A lot is written about physical transformation in film. The media goes through stages, levels, of observation for an actor like Matthew McConaughey in his “Dallas Buyers Club” role. First, wonder. What’s it like for McConaughey to be losing so much weight? Then, shock. Did you see McConaughey in that movie? He’s so thin. Finally, praise — that stage he’s on now, going in Oscars weekend as the odds on favorite to take home Best Actor.
Tina Fey inserted a step, a detour, at the Golden Globes, making McConaughey’s 45-pound weight loss into a comedic punch line: “Matthew McConaughey is here. For his role in “Dallas Buyers Club,” he lost 45 pounds, or what actresses call ‘being in a movie.'” McConaughey is just one actor in a long line of actor’s who physically changed their appearance for a role. Philip Seymour Hoffman did this for “Capote.” McConaughey’s co-star, Jared Leto, did this to transform into Rayon. Both actors may win their respective categories — Leto is consider a “lock.”
But why did McConaughey get all of the attention when his co-star did the same thing? Is it because his mystique — the shirtless cowboy — has often been highlighted throughout his career, the idea that he can’t do a movie without taking his shirt off. Matt Damon gained boundless YouTube fame from making a joke out of this very portrayal. In “Dallas Buyers Club,” viewers were in for a different reaction when Ron Woodroof’s shirt came off. Shock and awe, maybe, but in a sympathetic way.
Of course, you don’t immediately sympathize with McConaughey’s Woodroof in the film. The rowdy sexual escapades of the first few minutes of the film are meant to sink you into your seat by nearly jumping overboard. But the longer the film goes, the more we get to know Woodroof and cheer for what he’s doing for his peers in the Dallas Buyers Club. Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack sprinkle comedy inside Ron’s complicated life. His “patient list” includes many names from the Dallas Cowboys roster.
Leto’s transformation may even be better. I couldn’t help but crack a smile in awe of his performance every time he was on screen. The words electric and magnificent aren’t good enough to describe his all-time performance, but from his first scene, hustling Ron in a game of cards, you fall in love with him. “I’ve been looking for you, Lone Star.” Deciding weather his voice or his physical appearance is superior is unnecessary because it’s all too good. The chemistry between Leto and McConaughey? I mean…
Rayon: I’m Rayon.
Ron: Congratulations. Now fuck off and go back to your bed.
Rayon: Relax, I don’t bite. I guess you’re handsome, in a Texas, hick, white trash, dumb kind of way.
Ron: Get the fuck out of here, whatever you are, before I kick you in the fucking face.
This dialogue tells you more about the characters than you know. It also tells you Ron’s story. He was a person, like his friends, afraid of people with AIDS. He turned into a pioneer and leader of people. Jean-Marc Vallee’s uses his best tools to tell that story — great acting and a great script.
“We Are Marshall” (2006) and “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011) were signs of an imminent dramatic transformation for McConaughey and recent starring roles in “Mud,” “Magic Mike,” and “Dallas Buyers Club” make his stellar acting job on this film less of a surprise. It gives you time to appreciate it. Even his two-scene role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” was filled with beautiful fireworks.
He may well win Best Actor this weekend and he’ll deserve it. Leto should leave with the Supporting nod, too. Both are case studies in what it means to transform for a role, totally committing to making a great movie. That’s what “Dallas Buyers Club” is, after all. It’s probably as good — definitely as thin — as we’ve ever seen the shirtless cowboy.
“Dallas Buyers Club”: ★★★1/2