Matthew McConaughey bursts into crowded Best Actor field with career-best 'Dallas Buyers Club' portrayal

Posted by · 9:42 am · September 10th, 2013

I honestly can’t wait to talk to Matthew McConaughey again this year. We sat down at Sundance to discuss Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” in some detail, but I’m ready to really dig in on what has driven the actor to such a profound turnaround in his career. It’s been covered in fits and starts and superficial flourishes by the media, but I’m ready to get serious. It’s fascinating to me.

We’ve been keyed into the “McConaissance,” as it were, for quite some time. Over a year ago we were pondering 2012 as a watershed year for the actor, noting the kinds of talent he was working with: Nichols on “Mud” (which premiered at Cannes in 2012), William Friedkin on “Killer Joe,” Steve Soderbergh on “Magic Mike,” Lee Daniels on “The Paperboy,” Richard Linklater on “Bernie,” etc. When you’re trying to turn your career around, the first thing you do is sign up to work with a different breed of filmmaker.

This year, “Mud” has finally arrived and become one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. McConaughey has landed the lead role in Christopher Nolan’s next big blockbuster, “Interstellar.” Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is still to come, the trailer for HBO’s “True Detective” promises an intriguing transition to television for the actor and, oh, that Oscar buzz we were expecting to accompany his performance in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Dallas Buyers Club?” It’s here.

To start, this film is wonderful. The script carves a fascinating portrait of a character who experiences a profound emotional and spiritual arc. The filmmaking is crisp and mostly stripped down but has an identity, a vision and a voice. The editing deserves commendation for how swiftly it tells the tale, gliding in and out of scenes with no fat, coming in late, leaving early: textbook. And the performances across the ensemble deliver, particularly in the case of Jared Leto — broad at first but ultimately heartbreaking — and, of course, McConaughey.

All eyes have been on this performance for obvious reasons. We could see the performance at work even when McConaughey wasn’t on set; he dropped a lot of weight, visible when he was making the press rounds for “Magic Mike” last year. But now that the film has landed at the Toronto Film Festival, we’re really able to see if it delivers, if it was all build-up and no pay-off. But let me just say, for my money, the pay-off is substantial.

As Ron Woodroof, a rodeo homophobe in the mid-1980s who contracted the HIV virus and found himself in a fight for his life with the FDA over unapproved medications that mitigated symptoms, McConaughey gives us something really special. It’s fully realized. He disappears into the character, melting his usual quirks and affectations into the performance in ways he hasn’t quite achieved before. It’s the performance of his career, and it puts him square in the hunt for an Oscar.

I look at those five men we’re predicting in the Best Actor category to the right there and I struggle to understand how anyone is going to crack it. The race for the win, I believe, will be between McConaughey and Chiwetel Ejiofor (and Greg Ellwood has McConaughey in the frontrunner position). Their performances bring tears. Robert Redford could absolutely shoot past them, the most unique performance in the category, a near-silent portrayal that will have an impact on older Academy members because of the narrative being built behind the work: Redford wanted to know what he was still capable of accomplishing at his age. Bruce Dern also comes with an attractive narrative — finding recognition as a leading man — that will attract empathy among his friends and colleagues in the Academy. And Tom Hanks hits some notes he hasn’t quite reached in a long, long time (with another potential nomination still to come for “Saving Mr. Banks”).

Where’s the wiggle room? It might just be with Hanks, whose film received some criticism (with which, let the record show, I absolutely disagree) at the end of last week when reviews for “Captain Phillips” hit. Also, his presence in “Banks” could give voters an out as they can chalk him up for supporting there instead if they so desire. I’m really just thinking out loud, though, because he’s so good in “Phillips” that I can’t see him missing.

Steve Carell will be the next contender to really shake up this race as his “Foxcatcher” portrayal looks to follow in the shoes of Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote” and Brad Pitt in “Moneyball” (the other two performances Bennett Miller has directed to Best Actor nominations). Meanwhile, Forest Whitaker is hanging in there as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” remains a box office constant. But how long before that one just goes away amid the intensity of a very strong year?

Christian Bale gives career-best work in “Out of the Furnace” and he has a completely different performance in “American Hustle” on deck. How fun will Leonardo DiCaprio be in “The Wolf of Wall Street?” How surprising will Joaquin Phoenix be in “Her” (particularly when juxtaposed with last year’s explosive Oscar-nominated work)? How much will Ben Stiller’s work in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” drive that film through the awards season? You really start to feel sorry for guys like Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Fifth Estate”), Ethan Hawke (“Before Midnight”), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners”), Idris Elba (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) and Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”) who give quality performances that would, in any other year, be in the thick of the discussion.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the best performance of the year in any category: Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The competition, in a word, is just brutal.

But to swing it back around to McConaughey and “Dallas Buyers Club,” Focus has more than just a performance movie to work with here. Yes it could tread “Boys Don’t Cry” waters and end up with a lead win and a supporting performance, but it’s a Best Picture contender. It’s a Best Original Screenplay contender. And it will have passionate supporters. And before long we’ll probably be talking about it in terms of an over-stuffed Best Picture race just as we’re talking about McConaughey in terms of an over-stuffed Best Actor race.

So, can we have more than 10 Best Picture slots this year? Can we have more than five Best Actor slots? Pretty please? It’s an embarrassment of riches so far and there’s still more to come. 2013 is one of the great years already and it’s just September. We can only hope that the Oscars are at least somewhat representative of that when all is said and done, and let me say this: McConaughey winning an Oscar for his best work amid a career renaissance would be an excellent representation of where we are in cinema at the moment.

“Dallas Buyers Club” arrives in theaters on Nov. 1.

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