Matthew McConaughey: from 'torso' to toast of Hollywood

Jan 14, 2014
Richard A Jinman

Once derided as rom-com 'himbo', the Dallas Buyers Club star has re-invented himself as an edgy star

SOMETHING strange has happened to Matthew McConaughey: he stopped being a joke.

On Sunday, the 44-year-old whose most memorable asset used to be the washboard stomach he unveiled with dreary frequency in by-the-numbers rom-coms like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch, won a best actor Golden Globe. He did so by losing 40 pounds to play Ron Woodroof, a rodeo rider with Aids, in the drama Dallas Buyers Club.

If McConaughey looked a little surprised at his win who can blame him? It was his first Golden Globe nomination and few pundits had picked Dallas Buyers Club as a contender.

But if McConaughey picks up an Oscar on 2 March – and there's every chance he will – he'll have performed one of most remarkable re-inventions in Hollywood history. The Texas-born heartthrob, who was a fixture on 'worst actor' lists as recently as two years ago, is suddenly looking like the most credible man in Tinseltown.

Not convinced? Well, how about this: the premiere of McConaughey's dark, gritty HBO series True Detective was watched by 2.3 million viewers on Sunday night. It was the cable network's most successful premiere since Martin Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire in 2010.

That's quite a coup for an actor whose abilities were once so derided he was written off as a "torso". An actor the Complex website accuses of making "some of worst romantic comedies of the new millennium – films that our girlfriends force upon us during DVD nights".

To be fair, McConaughey didn't start his film career as a celluloid punch-line. His scene-stealing performance as a stoner in 1993's Dazed and Confused suggested he was capable of interesting work. But by 2001 – the year he starred in the moribund rom-com The Wedding Planner – his name was synonymous with the kind of guileless Hollywood 'himbos' who are effortlessly outsmarted by their sassy girlfriends.

The reinvention of Matthew McConaughey began in 2011 with The Lincoln Lawyer. A slice of LA noir starring the actor as defence lawyer Mick Haller, it was "an unexpected treat" built on a "career-best performance", wrote The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw.

The Lincoln Lawyer was impressive, but barely prepared audiences for 2011's other McConaughey release, Killer Joe. As Joe Cooper, a police officer with a second career as a contract killer, he was the star attraction in a movie Total Film described as "the dirtiest black comedy you'll see in a long time".

The US ratings board slapped Killer Joe with an NC-17 for "graphic aberrant content". As a description it sums up the movie's most memorable scene that involves Cooper, a napkin and a fried chicken leg.

As his reviews went from scathing to celebratory, McConaughey kept his foot to the floor. The journalist he played in 2012's The Paperboy  had a dangerous taste for sadomasochistic sex. He put his torso back to work in the male stripper drama Mad Mike, but his "drawling, leering" nightclub manager was more sinister than sexy.

Which brings us to Dallas Buyers Club and McConaughey's other 2013 movie, The Wolf of Wall Street. In the former, he's an emaciated hustler importing Aids drugs from Mexico; in the latter he's an immoral stockbroker who advises his protégés to get as much cash, cocaine and sex as possible. The Matthew McConaughey of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days - the wisecracking slacker with the abs and the good hair – appears dead and buried.

Variety's Peter Debruge writes that Dallas Buyers Club "permanently puts to rest" any doubts about McConaughey's abilities as an actor. The only remaining question is whether the Academy hands him Hollywood's ultimate accolade on 2 March.

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