaughey was – and that, without even once taking his shirt off!
Alleluia, irony enters the frame. “Killer Joe” followed shortly afterwards which has our man obviously having fun creating a zany, villainous contract killer. This is definitely not mainstream fare but despite low box office, it further cemented our impression of an actor willing to take risks and ‘go for it’.
By now the film aficionados are eating humble pie and are positively looking out for the next McConaughey movie. “Paper Boy” (2012) where he plays a reporter returning to his home town to solve a local mystery, disappointed the majority of critics. In fact it got a critical lashing but once again the acting was praised for its willingness to show these frankly distasteful swamp trash characters from rural Florida in all their graphic violence (sexual and physical). For most it was the meandering Tennessee Williams-like screenplay that badly let the film down.
Not to be disheartened McConaughey goes straight in at the deep end of self-irony with his next film “Magic Mike”. In it he plays an aging male stripper called Dallas (ironically enough), deciding to move on and try and change direction but he gets further embroiled when he starts training up a young man (a surprisingly impressive Channing Tatum). There is not much stripping in it and Dallas as such does not take up much screen time but would you believe it every scene he is in you cannot stop watching McConaughey. Now that is worthy of Philip Seymour Hoffmann!
The renaissance – or as the wags have coined it, the “McConnaissance” – obtains its apotheosis in the film that has garnered critical acclaim around the world.
It was a project that lay dear to McConaughey’s heart. He waited and waited until the minimum finance (barely over $5 million) was cobbled together and in only 26 days “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) was shot. To date it has grossed $25, 325,000 and counting.
Essentially it is the real-life story of Ron Woodroof, a straight trailer trash electrician who in 1986 finds out he has one month to live having contracted the AIDS virus. It is how he comes to terms with it and embarks on a mission to find and then smuggle in alternative treatments, bringing him into confrontation with the law, FDA (Federal Drug Agency) and the medical establishment who are prescribing the virulently toxic AZT. Along the way he develops understanding and indeed love and affection for the gays he despised before his diagnosis. The relationship with Rayon, a transgender man who becomes his personal assistant in the buyers club, the cover for their business of providing a much less toxic cocktail of drugs for Aids sufferers, is beautifully structured and developed. It is due in no small part to Jared Leto (returning to our screens after some time absent) and his portrayal of Rayon playing off the wiry and determined McConaughey. It is the searing commitment of this film and its actors that bowls you over. Of course, the media have homed in on McConaughey’s weight loss for the shoot. It is truly remarkable that he lost 38 lbs (3 stones/17.2kg) to play this man ravaged by this emaciating condition!! It is when he turns round and you see his jeans just hanging off his backside that you are truly reminded of the devastating effects AIDS had on previously healthy men.
When I saw “12 Years a Slave” I assumed it would sweep all before it, come the Globes and Oscars. Before “Dallas Buyers Club” had been released in the UK, I was shocked when I heard McConaughey had won the Golden Globe for Best Actor. I said, “What? Surely some mistake here.” Oh, how wrong could I have been! Once seen, never forgotten and I could not have been a happier man to see Matthew McConaughey walk up to accept his Oscar for Best Actor 2014. He has thoroughly deserved it for the intensity and dedication he showed in bringing to life Ron Woodroof, who, in the end, went on to live for a further six years after his initial diagnosis.
And now the world of television is being wowed by the talents of our star, working with Woody Harrelson in “True Detectives” as well appearing to great acclaim in “Wolf on Wall Street”.
From starting out as a superficial inconsequential actor renowned for lightweight comedies and jock movies to arriving at the pinnacle of any performer’s ambitions, namely to be voted by your peers as the best for that year, is a journey of amazing resilience and impressive self-belief. I now positively look forward to every film or TV series that includes the name Matthew McConaughey. A truly born-again man. Long may the McConnaissance bloom!