We’re in the midst of the build up to the 86th Academy Awards on March 2nd, and the front runner for the Best Actor award is a name that a mere five years ago was associated almost exclusively with sub-par romantic comedies; Matthew McConaughey. His performance as HIV sufferer Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club has won him a whole host of accolades, and he seems almost a shoe-in for the award. Leonardo DiCaprio or Chiwetel Ejiofor could be surprise wins, but at the moment everyone’s money seems to be on McConaughey. His remarkable career revival has generated interest as to when and how then did this revival, dubbed ‘the McConnaisance,’ come about and perhaps most importantly, why?
Has this remarkable change ever happened before in the film business? I can think of plenty going the other way (looking at you De Niro), but the closest I’ve come up with with are Ben Affleck or Jonah Hill. Neither of these actors however, have had quite as drastic a turnaround as McConaughey. Jonah Hill has had two Oscar nominated supporting roles but none of his other films were downright bad. Affleck, on the other hand, starred in many an awful film but his redemption has mainly come in the form of directing. No, McConaughey’s U-turn has been quite unique, from consistently bad to consistently good. The change started after a two year gap after 2009’s the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, with the Lincoln Lawyer. Mostly a critical success and undoubtedly a departure from McConaughey’s ‘usual’ roles, it was followed by a string of critically acclaimed films in which he cemented his re-invented status. These included Bernie, Magic Mike, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street and Killer Joe, in which the infamous fried chicken scene is all but seared into the viewer’s brain. He’s kept his southern drawl for most of them, but the characters have all been varied and, more importantly, he has been fantastic in each one. I’d compare this career turnaround to the shock we’d feel if Katherine Heigl suddenly started going method.
It’s obvious he’s made this change, but not so obvious why. Actors choose which films to star in for all sorts of reasons; financial stability, fun, love of the script. What is it that made McConaughey stop making films for two years and then return with a string of successes? Speaking recently on the Graham Norton Show, McConaughey noted that he went through no epiphany, no sudden realisation, merely that he took time to recalibrate his relationship with his career. He described it as ‘same book, different chapter.’ He hasn’t made it clear if he regrets his previous film roles or grew tired of them, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. After watching Dallas Buyers Club, which McConaughey carries almost entirely on his own scrawny shoulders, we should all be thankful he made the change. He is a true talent, who stuck around during the years of pre-production difficulties the film went through. He wasn’t just an actor who showed up on set; he became Woodroof, shooting the film in a mere 25 days with one camera and fifteen minute long takes, with no time for rehearsals or pick-ups due to the meagre budget. This film was and is a passion project for McConaughey and the others involved, truly a far cry from his old films.
It seems more than likely he’ll win the Oscar this March, and deservedly so. Who would have thought this would be the case back in 2009? It seems perhaps there is no clear cut or exciting reason McConaughey decided to turn his career around, but thank God he did – the film industry is far better off for it.