There was a time, a long time, like from 1996 to about 2011, when many men couldn’t look at Matthew McConaughey’s mug without wanting to punch it. He was so good looking – tall, lean, tan and with that blonde curly hair that always seemed placed just so by an army of hairdresser; and he seemed so smug and self-satisfied with it, like he knew he was God’s gift. And there was a tension between the slick self-confidence he exuded and the audience’s feeling that acting chops had not been included amongst his many blessings. It seemed too that however much he insisted on his just being a ‘reg’lar dude from good ol’ Texas’ he was a manufactured star. Yet here he is now, named front-runner for the Oscar for Best Actor by The Hollywood Reporter for his performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club and enjoying the greatest success of his career on television as well for True Detective, a series that already seems culturally essential.
McConaughey first made an impression in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused in 1993, still a cult film, and one where some of McConaughey’s lines still get an airing: ‘I love freshman chicks; I get older, they stay the same age. Yes they do.’ Fans show a particular appreciation for McConaughie’s relish in saying them, the musical uplift on the ‘Yes they do’ for example. However, McConaughey became famous before any of the movies he starred in were released. He got a Vanity Fair cover in August 1996 with a headline that read ‘Lone Star: Why Hollywood is so hot for McConaughey’ that possibly did him more harm than good. Hollywood might have been hot for McConaughey but audiences like to discover and make their own stars and of the four films he released in 1996 (Lone Star, Larger than Life, Scorpio Rising, and A Time to Kill) only the latter was a big hit, and though he’s very good in it, the film was based on a John Grisham novel, a big draw then, and boasted an all-star cast of which the biggest box-office name was Sandra Bullock, riding high then as now.
It’s worth remembering that McConaughey never touched the upper reaches of stardom: he didn’t command the salaries of the Tom Cruises or Tom Hanks’, audiences were never sure what constituted a ‘Mathew McConaughey film’ and in his whole career he’s never been the sole star of a big box office hit. In fact he’s had very few box office successes for someone with his high profile and, until recently, each has bragged a bigger, top-billed, female co-star to claim a greater portion of the credit for its success: 1996’s A Time to Kill (Sandra Bullock), 1997’s Contact (Jodie Foster), 2001’s The Wedding Planner (Jennifer Lopez) and 2003’s How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days (Kate Hudson).
McConaughey has been one of the most famous men in America for almost twenty years. Photographs of him flashing his pecs with wild abandon appeared in all the weeklies year after year. He was famously arrested playing the bongos naked whilst high. He was named People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ in 2005. Yet, with all that, or maybe because of all of that, audiences in general didn’t quite seem to take him to heart. A woman I know used to refer to him as Matthew Mahogany, a nickname which well expresses the mixture of desire and disdain that even women who liked seeing him in romantic comedies used to feel for him. Until recently, I never met a man who liked the sight of him. There’s a wonderful episode of Family Guy that beautifully expresses a large number of people’s views of McConaughie for most of the last 15 years:
Stewie: I’m going to tell Mathew McConaughey how much he sucks. You know Mathew you are just awful. You are one of the worst actors in the history of film and you need to go away.
Mathew: ‘But that’s what I do most of the year. Going away to exotic places, having sex with my beautiful girlfriend, doing sit-ups and counting money.’
Stewie: ‘Contact. They didn’t even need you for that movie. They could have done the whole movie without you’.
Mathew: . ‘I know I told them the same thing but they told me ‘we just need a good looking guy with a great ass and some tight abs to just provide some down-home enthusiasm for this picture’.
Stewie: ‘You make me physically ill to my stomach and I wish that you would get a heart attack’.
All of this began to change in what now seems an intelligent and carefully orchestrated manner from 2011. That year, he gave a very fine performance as Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, a courtroom drama that seemed lean and lush and which got very good reviews but middling box-office. More significantly, the same year, he also played the title role in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a disturbing noir in which McConaughey chanced playing a religious zealot with a penchant for murder and young girls. It was not a hit but McConaughey proved that he could bring something much more interesting to his roles than his looks — a presence, a threat, a character.
Since then, he’s been extraordinarily adventurous in his choice or roles. In 2012, he played Zac Effron’s older, kinkier, brother in the camp Gothic swampfest that is Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy. Yet, though these movies were getting McConaughey talked about, it seemed to me that he was still better at picking the roles than performing them. Jeff Nichols’ Mud changed my view. It turned out to be one of the most successful indie releases of the last year and McConaughey was also very good in the title role as the romantic stranger who’s killed a man but returns, risking all, to win back the woman he loves.
During this time McConaughey changed people’s perceptions of him as a star and as an actor to such an extent that GQ has named this shift in his career the McConaissance, an irritating way of nicknaming the very real renaissance, some would argue naissance should suffice, of his career. Yet it’s worth remembering that in terms of box-office, the only real mainstream hits he’s had so far have been in supporting parts. First in Magic Mike, where the very theme of the film, how people turn themselves into sex objects for easy money and lose their youth and future choices in a sea of drugs and easy sex, seemed uncomfortably resonant with McConaughey’s own career. Moreover, his part was secondary to Channing Tatum’s stripper, and seemed interestingly consonant with the wise-old-whorehouse-madam roles Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford were reduced to in the latter stages of their careers. His other mainstream hit is of course his superb cameo as Leonardo DiCaprio’s lush and thieving mentor in The Wolf of Wall Street. He’s only in the film for a few minutes but he puts his stamp on it as surely as DiCaprio. These are his only two blockbuster hits since How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days in 2003, a full decade ago.
To me the most interesting aspect of McConaughey’s recent career is that, here he is, unarguably at the peak of it with blockbuster hits (Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street), films that are already beginning to be seen as significant and important (Mud, Killer Joe), work with some of the most important directors (Scorcese, Soderbergh, Lee Daniels, Jeff Nichols, William Friedkin), great critical acclaim (for almost all of his recent films but particularly for Dallas Buyer’s Club), front-runner for the Oscars…This is the moment where you’d expect a Hollywood star to get his pick of roles and name his price. And what are we seeing him in and on? True Detective for HBO
Historically TV stars — James Garner, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Tom Hanks, Will Smith – all wanted to leave TV behind because movies were where the big money and the possibility of art both were. Now, the move to TV is not seen as a move down but as a move sideways, one were actors at the top of their game and at the peak of their box office, stars like Mathew McConaughey, can get the combination of serious drama, juicy roles and mainstream audiences that film no longer seems to offer. Whilst he may very well win the Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club, it is on television and in True Detective that McConaughey is proving what a truly great actor he is, one currently associated with culturally essential work. Only Hollywood seemed to be hot for McConaughey in 1996. It’s taken almost twenty years for audiences and critics to agree.
A shorter version of this ran in The Conversation at: https://theconversation.com/columns/jose-arroyo-114860