Now that Matthew McConaughey has won his loudly preordained Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, it’s time we asked how he did it. The answer is simple. He pulled off a canny trifecta: First, he made himself an LGBT wet dream by playing a heterosexual who gets AIDS; second, he lost 40 or 50 pounds (depending on whom you believe) to make his portrayal convincing, a feat that neatly aligns him with the wildly popular reality show The Biggest Loser; and, third, in the course of the story, his character evolved from a homophobic lunkhead to a dear friend of a homosexual cross-dresser. In our popular culture, all of these wagers guarantee pay dirt. OK by me, except I don’t think an Oscar’s quite right. If only the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had arranged to have Matthew mince on stage to collect a golden Detecto for his work in its new Weight Change category . . .
In the service of his art, McConaughey went on camera nearly 50 pounds lighter than his normal weight to play Ron Woodroof, the Texas electrician who had been given 30 days to live after being diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Evermore restrained than their colonial mates in America, members of the British press put the pounds at a more modest 39. I don’t know who’s right, but I will say this: In the film, McConaughey gives an excellent simulation of a dead man walking. Gaunt, sallow, hollow-eyed, he seems to be in a Weight Watchers’ program from which there’s no return.
Woodroof’s only hope, he’s told, is AZT, but he must enter an experimental trial in which he may be given a placebo instead. He’s not taking chances; he manages to steal AZT. But then he learns that the drug will likely kill him quicker than whatever AIDS-related disease might take over his body after his immune system has been rendered catatonic by drugs, both legal and illegal. So it’s off to Mexico to get some better drugs, vitamins, and proteins—all banned in the states. He starts bringing trunkfuls of these nostrums back to Texas, easily outwitting the border guards by dressing as a priest. This detail is handy for the film’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée, and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack since it implies that when Woodroof created his buyers’ club to sell these drugs among those afflicted with AIDS, he was actually administering sacraments of hope to the medically betrayed “gay community.” This is not to say he was being altruistic. He was keeping himself afloat financially after his homophobic construction buddies refused to employ him any longer. In fact, they’re so spooked that they won’t even shake his hand. For such squeamishness they’re made to look hatefully stupid. I found this odd. At the time, little was known about how HIV was transmitted. Further, it was assumed that HIV led inexorably to AIDS. That’s why a number of professional basketball players refused to play on the 1992 All-Star team after Magic Johnson made it known he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. It was assumed he’d soon dunk his final bucket, and some players understandably didn’t want to take the leap with him. Of course, Johnson is still with us, giving evidence of how poorly understood HIV and its supposed connection to AIDS was and is. If I had been a construction worker in 1985, I’m certain I would have avoided HIV-positive fellows on a job site. After all, injuries are not at all uncommon in such work, and the one thing that was certain was that HIV could be transmitted by blood-to-blood contact.
Later, when Woodroof recruits a cross-dressing AIDS patient named Rayon (Jared Leto, also heroically emaciated) as a sales representative for his drug club, we get a scene in a supermarket in which Ron and Rayon meet one of the former buddies. The fellow refuses to shake hands until Ron physically forces him to do so. This is an acting feat since McConaughey doesn’t look like he could stand up to a beefy sixth grader, let alone a muscular carpenter. The scene is just another cheap sneer at supposed heterosexual bigotry and ignorance.
The film follows a well-worn path: a bigot meets the objects of his intolerance and finds that they’re really swell people after all. The message is delivered smugly and anachronistically. And there are other problems. Rayon didn’t exist. When questioned, screenwriter Borten acknowledged that Rayon is a composite character based on transsexuals he interviewed. As for Woodroof himself, those who knew him, including his wife and doctor, always thought he was more bi- than heterosexual. Nor was he a rodeo bull rider as portrayed in the film. He did, however, live seven years beyond his originally predicted demise, during which he seems to have engaged in sex as indiscriminately as ever. The film indicates some of this but is silent on its moral significance. It seems we’re intended to believe that, despite his redemptive defection from homophobia, Woodroof was a good ol’ boy to the end. I guess that’s why we’re treated to him riding a ferocious bull in one of the final scenes. Symbolism, no doubt. What, I wonder, do his sexual partners think of all this?
I will say this for Dallas: Despite its manifest lying, it actually comes surprisingly close to telling the truth about HIV and AIDS, an accomplishment all but unprecedented in our p.c. culture, in which we’re constantly warned not to notice inconvenient truths.
While not as obviously as I would have liked, the film does make it clear that Woodroof destroyed his immune system using cocaine and other drugs, probably amyl nitrite, which was a homosexual favorite in the 70’s and 80’s. He rendered himself vulnerable to opportunistic infections that admit a host of diseases into the body during unprotected sex, especially anal. The film gives evidence of this by including a blurred scene at the very beginning that is repeated midway through. In it, we witness Woodroof in an alcohol- and drug-fueled three-way with a young woman and another man. For whatever reason, Vallée has shot it to make us assume it was a one-time event, which seems quite doubtful.
The media rarely acknowledge that drugs play a role in HIV and AIDS. When they do, the contagion is ascribed to dirty needles. This is misleading. It’s most often drugs together with risky sex that leads to AIDS. This information has been repeatedly glossed over largely because of the political pressure applied by very well-organized homosexual activists. They know that, if the drug connection were generally known, they’d likely receive far less sympathy than they do, because they would be perceived as bearing responsibility for their ailment. No, the activists much prefer the rest of us think homosexuals are victims of some malign agency—perhaps the Religious Right or the CIA. It’s essential that the public regard homosexuals as helpless victims. This, of course, is not true. There are simple, foolproof defenses against AIDS (and venereal diseases generally) that anyone can employ: Abstinence and monogamy lead the list. But it would be impolite to say so, as George H.W. Bush discovered when talking to a gaggle of reporters in 1988. The hectoring watchdogs of our nation were hounding him about the AIDS crisis. What is the government going to do about it? they wailed. Bush made the error of saying that it wasn’t a crisis because the remedies—meaning abstinence and fidelity—were readily available. At his words, the correspondents instantly succumbed to an attack of the vapors. Bush had said the unspeakable; to expect the homosexual community to be celibate or chaste was monstrously cruel.
The other truth the film reveals is that AZT didn’t undergo the normal testing process but was rushed onto the market by the FDA in collusion with greed-driven pharmaceutical companies. This is true as far as it goes. Homosexuals were dying in droves, which wasn’t surprising since the all-in sexual ethic of the 70’s had convinced many of them that it was their political duty to have sex with as many men as possible, assisted, if necessary, by cocaine and amyl nitrite. That’s why hepatitis, so rife at the time, had become known as the “gay disease.” That should have been the tip-off to what was likely to happen next. But, of course, it would have been impolitic to say so. When AIDS showed up in the early 80’s, the FDA and the CDC were desperate to find a way to combat the epidemic. Enter AZT, a cancer drug that had been shelved for being too toxic in the 1960’s. Our medical officials decided to fast-track its testing preparatory to allowing its use on patients. But this wasn’t quick enough for the frenzied activists. They lobbied strenuously and loudly for the drug, accusing the FDA of genocide for insisting on animal testing rather than making it available to sufferers immediately.
In short, a perfect storm swept the nation: The FDA and the medical community needed to do something; drug companies offered an untested cure; and a politically powerful lobby urged its instant use. And so a poorly tested drug was unleashed on an afflicted population. The result: AZT probably killed hundreds of thousands of homosexual men. I don’t believe any other mainstream film on the subject has ever said this. Unfortunately, Dallas doesn’t say it loudly enough.