Performer of the Year: Matthew McConaughey

By  · Published on December 27th, 2012

To truly understand the essence behind our choice for 2012’s Performer of the Year, we have to take a walk back in time to 2005. It was the year that, simply a heartthrob at the point, Matthew McConaughey was named “Sexiest Man Alive.” At the time, the Texas-born star was on the road promoting his latest big screen swoon-monster, Failure to Launch. A publicity tour that landed him a memorable spot on the couch next to Oprah, back when she was still just an absurdly rich and powerful talk show host. Why I was watching Oprah on that fateful afternoon, only a higher power would know. But to this day, I can’t help but remember the magnetism of that handsome, denim-clad man who seemed so proud of the fact that he had never worn deodorant in his life. “The women in my life,” he explained amidst talk of his highly publicized relationship with Penelope Cruz and his naturally sweet B.O. “”have all said, ‘Your natural smell smells, one, like a man and, two, [it] smells like you. … [And] there’s only one of those.”

It was a line of questioning that left nary a dry seat in Oprah’s lavish studio. She could have given away vibrating chairs to her audience and it still wouldn’t have made as much of an impact. That was Matthew McConaughey’s world. And in 2005, he was king. The question now is how did he end up here, in the sights of a very serious film website being named our first ever “Performer of the Year,” an honor bestowed upon an actor or actress whose body of work throughout an entire year is seen as important, revelatory and otherwise head-and-shoulders above his or her peers?

The answer is simple: he’s gotten dirty. And as far as we can tell, he still has no use for deodorant.

The renaissance of Matthew McConaughey isn’t entirely something contained within the year 2012. But it has seen its brightest moments during this past year. He’s been on a roll for a while. Since 2011, at the very least. At age 43, McConaughey has transcended his previous star architecture to bring about a new era. Not long after receiving some acclaim for his role in 1996’s A Time to Kill, the actor went on what can only be described as a binge of beefcake bait. Starring alongside romcom sweethearts like Jennifer Lopez (The Wedding Planner), Kate Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and Sarah Jessica Parker (Failure to Launch), McConaughey carved out the niche that naturally landed him on Oprah’s couch talking about his sweet personal scent. And it worked for him, in a way that it works for many a good-looking young star. See the opportunity, make the most of it. It’s a very American and very Hollywood kind of tale. But as all things do, that fortune doesn’t smile for long. And as he reached his early 40s, it was time for McConaughey’s career to meet the metaphorical fork in the road.

The answer, while unclear to the rest of us, seemed more than clear to the long-haired Texan: it was time to get scary.

“I looked around, at my life and career, and said, ‘I’m in a good spot.’ I was reading some of the same action and romantic comedy stuff. Nothing was that exciting,” he explained in a recent interview with The Playlist. “I had done those for a while. They were fun. They treated me well, I treated them well. They paid my rent. I said, ‘I want to do something else ‐ I don’t know what it is, but I want something to scare me.’ That was a word I remember telling myself. And I wanted it to scare me in a good way.”

He went even deeper: “There’s two sorts of fear: one you embrace and one you should listen to and turn the other way. Good fear is when you’re scared because you don’t know the answer, and looking at a role, whoa. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be able to do with that; this is really courageous and daring material, I’m not sure about it. But I’m excited, because I know I’ll come out the other side, I just gotta go through the blind spots, dive in, and say, ‘I’m going to take it on.’ It’s very different than a fear when you’re trying to make it work because you think it would be eccentric for eccentricity’s sake ‐ that’s not the good fear. That’s the one you should probably turn away from and go, ‘No, the reason my gut isn’t into this is because it’s wrong’”

It’s that good kind of fear that led McConaughey in the direction of a list of daring roles, under the tutelage of some pretty daring filmmaking talents. It began in 2011 with The Lincoln Lawyer, in which he played a sleazy defense lawyer in the midst of a crisis of conscience. Other than starting the now-present trend of characters who ride around in limos and conduct shady deals, The Lincoln Lawyer began to scratch at the surface of the darkness that lay beneath the previously glossy veneer that was McConaughey. He then moved on to star in Richard Linklater’s Bernie as a small-town district attorney with a bit of a mean streak and a distaste for a Gospel-singing undertaker played by Jack Black. Not quite as sleazy as his other recent characters, but played with plenty of edge and an absence of irony that has come to define this period of his work.

Which brings us to 2012, the year in which McConaughey saw himself in front of the lenses of William Friedkin, Steven Soderbergh and Lee Daniels. In his highest profile role, that of an oiled up male stripper turned shifty club owner in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, McConaughey met the intersection of these two ideas that have defined the two sides of his acting coin: the object of affection for women and the seedy part of playing to that affection for too long. He rose to the challenge of being exposed as a man past his prime, grasping at those waning hours of attention. Of course, McConaughey had no trouble playing the character of Dallas as a charmer, a lovable entertainer in assless chaps whose ability to serenade the “Ladies of Tampa” is the stuff of 2012 legend. But the darkness. Yes, the darkness underneath the well-manicured physique of Dallas is what brought it together.

Nowhere was the darkness so evident than in Killer Joe, in which he played a cop/killer for hire who falls in love with an underaged trailer park beauty played by Juno Temple. In his execution of the titular character, McConaughey wasn’t just looking for his own fear, he was looking to instill some of it ‐ good and bad ‐ in everyone who watched the character from Tracy Letts’ stage play come to life. In doing so, he created one of the most sinister villains we’ve seen in a year of pretty sinister villains. If there’s any justice in the world of awards, it’s the kind of role that will earn him a win from his recent Spirit Award nomination.

As much as 2012 in theaters has been great to McConaughey, there is still plenty more to come. On the festival circuit, he’s gained acclaim in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy — despite the film getting less than positive reviews overall ‐ and in the Cannes premiere of Jeff Nichols’ Mud, which will continue its festival journey at Sundance in January. He’s also got Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and the heavy AIDS-drama Dallas Buyers Club on the docket for 2013. So as our Performer of the Year in 2012, McConaughey didn’t just make a left turn for a while, he seems fully committed. Committed to finding roles that scare him in a good way. And in turn, give us a few chills.

Of all the great performances we saw in 2012, no single performer pushed themselves into new territory like McConaughey. He didn’t exactly start wearing deodorant, but he has proven himself to be more than just another pretty face. In our book, he’s alright alright.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)