Saturday, October 7, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Dallas Buyers Club" (2013)

Scene from Dallas Buyers Club
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Directed By: Jean-Marc Vallee
Written By: Craig Borten, Melissa Wallack 
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 117 minutes
Summary: In 1985 Dallas, electrician and hustler Ron Woodroof works around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they need after he is diagnosed with the disease.

The Movie

In the few years since its release, director Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club has come to embody both good and bad things. The good is that it represented a shining moment in Matthew McConaughey's career where he went from being a hacky romantic comedy actor a prestigious actor who could convey a wide range of emotions. This was commonly known as the "McConaissance," symbolizing a run of movies and TV series that showed his strengths as an actor. For many, the only film of his to ever get a Best Picture nomination was the best time to give him his "due." It was the chance to realize that yes, he was a great actor.

However, its gender politics may be more problematic depending on who you ask. At the time, the film received glowing reviews, praising McConaughey and Jared Leto's dynamic performances that lead to Oscar wins. If judged as bodies of acting, there's a good chance that Dallas Buyers Club is a fine movie. However, it's more complicated when looking at it from an LGBT standpoint, where Leto's transgender performance lead to severe backlash and started the conversation about casting more than cisgender actors in worthwhile roles. Even then, the portrayal was far from revolutionary and in some ways was as degrading as Silence of the Lambs - leaving some portrait of LGBT characters as victims instead of figures of positive influence.

Very little of the latter was actually what the movie wanted to achieve. It was a story about one man selling drugs to help AIDS patients. Considering that it was based on "real" people, there was plenty of room to blame the reality for any problematic elements. Instead, it remains one of the last major LGBT movies until Moonlight to receive critical acclaim along with winning several Oscars that definitely benefited from a solid Oscar campaign. It was the film that helped to launch Vallee's career, which would lead him to several awards contending projects like Wild and Big Little Lies. This movie would launch his career in significant ways, but not without raising a host of controversil questions about how movies talk about LGBT on film. 

The Campaign

While the movie's production history has its own storied existence, this particular campaign goes back years for a different reason. Throughout the early 21st century, McConaughey was seen as an awful actor. His romantic comedies were trite and reflected an actor banking on his good looks and suave accent. He became a stereotype of stoner culture. Then in 2008, he began a slow change with Tropic Thunder. In a small supporting role, he began to pick better roles that would get him back in the public's good graces. It was a ploy to change his career positively by creating "The McConaisance," a portmanteau of McConaughey and renaissance. The misnomer was simple and to the point, becoming its own familiar meme in popular culture. During this time (but before Dallas Buyers Club) he starred in a variety of movies that included: Killer Joe, The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud, Magic Mike, and most notably in a memorable cameo of The Wolf of Wall Street (his later Oscar win would beat that film's co-star Leonardo DiCaprio).

His ascending status made every film come with a bit of hype. He was great again, and he knew how to get the audiences' attention. Dallas Buyers Club was probably the shiniest when it came to Oscar bait. His appearance was constantly criticized going in due to his massive weight loss. He claimed to have lost 47 pounds in order to properly portray the character who was stricken by AIDS. He later revealed how he lost weight, which included barricading himself in his house for six months to avoid sunlight. He also claimed that the weight loss was getting so bad that he was becoming physically handicapped and losing his eyesight. Much like Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables before, the weight loss drew people's attention because a physical change often was seen as a deeper commitment to the performance, and thus improved it.

It helped that Dallas Buyers Club also had a reputation as the little film that could. Despite starring several Hollywood actors, the film had a famously small budget and shooting schedule. Among its highlights was the revelation that the make-up artist only spent a reported $250 for their entire make-up budget. It also had a special status as an LGBT movie, which were still considered taboo in 2013 even with McConaughey in it. Along with the more publicized weight loss of McConaughey, co-star Leto, who was coming off of a five year acting hiatus, lost 30 pounds and reportedly spent time with the transgender community to better understand their experience. Despite this comment, nobody came public to announce their involvement in Leto's transformation.

