How a Former Punchline Became One of the Most Reliable American Film Actors Working Today
Some actors seem to be born great, fully gestated, out of the womb. The likes of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Daniel Day Lewis and Gary Oldman seemed to first appear to us as essentially, the finished article. From day one, there was little doubt that these were quintessentially great actors, headed for yet more greatness. And predictably, they fulfilled those expectations quite comfortably.
But it’s often more thrilling to watch the genesis of an actor not so obviously destined for great things from the very beginning. Watching the evolution of the career of Matthew McConaughey, has been a case study in unexpected growth. McConaughey will be contending for Oscar kudos this season, and the question bears asking……how the hell did this happen? McConaughey is seen as an almost sure Best Actor nomination bet with Dallas Buyers Club. Not so long ago, putting the words “Matthew McConaughey” alongside “Best Actor Oscar” would seemed like someone idea a bad April Fool’s joke. Yet nobody is laughing now.
With his classic good looks and easy Texas charisma, the guy had “movie star” written all over him (though not necessarily “great actor”). In the early part McConaughey’s career, there was a concerted PR blitz to try and sell him to the public as the “next Paul Newman” (in that lazy Hollywood way, that tends label a new star as the “next whomever”, often based on a basic physical resemblance to some previous star). McConaughey himself didn’t seem to get the memo, and for a long while, any comparisons to Newman not only felt inappropriate and skin-deep, but borderline sacrilegious.
People first began to really take notice of McConaughey in Richard Linklater’s 1993 slacker movie, Dazed and Confused. For many people, McConaughey’s performance as the louche lothario David Wooderson, probably to McConaughey’s detriment, became the character most associated with the man himself. The more we began to learn about Matthew McConaghey as a private individual, less seriously we took him. When the character of Wooderson uttered the infamous line, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. They get older, and I stay the same!”, it seemed to encapsulate everything we thought we knew about McConaughey. He was a shallow hedonist. An overgrown kid on the make, who just happened to win the genetic lottery for the movie star sweepstakes. When we heard the reports of McConaughey getting arrested naked, playing bongos and smoking pot, absolutely nobody was surprised. This was Wooderson after all.
McConaughey did not exactly go out of his way to dissuade his audience that he was anything other than a genial lightweight. Of course there were cursory, early attempts to position McConaughey a major dramatic leading man. McConaghey nabbed the lead in A Time To Kill, during that seemingly endless period of the 1990’s when you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a John Grisham adaptation at the cinema. McConaughey gave a solid enough performance as the usual Grisham lawyer surrogate, Jake Brigance. Unfortunately for McConaughey, he was going up against Samuel L.Jackson on inspired form, delivering one of the strongest performances of his career, and stealing the movie from right under him. Roles in Steven Spielberg’s worthy slave drama Amistad, and as the ridiculously named Palmer Joss in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact did little to propel McConaughey into the upper echelon of A-list leading men that industry seemed desperate to push him into. Further duds like The Newton Boys failed to consolidate McConaughey’s place within the industry.
Then he made his first romantic comedy, The Wedding Planner in 2001, opposite Jennifer Lopez, then at the very height of her ubiquitous booty shaking “J.Lo-ness”. No one realised it at the time, but the box office success of The Wedding Planner was going to leave McConaughey trapped as a romantic comedy himbo (if not THE romantic comedy himbo) for pretty much the entire decade going forward. There would be the occasional failed action franchise (Sahara) or inspirational sports drama that no one actually watched (We Are Marshall), but people only seemed to want to see McConaughey act out slight variations of his charming self in an ever increasing series of critically reviled, but financially successful rom-coms.
During this phase of his career, McConaughey’s most frequent sparring partner was Kate Hudson, with whom he made two movies, both romantic comedies (How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and Fool’s Gold). In their team-ups, Hudson and McConaughey seemed to be the bizarro world version of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Whereas Hepburn and Tracy are considered something close to the gold standard of romantic comedy couplings on film, Hudson and McConaughey were much closer to the bottom rung… they appeared to be vapid, smug, narcissistic, and very much a product of their time. It may not entirely have been their fault. Most romantic comedies in the last decade have been cynical, poorly written and focus grouped to within an inch of their lives. Hudson and McConaghey just gave a pair of attractive faces to the utter cynicism and soullessness of the modern Hollywood romantic comedy. Still, they held their noses and cashed those checks, surely knowing all along how dreadful these movies actually were, so forgiveness would still have to be at a premium.
