By Sandra Kraisirideja
There are two strong contenders for the Best Actor Oscar this year: Chiwetel Ejiorfor in “12 Years a Slave” and Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club.”
My money is on McConaughey, who transformed himself to portray Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and lived for another six years despite his doctor’s prediction that he only had 30 days to live.
The movie was directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and also stars Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn and Griffin Dunne.
McConaughey, who lost a considerable amount of weight and dyed his hair brown, is virtually unrecognizable in the role. It may be hard for audiences to remember that McConaughey doesn’t need his trademark blonde hair, sparkling smile and enviable physique to make a character likable.
The “Dallas Buyers Club” is based on the organization of the same name that Woodroof formed shortly after his diagnosis. He had contracted HIV through unsafe sexual practices and was sickened by the idea that he was carrying a virus that was best known to affect gay men.
The Dallas Buyers Club and other clubs just like it sprung up all over the U.S. as gay men sought out alternative methods to treat their HIV symptoms. The movie does an excellent job of explaining how the FDA blocked certain drugs from being used by patients simply because they were not approved. There is also some detail about how the FDA worked with drug companies to push the drug AZT, which may have done more harm than good, to early HIV patients.
Woodroof was homophobic and a drug addict but the diagnosis changed him for the better. In his quest to get well he made it possible for thousands of others to live longer. McConaughey doesn’t pull any punches when depicting Woodroof’s more unsavory traits. He also doesn’t turn him into a sentimental person once he begins to change his ways.
Woodroof does start taking better care of himself and is more open to interacting with gay men, but he doesn’t suddenly embrace all things homosexual. McConaughey makes Woodroof’s transformation more real by staying true to character and not suddenly becoming someone different. Woodroof was a man who took control of his illness and fought for his right to stay alive, and he made no apologies for it.
Jared Leto has also received a lot of praise for his portrayal of a transgender patient with HIV who becomes business partners with Woodroof. His character is a construct for the movie and its important because it allows the audience to see how Woodroof interacted with those people in his life. He tolerated them and in the end respected them as human beings.
Besides the excellent performances by McConaughey and Leto, the movie is a reminder of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when everyone was afraid of getting it and nobody understood the disease.Photos courtesy of Focus Features.