What the McConaissance Teaches Us About the Oscars’ Limititations

By  · Published on January 21st, 2014

As I’m sure you’re aware, Matthew McConaughey is currently experiencing His Moment. Seemingly resurrected from the depths of bankable but critically ill-regarded romantic comedies, McConaughey is now headlining a gritty new HBO series, briefly stealing a scene in a Scorsese movie from fellow Best Actor nominee Leo DiCaprio, taking the lead in a characteristically ambitious and mysterious new Christopher Nolan movie, and, of course, cementing it all with an Oscar nomination and plenty of momentum to take home the statue in March.

The fascinating turn of events that have occurred in the former Sahara star’s career since 2011, aka “The McConaissance,” is catnip for people who enjoy treating Hollywood seriously: it represents a tacit recognition by the star of the inherent limitations of Hollywood, and an attempt to transcend them; it evinces a star aware of his own public persona, who is seeking out roles that play with, and even subvert, that persona; and this particular star’s devotion to truly off-beat roles has made for something far more interesting than conventional career “comebacks” a la your Travolta, Rourke, or Downey, Jr.

An Oscar for McConaughey would likely represent the apotheosis of the actor’s decisive shift in creative effort, a reward for his calculated and compelling career “redemption.” But McConaughey’s recognition for Dallas Buyers Club shows how even the most surprising of career moves are recognized for their most conventional and least surprising moments.

“Or take Magic Mike, the film that kick-started McConaughey’s return. Everything that he had been mocked for – his well-documented love of shirtlessness, his moony love of the ladies, his chest-puffing, blustering self-regard – came together to make a tragic figure, one who flaunts these talents for dollar bills in a tawdry night club. What the McConaissance is about – if it is really about anything – is the clever (and purposeful) undoing of a mythos and the embrace of a more authentic McConaughey, even if that reveals something grimy and sad beneath the creamy Texas accent. It’s also about upholding that past self and twisting it into new combinations.”

While I would argue his change from stale movie star fluff to darker territory began with his functionally alcoholic sad sack in The Lincoln Lawyer (his first role in two years after Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) followed by his self-deprecating, unassuming turn in Bernie, Rachel Syme’s summary of the McConaissance lays out in no uncertain terms why this case should be evaluated differently from other comebacks and career redirections. McConaughey isn’t asking forgiveness for prior uninspiring career choices or bongo-filled tabloid scandals. He isn’t even trying to remake himself into something altogether new and bankable (McConaughey’s most recent movies have raked in less money than ever). McConaughey’s current roles have instead developed directly from the public and role-based persona he assumed from roughly Edtv through Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; he’s using the exact materials that motivated critics to dismiss him towards a dissident spin on his existing persona.

Rather than denying his past, or making the case to an audience that there has always been a serious actor brooding under lackluster, agent-commandeered scripts, the McConaughey of Bernie, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club is instead taking an inspired angle on the same character: a detailed exploration of the superficial, self-aggrandizing, charisma-skating ego that might actually craft a person as perturbing as the protagonist of Failure to Launch. To Syme’s point, Magic Mike – easily the most widely seen of McConaughey’s recent output – demonstrates the most explicit terms of this shift. In this film, McConaughey transforms his body, long used for the gaze of romantic comedies, into the subject of a commodified, spectacular gaze in and of itself. McConaughey’s supporting role in the Soderbergh film is pointedly about the labor that goes into fetishizing his own body for profit.

There exists a sensibility that most of his recent roles are, at their core, about McConaughey himself, which is rather shocking when you consider the sheer number of roles he’s played in the past two years that are impossible to imagine being embodied by anyone else. The McConaughey type – or, rather, a twist on it – is inexplicably in greater demand than it’s ever been.

McConaughey’s turn as Ron Woodroof is no different. By transforming McConaughey’s womanizing “l-i-v-i-n’” Texas charm into a sad and corrosive practice of aggressive heteronormative self-validation, Dallas Buyers Club explores the cultivated social prejudices that often make for a conventionally McConaughey-esque good ol’ boy. But by then distilling the AIDS crisis to one alpha-straight man’s libertarian battle against government bureaucrats and his incremental transformation into a somebody less belligerently homophobic, Dallas Buyers Club maintains a sensibility consistent with the McConaissance: these roles, built upon his existing persona, are inescapably about McConaughey first and foremost, even one whose setting is a catastrophic epidemic that disproportionately affected a nation’s discriminated underclass.

McConaughey’s turn in Dallas Buyers Club fits squarely within the matrix of factors that the Academy eats up when dolling out statues for acting: it shows a dramatic bodily transformation, it features a true-life character, and it distills a vast, complicated, and tragic history into the story of individual struggle. When other volunteers of the DBC applaud Woodroof towards the film’s end, it’s hard not to interpret the nature of this applause as instructive: applause at McConaughey for working so hard on this Very Important Role after making so many Very Unimportant Movies, and applause for ourselves for feeling all the feels from this film.

There have been great movies made about the AIDS crisis. Last year’s How to Survive a Plague is one of them. Dallas Buyers Club is not, nor is it the most impressive feat of the McConaissance. But McConaughey’s recognition for this particular film after a unique career shift shows how limited the awards framework is for evaluating, recognizing, and rewarding risky, unconventional, and even great performances.

In fact, Oscar-think has arguably created an awards-directed approach to character-formulation all its own, perhaps best evidenced by this very film. The actual Ron Woodroof, as discussed by Slate’s Forrest Wickman, was (unsurprisingly) a much more complex character than screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack made him seem, one than didn’t necessarily make for a cut-and-dry tale of a homophobe’s redemption:

“Those who knew Woodroof were surprised when they saw him portrayed this way on the screen. In November, Arnold Wayne Jones wrote an article for the Dallas Voice, which stated that Woodroof “was not a homophobe … according to those who knew him, but rather openly bisexual… Whatever the case may be, it seems that during the roughly 20 years Borten worked to get his story into production (often in collaboration with other screenwriters and with the input of producers), he gave Woodroof’s story a somewhat neater and simpler trajectory than it had in reality.”

How great can a performance be that actually prevents us from understanding the complexities of the person represented onscreen?

McConaughey’s other 2012 leading role as the title character of Mud indicates, to me, the best of the McConaughssance. McConaughey uses his signature charisma to create a character that is truly ambiguous, a mysterious being who is equally tender and portending, and somebody who at any given moment promises imminent danger or invaluable wisdom. McConaughey builds from Jeff Nichols’s script a rich study of a man laden with contradictions, and someone who you can smell just by looking at him. The character even plays with the tropes of former McConaughey – an important subplot involving Mud losing his shirt.

I’m not using this space to play the snub game and argue that McConaughey should be honored for Mud instead. But thinking about what Mud offers as a performance in contrast to Dallas Buyers Club illustrates the binds that we put ourselves in when thinking about Great Performances only in their most self-evident terms: how much weight was lost, what real-life figure the actor portrays, or what important social issue is neatly summarized by the character’s journey. This also prevents us from truly appreciating even the most-written-about career trajectories.

Something similar happened in 2006, when Philip Seymour Hoffman, after years of building fascinating and odd fictional characters in films by Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Solondz, became publicly recognized for the first time in his career by his portrayal of one of the most recognizable celebrities in modern history. Hoffman’s work in Capote, like McConaughey’s in Dallas Buyer’s Club, is evidently up to the task required, but it’s hardly the tip of the iceberg in terms of the challenging and amazing characters these actors can build. It’s time to get weird, Academy. Maybe McConaughey can be a gateway drug.

But then again, maybe I’m still sore that the Best Supporting Actor buzz around Magic Mike never panned out.