McConaughey became associated with a sort of preening vanity that turned him into something of a joke figure. A running meme with McConaughey was that he appeared to have a scene in pretty much every film where he had to take his shirt off to flex those gym honed muscles of his. For all the world to see, McConaughey appeared to be about as deep and complex as your average Kardashian. While never regarded as a bad actor per se, he was also not someone that really made you sit up in awe of his talent either. He was just sort of “there”. Yet who could blame him being satisfied with the life and career he had? He was a multi-millionaire movie star, adored by women the world over….not exactly the worst existence imaginable. Being honest, most of us average working stiffs or 9 to 5ers would have traded places with him in a hot second.
McConaughey though, obviously knew something the rest of us didn’t. Who knows exactly when he reached the epiphany that he had hidden depths to himself as both a man and as an actor that the world had yet to see. It’s possible he woke up one day and realised there was more to life than making millions for coasting amiably through awful popcorn movies and having really, really good abs.
McConaughey’s career renaissance (or McConiassance as some clever wags have taken to calling it) began in 2011 with a widely praised turn in the legal thriller, The Lincoln Lawyer. While McConaughey did indeed deliver a terrific lead performance as the ambulance-chasing lawyer Mick Haller, most people assumed it would be but a temporary blip in McConaughey’s decade long descent into mediocrity.
But something strange happened. McConaughey kept on making good (or at least interesting) movies. The quirky indie Bernie (with Jack Black starring as the title character) was followed by William Friedkin’s most notable movie in years, Killer Joe. McConaughey played the eponymous Joe, giving a chilling performance as a hitman who manages to find a very original use for a piece of fried chicken (if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about).
McConaughey continued his flirtation with the Southern Gothic genre in Lee Daniel’s extremely controversial The Paperboy and Jeff Nichol’s critically adored Mud. He also managed to cleverly subvert his shirtless himbo image with his performance as male stripper Dallas in Steven Sodebergh’s acclaimed 2012 box office hit, Magic Mike. The performance would earn McConaughey his first Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male, as well as the National Society Of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle for Best Supporting Actor (both shared with his performance in Bernie).
It’s been an impressive run for McConaughey, that doesn’t look like it’s about to end just yet. Dallas Buyers Club, which just opened in limited release in North America has been earning McConaughey the sort of critical superlatives that have become commonplace for him over the last two or so years. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a man who was dying of AIDS in the 1980’s, and took to forming a black market drugs operation that could prolong his own life and others suffering from the disease.
McConaughey, thanks to his recent body of work, almost feels overdue for an Oscar nod, so it would be a surprise not to hear his name called out on nomination morning. But stranger things have happened, and as it often is, the Best Actor category appears to be stacked (Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave appears to be the current frontrunner, with Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips and Robert Redford for All Is Lost making strong cases for inclusion as well. Contenders such as Forrest Whitaker for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Michael B. Jordan for Fruitvale Station and Nebraska‘s Bruce Dern could also make this year’s crop something of a dogfight).
But whatever happens this awards season, the transformed career of Matthew McConaughey should serve as a source of inspiration. Not all of us can come right out of the gate as the best version of ourselves. But it’s never too late to turn things around. McConaughey may have been your typical late bloomer, but based on what he’s are serving up these days, it was probably worth the wait. – Alex K. Kay
[author image=”http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v193/erikdean/0f752b0d-d4f1-4a32-b7f6-7fc8d5e9b596_zps827d216d.jpg?t=1383092007″ ]Alex K. Kay is a writer who lives in London and is a graduate of London Metropolitan University with a BA in Film and Broadcast Production. His most recent screenplay “Spin” placed in the top 10% of all entries (out of 7,251) in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Science’s Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for 2013. Alex is also currently working on his first novel, and squeezes in freelance writing jobs between that mammoth task. Alex has been contributing to Awards Watch since it’s inception, and if he had a gun to his head, would probably give an award to Park Chan Wook. Or Danny Boyle.[/author]