In A Decade Under the Influence, a documentary on American cinema in the 1970s, Bruce Dern reminisces about how he and fellow-actors like Jack Nicholson had to compete with Brando, McQueen and Newman for parts. “It wasn’t about catching anybody, it was just being allowed to audition for the roles they got,” he says. “Why should they have a corner on the market? Yeah, we don’t look like they do, we’re not handsome like they are” – and here Dern’s voice turns menacing – “but we’re fucking interesting.”
In the first 18 years of his career, Matthew McConaughey was, for the most part, an anti-Dern; on the inside, barely glancing out. He looked like a movie star, he talked, stood, smiled like one. This, combined with his easy, non-threatening onscreen manner, landed him in one of Hollywood’s more lucrative traps – romantic comedy leading man. He did Failure to Launch (2006) and Fool’s Gold (2008) and a half-dozen indistinguishable others. His credibility dropped steadily, to the extent that Matt Damon impersonating him on Letterman seemed more interesting than his films. But then, almost overnight, he became interesting.
McConaughey had a bright start to his career, with a walk-on part to die for as ex-jock David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (“That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age”). He was one of the outfielders in Angels in the Outfield, an attorney who defends a black man on murder charges in A Time to Kill, and a lawyer again in Spielberg’s Amistad. But he wasn’t particularly interesting in big-budget films like U-571 and Contact, and in 2001, he headlined his first romantic comedy, The Wedding Planner, co-starring Jennifer Lopez. When he looked up, ten years has passed and the world had lost interest.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the movie star mutated into the actor. It was definitely post-2011, the year he stopped with the romances, starred in the serviceable courtroom drama The Lincoln Lawyer and provided droll support as the district attorney in the black comedy Bernie. (McConaughey has a thing for playing lawyers.) The following year, in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, he played a mysterious man on a desert island who’s discovered and assisted by two boys. It was a terrific film, and a blindingly good lead turn, equal parts braggadocio and and desperation. He then scared the crap out of whoever saw William Friedkin’s extremely twisted Killer Joe, in which he was a sort of vengeful angel. To top things off, he ran away with Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, playing a male strip club impresario complete with bongos and black thong.
2013 was even better. A key cameo was sent his way by a director who likely has Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro on speed dial. Yet there he was, doing blow and thumping his chest in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. He also played Ron Woodroof, a rodeo rat who contracts AIDS in the early days of the disease and becomes an illegal dealer of HIV-combating drugs, in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey lost 50 pounds for the role, and agreed to sport a silly moustache. He looked like a cross between a vampire and Harry Dean Stanton. No one would think of casting Ron Woodroof in a romantic comedy. But it did win McConaughey a Golden Globe for Best Actor.
It seems fair to say that the last vestiges of vanity have been ironed out of McConaughey’s system. But now that he’s wrenched back the spotlight, will he lose his nerve? He’ll be getting the Clooney-Pitt offers now: Christopher Nolan has already cast him in next film, Interstellar. Still, McConaughey’s next project – the HBO series True Detective, which reunites him with his EDtv co-star Woody Harrelson – suggests that he’s determined to go on placing outside bets until he’s out of chips. Granted TV is no longer movie jail, but it’s still unheard of for a leading Hollywood star to do small screen work if he’s still got a film career.
Another thing that’s almost unheard of is for an actor with an established persona to turn his career around so dramatically in his forties. The only comparable example I can think of is that of Humphrey Bogart, who’d been in pictures since 1928, but only shook off his image as a Warners heavy with The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra in 1941, when he was 42 years old. McConaughey is 44 today. It’s tough not to think back fondly on the first time people noticed him, walking into a bar in pink hot pants in Dazed and Confused, looking around the room as if he owned it, Bob Dylan pronouncing him champion of the world.
Wrote this for GQ. Should be up on their site any day now.