Wednesday, January 8, 2014

5 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching "Dallas Buyers Club"

1. I hate this movie's title. I probably should blame it on Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, yet another Best Actor Oscar contender playing an actual person, living or dead), who coined the name for his society of paying AIDS patients for whom he crossed international borders to obtain beneficial AIDS cocktails and turn a nice profit while he was at it (membership fee: $400). It sounds like the name of a football team. I keep wanting to call it North Dallas Buyer's Club, mangling the title the way one character confuses Cary Grant for Rock Hudson, calling the latter the star of North by Northwest. Maybe it's the "North" in the title of the 1959 Hitchcock classic that's throwing me.

Though bullriding is the only sport featured in Dallas Buyers Club, in a sense the film's central showdown is like the ultimate sports match: Desperate AIDS patients led by Quarterback Ron vs. a U.S. medical community more concerned with strategy and procedure and making money than saving lives. I'd rather watch this one than the Super Bowl.

2. I think this is by far the best performance of Matthew McConaughey's recent career reinvention, and I haven't seen a 2013 leading-male performer to whom I'd give the Best Actor Oscar over him. But I'm not sure how much of my appreciation of McConaughey's rendering of Woodroof is his performance and how much of it is his stunning physical transformation. Had he not lost 50 pounds for the role, had I not spent the entire two hours squirming in my seat, feeling Woodroof's (and McConaughey's) physical pain, marveling at the actor's dedication to the movie, wondering if he was famished while filming it, would I be quite so moved?

McConaughey didn't just lose the weight and call it a wrap. He nailed the levels of Woodroof's gradual deterioration and his physical upswings due to the drug cocktail he was taking. Do all of those twisted, tortured mannerisms -- the walk, the speech, the gaze -- belong to Woodroof, or are they McConaughey's, for no hard-bodied actor loses 50 pounds without serious physical and medical ramifications? I wonder how he regained the weight, what was the the first thing he ate after filming wrapped, and what he will look like on Oscar night.

The Academy doesn't generally like to give its Best Actor prize to mainstream hunks. Consider non-winners Rock Hudson and Cary Grant (one name-dropped, the other alluded to, in Dallas Buyers Club), Montgomery Clift, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as Paul Newman, who had to wait until he was sixtysomething to get his due. I'm convinced that if McConaughey were Philip Seymour Hoffman or Daniel Day-Lewis, or Charlize Theron (to name two recent bulldozer Best Actor winners and the queen of physically transformed Best Actress winners), he'd be a shoo-in.

3. Jared Leto, on the other hand, is a virtual Best Supporting Actor shoo-in, and I'm not entirely sure I understand why. Maybe it's because his character, a transvestite named Rayon who's also battling AIDS and becomes Woodroof's reluctant business partner and friend, isn't onscreen enough, or because he is so familiar to me. As an adult, I've encountered and befriended so many people like Rayon that the character doesn't come across as such an original creation. Perhaps that's the very thing that's so remarkable about Leto's performance: He makes you forget that you're watching a fictional character, much less the hunky guy who used to make Claire Danes swoon on My So-Called Life in the '90s.

4. For your consideration, too: I've had a bit of a soft spot for Jennifer Garner since her days as Sydney Bristow on Alias, and I think she doesn't get enough credit for her acting. As far as I know, she didn't alter her weight for the role as Dr. Eve Saks, and I didn't even realize it was her playing the doctor until her second scene. She gives the character gray areas: At first she's a slave to procedure, but she comes around so gradually that the shift is virtually undetectable to the naked eye.

I could swear there's a slight attraction to Woodroof, which could very well be a traces of Garner's onscreen chemistry with McConaughey, her costar in the 2009 romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. That spark I'm noticing might be more an emotional cocktail of attraction, repulsion, curiosity, appreciation, compassion and maybe even just a smidgen of pity, but Garner hints at it without letting us know for sure. If she were Amy Adams, she'd be guaranteed a Best Supporting Actress nod.

5. The movie and McConaughey wisely don't make the movie or the Woodroof character all about his bigotry and homophobia and how he eventually comes around. I'm not sure that he actually does completely, but he does become a better person through his experiences, understanding the discrimination that gay men, even ones without a death sentence, must endure through the reaction of his friends and colleagues to his diagnosis.

There's no one ah-ha moment, which a lesser movie movie would have offered, but rather a gradual coming to Jesus that you don't really see coming until you realize that Woodroof isn't quite the prick he was at the beginning of the movie, a minority-bashing rodeo cowboy/electrician who would deny a dying guy access to life-lengthening medication because he has only $50 of the $400 membership fee. When he does become a crusader, Norma Rae/Erin Brockovich-style, we're not banged over the head with his heroic deeds, but rather allowed to watch glimpses of humanity slowly add up to someone worthy of admiration.

If Woodroof, who died in 1992, seven years after his diagnosis and one-month-to-live death sentence, was not quite a hero, he was an extremely flawed man who still made a huge difference.
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