If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk.
And if you give a major movie star AIDS, he’ll probably want an Oscar.
So it goes. The year 2013 is shaping up to be a year of Very Important Movies. Multiple Civil Rights stories are already gunning for prizes, including Fruitvale Station, The Butler, and (most promisingly) 12 Years A Slave. It is, naturally, tough to beat a well-made, well-acted slavery drama at the Oscars, because few “issues” have such import. But AIDS does. We’ve come a long way since Philadelphia, which saw Tom Hanks win a golden boy. And yet AIDS isn’t something Hollywood touches on too often, especially in a direct, “this whole movie is about it!” way. AIDS is a fresher topic than slavery, certainly.
In the Best Actor race, we’re likely to see the slavery contender (Chiwetel Ejiofor) vie with the AIDS movie star (Matthew McConaughey), and who can really say which issue trumps which? McConaughey is the bigger star, of course, and Best Actor often — but not always, Jean Dujardin — goes to a veteran Hollywood player. (Tom Hanks will likely also be in the running, but minus the AIDS this year.) It’s a good thing there’s no big Holocaust movie coming out in 2013, because then the battle would get really bloody.
Yes, it’s cynical to boil these films down to a single issue, like American slavery or the early days of the AIDS crisis. They’re more than that — and neither feels made primarily to grab Oscars. But that doesn’t mean those big issues won’t be on the minds of Oscar voters this winter, as we remember McConaughey’s alarmingly skinny appearance as a man slowly dying of AIDS, or Ejiofor hanging by his neck on a tree and being whipped. This year’s Best Actor race, then, could boil it down that simply: AIDS vs. slaves. Which do you find more sympathetic?
Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, a hard-drinking, drug-abusing, sexually promiscuous straight man who acquires AIDS in 1985 and is given a mere 30 days to live. Of course, these were the days when doctors were still largely in the dark about the virus, and in particular, how best to treat it. The doctors in this movie, portrayed by Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner, are conducting trials on AZT, but Woodruff doesn’t have time to wonder if he’s on the good stuff or the placebo. Too-high doses of AZT may be poisoning AIDS patients, Woodruff learns, and so he sets out acquiring his own drugs from a rebellious physician down in Mexico. And thus he forms the Dallas Buyers Club, helping victims of AIDS treat their disease with unapproved medication for the low, low price of $400 a month.
Ron Woodruff was a real person — the rest of the characters in this movie are not. When we meet him, Ron is the typical womanizing, homophobic Texan electrician you’d expect to find in Dallas in the mid-80s. His AIDS diagnosis causes his friends to abandon him — they don’t even want to touch him —and friendly messages like “Faggot Blood” to be spray-painted on his home (which he is swiftly evicted from). As a straight man with AIDS, Ron is immediately an outcast without a support system; he finds himself an honorary memory of the Dallas gay community whether he likes it or not. Gradually, he becomes more tolerant, but not in a cheesy “life lessons” sort of way. He mostly keeps his head in his business and ends up living another seven years beyond the life expectancy his doctors gave him, no thanks to AZT.
As fascinating a story as this at times, and as worthy as it is of being told, the real reason to see Dallas Buyers Club is the performances — they are this film’s best shot at Oscar consideration by far. Matthew McConaughey dropped 50 pounds to play Woodruff and it shows — while he still carries himself like a ladies’ man, the charismatic movie star loses nearly all of his sex appeal here, delivering a fiery and lived-in performance that never asks for the audience’s sympathy. (He does continue using homophobic slurs.) McConaughey has suddenly, almost overnight, turned into a bona fide thespian, delivering strong turns last year in Magic Mike and Killer Joe, and now again this year in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club. (He’ll also pop up in The Wolf Of Wall Street.) He’s a Hollywood veteran who took on a challenging, controversial, and physically transformative lead role, and he’s never won an Oscar — there’s every reason to believe he’s this year’s Best Actor frontrunner. (Sorry, slaves!)
But there’s an even more captivating performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and it comes from Jordan Catalano — sorry, that’s Jared Leto — 2013’s comeback kid. It’s been a minute since we’ve seen notable work from Leto, though he was solid a decade ago in films like Requiem For A Dream and Fight Club. In Dallas Buyers Club, he’s a full-on scene stealer as the transgender Rayon, who partners up with Ron and develops a tense friendship with him. Leto perfectly embodies this character, born a man, identifying as a woman, in a way that is remarkably feminine. It is, of course, a showy, attention-grabbing performance by nature, but Rayon is a showy, attention-grabbing person, so it fits. Leto might not be quite high-profile enough to nab the Best Supporting Actor award (especially if voters are already giving one to McConaughey), but the performance is so good that it’s entirely possible.
So, sure, this is a drama that in many ways feels progressive, but still makes some concessions for mainstream audience. This isn’t the end-all, be-all, 12 Years A Slave of AIDS movies — it’s still told through a heterosexual man’s eyes, and the only major gay character is the transgender Rayon. It doesn’t deal with these characters’ sex lives very directly, and in a movie about AIDS, you’d think that’d be relevant. The story (written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) moves so nimbly, you might wish for a little more juice, and a little more meat, in some of the interactions. There’s still a bit of a Hollywood sheen on Dallas Buyers Club, particularly whenever Jennifer Garner is on screen — though it does get a shade grittier than Philadelphia. (Sidenote: do all AIDS movies have a major American city in the title?)
Still, it’s a well-made, well-directed, and incredibly well-acted film, and if it earns either of its male leads an Oscar, they will deserve it. Treated with as little sentimentality and schmaltz as possible by director Jean-Marc Vallée, it’s an effective ode to the horrors of AIDS in the 80s, and a reminder that the disease didn’t affect just one kind of person. We tend to think of the 80s as a prosperous and reasonably carefree time in American history, but it certainly wasn’t for the people depicted in this movie, and it isn’t likely to make anyone nostalgic for these days. Dallas Buyers Club borrows a note of triumph from the future, since HIV isn’t a death sentence for people like Ron and Rayon anymore.
Like 12 Years A Slave, It’s a reminder of a time we might like to forget, which is all the more reason to remember.