Shelley Winters gained about 35 pounds for what turned out to be a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure. Conversely, Matthew McConaughey dropped about 35 pounds for his Best Actor nomination in Dallas Buyers Club, a film with six total nominations. Both die by the end of their respective films, and both characters saved the lives of others in the process.
McConaughey would be the first to tell you that the weight loss was the easy part. Convincing an audience to like a racist, coke-snorting, homophobic, lying, cheating, stealing bigot from Texas was the hard part.
In the first ten minutes of Dallas Buyers Club, set in 1985, Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) snorts coke, bangs two hookers beneath the stands of a rodeo, spouts some nasty slurs about Rock Hudson being gay, runs off with the money he owes for a losing bet, and punches a cop in the face. Woodruff has neither scruples nor guilt about his lascivious lifestyle or those left in his wake.
After what seems like a routine bout with debauchery, he goes to work but is not in the best shape. After an electrical mishap on the job zonks him unconscious, he wakes up in a hospital where Doctors Eve (Jennifer Garner) and Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) break the news that he has tested positive for HIV and has about 30 days to live. It’s not the greatest bedside manner, but in the early days of AIDS/HIV doctors knew barely more than to hand out some brochures and inform him of nearby support groups. Woodruff throws the brochures in the air and storms out while decrying, in his vulgar way, that he’s not gay.
Outside of his personal life, he’s not completely irresponsible. He goes to work, has friends, keeps a home, sells drugs at a fair price, and seems congenial enough to help others have a good time. What constitutes a good time is open for debate. We learn that his brother is the cop he punched in the face and his father, not surprisingly, wants little or nothing to do with him. After another night of debauchery that includes the two “ladies” from the rodeo, he passes out and wakes up with a slightly different attitude.
Woodruff is no idiot. He begins to research not the disease itself but what is happening on the experimental front. He learns which medications have been approved or still considered experimental and only available internationally, then he returns to the hospital hoping to get his hands on something that might help. Good news is the hospital has just struck a deal to be greatly compensated by the government to run a double-blind test for AZT, the only approved AIDS/HIV inhibitor. Bad news is he is not willing to risk being in the placebo group, so he takes matters into his own hands.
After his black market AZT sources runs dry, he heads to Mexico where he gets back on his feet with the help of alternative treatments given by a doctor who lost his license to practice. What he learns is that AZT works like an antibiotic, killing both healthy and unhealthy cells. AIDS (Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome) leaves one without a sufficient immune system to combat the side effects of such a powerful drug, and AZT patients were specifically dying from those listed side effects, which their bodies could not fight. Woodruff, however, switched to a great variety of vitamins and proteins which did not combat AIDS but did keep him healthy. Even while staring down death, Woodruff does not miss an opportunity to make a buck. Working with the doctor in Mexico, he brings a trunkload of vitamins and sets up shop.
While hawking vitamins on the street of neighborhoods where he knows he’ll find the patients who need them, he acquaints himself with Ray, or “Rayon” (Jared Leto), a transvestite prostitute whom Woodruff greatly insulted in the hospital but now finds himself on common ground. They’re both sick, want to help others, and also don’t mind making some cash. For that, Woodruff manages to look past a gay man in a dress.
From this point on, Woodruff has two fights on his hands. The first is obvious – his own health. The second is a battle with the FDA and the federal government who do not like the lengths at which Woodruff will go to both fight the deadly disease and circumvent the pharmaceutical companies. That means a battle over big money because there was no limit to what Burroughs-Wellcome, the company owning the patent, could charge for a life-saving medication. Woodruff is not a doctor, so he can’t sell or appear to prescribe a regimen of vitamins and minerals to “patients.” However, he can distribute vitamins and minerals for free, provided each patient joins the Dallas Buyers Club and pays the monthly club fee of $400.
For McConaughey (Mud, True Detective) to ditch the romantic comedies and take on such poignant, indie-ish projects means giving up millions while adding to his street cred. He knows that money is no longer a reason for him to work. Now, it’s about the legacy he will build, which means Oscar legacy, which it is time for him, should he so choose, to carefully select each project and consider what social causes or issues need the attention and star power he can bring.
Both McConaughey and Leto (Mr. Nobody, Requiem for a Dream), nominated for Actor in a Supporting Role (because it’s not good enough to say “Best Supporting Actor” anymore?) have an exceptionally dynamic relationship throughout the film. Each is nearly repulsed by the other at first, but each finds reasons to work with but not necessarily like the other. They might live on opposite sides of the fence, but their yards are still in the same neighborhood on the same side of the tracks. Each juggles emotions for and an understanding of each other while maintaining a quiet distance built on a seesaw. On one side of that seesaw is money and respect, and on the other side is psychological and physical health. They try to keep the whole thing steady, but it is an infected playground slowly falling apart.
They both know their time is limited. They both have the option to fade away in pity or productively cut a path for the millions of others with the same disease but far less knowledge and resources. Yet as they use their time and effort in a positive way, they refuse – a little – to give up who they really are inside. Woodruff and Ray have weaknesses, obviously, and they occasionally return to those weaknesses, never becoming pure martyrs. Thanks director Jean-Marc Vallée for that. Though not nominated for Best Director, he is included in the nomination for Film Editing.
Ray visits his father, a bank manager whose skin seems to crawl at the sight of his son. He doesn’t want to visit the man who long ago disowned him, but Ray does so to get further help for the Club and its members. He doesn’t reform himself when seeing his father, but he does put himself on hold for a few hours for the greater good. As for Woodruff, it isn’t until he meets a woman similarly infected that we realize just how much he has changed from the creep we had met in the first ten minutes.
Dallas Buyers Club is not a movie that makes you cheer for the underdog partly because we know exactly where Woodruff and Ray will ultimately land. What we don’t know is how they will get there, who they will see along the way, how they will be affected, how they will affect others, and how the audience will respond along with them.
Teacher gives it an A.