I know I’m not alone when I declare it was a great year for film this past year, and I’ve been seeing more movies than usual, trying to make my way through the Best Picture Nominees . I’ve seen everything but Philomena and American Hustle. I caught The Wolf Of Wall Street the other night and felt an odd confluence of enthrallment and boredom, and then, after seeing Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey sweep the acting awards at the Oscars the other night, watched Dallas Buyer’s Club last night. I didn’t know much about the latter, only that it was about AIDS and that the performances were supposed to be magnificent.
Now, because I’m a loser I not only watched the Oscars but read the day after critiques of the speeches and hosting, and yes, looked at all the candid and red carpet photos I could find. Like many, in my day after investigation, I stumbled into poignant reactions to both Leto’s speech for Best Supporting Actor and McConaughey’s for Best Actor. One writer declared Leto’s an improvement over his Golden Globes speech, during which, apparently, he came across like a pretentious ass and paid no homage to those afflicted with or victims of AIDS, or to the trans or queer community, to which he is obviously indebted since he plays a trans character in Dallas Buyer’s Club. His Oscar speech was rambling, but really interesting. He gave his mother an extended nod, and also got political, drawing attention to current unrest in the Ukraine. Still–and I’ll admit I didn’t even notice when watching live–I read the next day about the fact that he didn’t mention the queer community at all. Didn’t seem like a major offense, given the intensity of the moment and the time pressure when you’re up there in front of a billion people world wide. But interesting all the same. I wonder here about responsibility. Lupita Nyong’o, in her speech for Best Supporting Actress, spoke movingly about Patsy, the real life slave on which her 12 Years a Slave character was based. I’m paraphrasing, but she said something about how she knew the sad irony of so much joy entering her life because of so much pain having been in someone else’s. It was a lovely sentiment, and very appropriate. And yet, I think it’s a little heavy handed to get in a tizzy about who a big shot actor does or doesn’t thank at the Oscars. Let’s not get too carried away and go pretending that any of these people are humble.
McConaughey’s Best Actor speech I missed because I’d fallen asleep, but I watched it the next morning and was entertained by how scripted and prepared he sounded–not disingenuous, just ready–but this time I did notice his lack of mentioning of either the real man he portrayed in the film, who died of AIDS in 1992, or those who’ve been afflicted by the disease. He talked about God, his family, and himself. He basically said that he was his own hero, which was weird, but I think I knew what he meant. Again, not a major offense, and in some ways, who really gives a shit, right? It’s the Oscars, why are we even having this conversation?
So, anyway, I watched Dallas Buyer’s Club last night. It’s good. It didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, but it’s a really powerful film that tells the story of a straight man’s man in Texas, an avowed homophobe, who’s afflicted with AIDS because of loose sex and drug use and given only thirty days to live. He lives far longer than that. When he realizes that the AZT the hospital is giving him is actually toxic to his system, he seeks unapproved but better drugs elsewhere–Mexico, Israel, Amsterdam–and his short term health improves. What’s more, he start’s a “Buyer’s Club” in which other AIDS patients can buy a membership and obtain the drugs and supplements they need that are better for them than those approved by the FDA and being given to them by real doctors. The trick is that none of the products he’s selling are FDA approved, and that’s where the trouble starts, and why we today know Woodruff’s name and, presumably, why his story was made into a feature film.
And yes, the performances are top shelf. Both actors immerse themselves in the material.
My only trouble with the film was the nagging feeling that I’d seen it before. Shortly after becoming ill, Woodruff befriends Rayon, a gay male ported by Leto, and one can predict that Rayon, who seems to forgive Woodruff his gruff machismo and aggressive homophobia, will be the moral center of the film. One can also predict that this friendship will make Woodruff a different man and that he’ll become more gay friendly in the process and realize how false he’s been living and all that. Now, I don’t know what happened in real life with these human beings. The film has gotten some flack for overdoing it, suggesting that the real life Woodruff was probably bisexual and certainly not the almost comically grand gay hater that the movie makes him out to be in the opening third. One is left wondering if the set up is as such so that his transformation can seem all the more compelling. More, shall we say, Hollywood.
I was reminded of a headline I’d seen on the Huffpos a few weeks ago urging the Academy Awards NOT to give Dallas Buyer’s Club any Oscars. Seemed odd. I didn’t read the article then because I wanted to see the film and wanted to avoid spoilers, but I went back and found it and gave it a glance this morning. You can check it out here. In fact, do that, then come back.
Personally, I find Mirkinson’s tactics a little heavy handed in suggesting that DBC is actually a milquetoast film that plays it safe for straight America and doesn’t properly acknowledge the gay or queer community. He takes the film to task for Rayon’s character being thin and too morally “right,” a prop, he accuses, so that Woodruff, the safer straight character, can achieve the moral victory that audiences need in order to feel good about themselves. Basically, he calls the movie chicken shit, and suggests that it shouldn’t win any Oscars because it tells the tamest possible version of its own story.
I’m not suggesting Mirkinson’s fully correct here, but I do think he makes some powerful points about the filmmaker’s intentions, and one’s that are nearly worthy of the weight of his criticism. One point on which I disagree with him is that Rayon’s character is paper thin. I found the character compelling, and though I saw it coming, when Woodruff grows as a man and their friendship becomes more genuine, and more urgent, I felt something. I also wonder if he’s a tad naive here. The idea that Hollywood waters stories down to make them more palatable to mass, white, straight audiences seems just a tad self-evident to warrant such vitriol. And would Mirkinson rather the film NOT have been made at all? It’s story is still an important one. And yet, it’s hard not to applaud his gusto. And so I do.