What was considered more frustrating was that Leto was chosen to play the part of a transgender character. Many argued that casting cisgenders to play transgender characters was damaging to the community and took away work from them. The complaints continued over into the film's glaring issues with authenticity. For starters, Leto's character didn't exist and felt constructed to be a sympathetic "mammy" figure to McConaughey's bigoted protagonist. Likewise, the real life person McConaughey played has claimed to be bisexual and not homophobic. In less significant details, a film with the word "Dallas" in the title wasn't actually shot in Dallas, Texas. Still, it was fictitious enough that one person suggested that it endorsed pseudoscience.

The problems continued into the actual awards season. While McConaughey received general acclaim for his entertaining speeches, the Golden Globes produced an awkward moment for him and Leto. Some considered it homophobic, in part because an AIDS movie failed to have speeches that recognized... AIDS communities. Leto received a the most criticism when he made the comment that "I did not ever use any prosthetics in this film. That tiny little Brazilian bubble butt was all mine." David France, who was Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary for How to Survive a Plague (an AIDS documentary), was very critical of the speeches. He claimed that "The film presents the gay community as being docile and resigned to death, needing a savior."

While this was the extent of things that impacted the Oscar campaign, Dallas Buyers Club was a movie that spawned its own series of achievements later on. For instance, the growing piracy problem lead the company to sue people in Australia, Singapore, and the United States for illegally downloading the movie. It would go so far as to have public records of the various people who accessed the film in these manners. While the other criticisms have since died down, the general notions have remained public thanks to the continuing conflict of Hollywood not casting transgender actors and giving cisgender performers nominations (see: Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl). The conversation continues to suggest that this is harmful to the community not only because of jobs, but because the general perception of their roles in movies hasn't changed as much as they would like.

The Payoff

There was one person happy when the Oscars were announced. France was quick to note that he liked hearing McConaughey and Leto finally recognize the AIDS communities. When it was revealed that they were nominated, they produced the traditional public note of gratitude, this time noting the communities that they were representing. The film's six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) was a moment of celebration, as it had been awhile since an LGBT movie had gotten that much recognition. With True Detective premiering on TV around the same time to critical acclaim, the McConaissance was believed to be at its peak by Oscar Sunday when the film won three Oscars, including Best Actor for McConaughey, Best Supporting Actor for Leto, and Best Hair and Make-Up.

The speeches were fine, but the conversation continued. Those who were offended by Leto's portrayal of a transgender woman were extremely upset by his win. They believed that it embodied a false sense of progressiveness. Leto was still playing a victim, a fictional one at that, and it took jobs away from equally qualified actors. While there were attacks on McConaughey for being just as problematic, the most pressure came on Leto, whose reputation failed to improve in the years since. In a moment of irony, his win paralleled that of Heath Ledger, who was Oscar nominated for Brokeback Mountain. He went on to play The Joker in The Dark Knight (for which he won a posthumous Oscar). Leto went on to play The Joker in Suicide Squad (for which he was nominated for a Razzie). 

In 2017 while promoting Blade Runner 2049, Leto would claim that he has never watched Dallas Buyers Club because he felt that the experience was too personal. He couldn't imagine watching a film that he invested that much energy into. While this is fine, many continued to judge him as a pretentious actor. Likewise, McConaughey rode The McConaissance for another few years, but has found a string of misfires The Sea of Trees, Free State of Jones, and Gold. Both continue to do high profile work along with Vallee. However, the aura surrounding Dallas Buyers Club hasn't gone away. Many still find it a problematic film, and one that shows the ways that Hollywood still needs to evolve in recognizing the LGBT community. On the bright side, things have slowly changed and made this recent win seem silly, but not entirely inexcusable. That's the thing that still needs to be worked towards. 

1 comment:

  1. "The speeches were fine"? Lord, if I never hear McConaughey's outrageous self-congratulatory Oscar speech again, I'll be a happy man.