Jared Leto

Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo | Daily Texan Staff

In “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” Matthew McConaughey plays a racist, homophobic electrician named Ron Woodroof. The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, almost goes out of its way to avoid becoming what it easily could have been: a sentimental and heartfelt tale of one bigot learning to accept others — and probably finding love in the process. In forsaking the obvious route, “Dallas Buyer’s Club” manages to craft a down-to-earth and inspiring story of survival. 

Woodroof is based on the real-life activist of the same name who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, a time when the disease was still widely considered to only be a threat to homosexuals. When Woodroof is diagnosed, he is shocked. But after taking stock of his deteriorating body — McConaughey reportedly lost 47 pounds for the role — he tries to get his hands on the AZT drug, which was untested at the time. Woodroof is told he has 30 days to live. Waiting six months for the first round of human trials to be approved by the FDA isn’t an option. He starts stealing the drug — nearly dying due to the drug’s destructive effects on his already frail immune system — and later finds a doctor in Mexico who will sell him a pharmaceutical cocktail of supplements and medicines that is not available in the U.S. 

Always looking to make money, Woodroof starts importing the drugs from Mexico and Japan and selling them to AIDS patients in Dallas. With the assistance of Rayon (Jared Leto), a drag queen and fellow patient, Woodroof opens the Dallas Buyer’s Club — a membership based supply of AIDS symptom-fighting drugs that cannot be obtained anywhere else. Most of the club’s members are gay, and the film benefits from never letting itself forget that Woodroof’s actions are based on self-interest. He does become an activist, but only out of the need to raise support for his efforts in the face of increasing attention from the federal government. Woodroof grows more accepting of his clientele, and the slow dissipation of prejudice is more believable because it is inspired by the primal need to survive. 

McConaughey and Leto deliver outstanding performances. There is more at play than the physical transformations the actors took on for their roles. Woodroof is gruff, sarcastic and volatile for most of the movie, but there’s an unmistakable charisma there. He is clever, and it’s easy to see why people are drawn to him despite his dour exterior. Rayon,
meanwhile, makes for the most unlikely partner-in-crime Woodroof could have asked for. Leto is
heartbreaking and hilarious, often at the same time. 

“Dallas Buyer’s Club” succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to sensationalize an unsentimental issue. At times it feels like the businessman’s response to “Rent.” While that classic musical depicted AIDS as a failed suppressor to vibrant energy of life, “Dallas Buyer’s Club” shows how the disease organized those who weren’t ready to see their lives end. Woodroof began by looking out for himself and inadvertently became an unlikely champion for AIDS victims. He probably never imagined such a thing happening, but he played the hand he was dealt.

Editor’s note: Two Life & Arts staff writers discuss big releases that are garnering buzz for the awards season. This week they focus on “12 Years A Slave.” 

Colin McLaughlin: “12 Years A Slave.” Wow. Just wow. I’ve been doing my best not to jinx the movie or send people to see it with ridiculously high expectations, but I find it hard to see how anyone can be disappointed by Steve McQueen’s brutal examination of slavery. “12 Years” has yet to see a wide release, and so “Gravity” still looks like the film to beat. I don’t want to be like some other unnamed Oscar bloggers and state that “12 Years a Slave” is, without any doubt, this year’s Best Picture winner. At this early point in the race I think the question about this film isn’t, “Will it win?” but, “What could prevent it from winning?” Thoughts?

Lee Henry: Well, a week ago I would have had an answer for you, and that answer would have been “Saving Mr. Banks.” It was supposed to be the “King’s Speech” equivalent for this year: feel-good period piece based on a true story and featuring several beloved actors exchanging witty repartee. From what I’ve read, the movie only delivers on the last item. While that’s certainly enough to propel Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks into individual nominations, it’s not going to be enough to compete with “Gravity” and “12 Years.” Both Hanks and Thompson are Academy darlings with two wins under their belts, and both are as charming as anyone else in the business. Thompson has a much tougher category than Hanks though, who is being predicted by several pundits as a frontrunner to win.

 

CM: From what I’ve heard, “Saving Mr. Banks’” best bet is a supporting actor win for Hanks as Walt Disney. Not only will the role likely gain him a second nomination for this year, it also poses a serious threat to Michael Fassbender, whose role as the sadistic slave owner in “12 Years a Slave” had many calling the supporting actor race early. But Fassbender is giving the Academy the cold shoulder, refusing to campaign for supporting actor. We may see Hanks take home his third Oscar this year. 

LH: Yeah, Fassbender had a nomination all but ensured and he’s ruined it by playing the “I’m an artist” card. He’s not thinking about how this move negatively affects “12 Years a Slave’s” momentum. Regardless of Fassbender’s anti-campaign strategy, I think he’ll still get in. The award for supporting actor seems to be becoming a three-man race between Fassbender, Hanks and Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyers Club.” We both saw “Dallas Buyers Club” over the weekend, and I think we can agree that his work as a male-to-female transgender HIV-positive drug addict is stellar. Now this may sound like an over-the-top made-for-Oscar role, but Leto owns it and creates a fully developed, tragically funny character. 

 

CM: I see Leto as the real potential upset in the supporting actor category. He’s never been nominated and he’s not much of a household name, but he’s delivered a solid body of work over the last decade in movies like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Lord of War.” With Fassbender’s status now up in the air, this year’s supporting actor race could become a battle between young first-time nominee Leto and two-time winning legend Hanks. The most exciting races in recent years have been defined by the old versus the new. 

LH: Agreed. Leto has an uphill battle ahead of him though. The Academy has rewarded women playing female-to-male transgender characters multiple times, most notably Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” but that’s never gone the other way. That’s a big hurdle for Leto to jump and he may not have the name recognition or actor cred. It all depends on how Focus markets him and his co-star, the equally awesome Matthew McConaughey. 

 

CM: McConaughey’s physical transformation alone was impressive. But, he radically alters his body and still manages to deliver the best performance of his career. He’s completely overhauled his career in the last 18 months with strong, varied performances in “Mud,” “Bernie” and “Killer Joe,” and “Dallas Buyers Club” could be one that sends him home with the Oscar.