I finally decided to watch this film with the sole objective of discovering why it swept the acting awards in the male category at this year’s Oscars. I came from this film armed with a pretty feasible theory as to why.
But don’t get me wrong: “Dallas Buyers Club” has a pretty good story to tell. McConaughey is Ron Woodroof, an alcohol-drinking, hooker-banging rodeo hustler/electrician who discovers he’s got AIDs after a hot night with an injection-using prostitute. Woodroof is told that he’s got about a month to live. He’s told of a testing drug called AZT and decides to acquire the stuff himself, desperate for a cure to his disease. Instead, Woodroof’s health deteriorates and he lands himself back in the hospital. Itching for more of the drug that he believes is the cure, Ron drives all the way to Mexico to discover that AZT isn’t the cure that he’s been looking for. He’s prescribed ddC and peptide T instead, vitamins that vastly improve his health. It is then that Woodroof gets the idea of selling these drugs to other HIV patients in the US, and the Dallas Buyers Club is born. Leto plays Rayon [Raymond], Woodroof’s cocaine smoking transgender business partner, while Jennifer Garner is Eve Saks, Woodroof’s ‘medical connection’ and sort of love interest.
McConaughey has never been known for serious roles. From blockbuster flops to huggable chic flicks, he’s hardly taken the risk of uglying himself on camera. Leto’s had a number of supporting roles in so-so films–some memorable standouts being “American Psycho”, “Girl, Interrupted” and “Fight Club”. My point is simple: before “Dallas Buyers Club”, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto weren’t Meryl Streep type actors. They weren’t the types who frequented major awards shows because they were nominated. For both of them, Dallas Buyers Club could easily be considered (in the words of Peter Travers) “career best” performances. I’m personally not extensively familiar with their filmographies, but from what I’ve seen before they’re both brilliant in this film.
McConaughey uses more than just his Texan roots to make Ron Woodroof believable: he uglies it up big time, echoing Christian Bale’s weight loss three years ago. But this is where McConaughey wins out: he did more than lose weight for the role. Perhaps this credit is deserved not by McConaughey, but by the Hair and Makeup team behind the movie. Woodroof is more than just an emaciated presence onscreen (reminiscent of Bale in the Machinist), as even his skin seems to somehow evoke his condition. Leto astounds big time, seemingly shedding his masculinity so believably one seems unsure whether he even is male.
Most people have said that physical transformation is the key to winning an Oscar in Hollywood– the signs are there (Charlize, I’m looking at you). But there’s more to changing oneself physically that separates a good performance from a great one. This is where McConaughey’s Texan roots come into play, as he’s got the cowboy flavor down pat.Leto convinces not just with the wig and the dresses, but with the attitude– surprisingly convincing to the point of oddity. Has he been practicing since youth? one can only wonder.
The same couldn’t be said for Jennifer Garner, whose warm presence makes up for her lack of Southern believability (perhaps Reese Witherspoon seems to be a better choice?). Going back to my point…
Two things made McConaughey and Leto worthy of their Oscars: change and believability.
The first step involves the standard Hollywood formula for Oscar gold: physical transformation. Both changed themselves physically to the point of being unrecognizable. One could watch this film and find themselves unaware that they’re watching Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey– that’s how good their changes were. [The Hair & Styling Oscar is well deserved!]
The second step is what sealed the deal: believability. This is where things like roots and raw talent come into play. As mentioned earlier, we had Texan roots on Matt’s side and attitude on Jared’s side. We saw these actors harness these things into giving their best performances to date in gritty, real roles that forced them to go beyond their comfort zones. This is what got them the Oscar.
But don’t get me wrong: Dallas Buyers Club isn’t watchable solely because of these two. Just as 12 Years A Slave centers on the slave trade, this film centers on its own cause: AIDS. Just as the story of Her is relevant to the modern age, so is the story of this movie and the disease behind it. Relevance and awareness, coupled with career best work that is at the very least, stellar– what more could you ask for in a film? Dallas Buyers Club has it all.