THE 2014 OSCARS have now been thoroughly dissected, and again this year they represent a cataclysmic shift in society, or so the critics and bloggers high and low have declared. This was the year in which an African-American director won in his category, while two African actors—not Americans at all, but from Somalia and Kenya—were nominated for best supporting actor, with Lupita Nyong’o winning for 12 Years a Slave; and so an earth change is said to have occurred.
That, at any rate, became the widespread narrative of the mainstream media as they went from trophy counts to Larger Significance. Overshadowed was the fact that both of the best actor awards went to actors in Dallas Buyers Club, a movie that telescopes a set of events in the early years of the AIDS epidemic and highlights the lives and struggles of its early victims (1985), mostly gay men. In my last blog post I did something unusual by announcing my favorite for Best Picture, namely Dallas Buyers Club, which I thought did a remarkable job of telling the story of Ron Woodroof, a redneck electrician and part-time rodeo hand who was as obsessively heterosexual as he was homophobic.
I was also rooting for Matthew McConaughey to win the award for Best Actor—because he really is amazing in the film; and I was thrilled when his name was called. But then came the acceptance speech. I know I’m not the first to point out that the actor made no reference to the movie he was in or to the role he played, a glaring omission at a time when it’s considered de rigueur to address the social and political content of the film you were in, as did all the winners of awards for 12 Years a Slave.
But the thing is, the character he played was a real person, and I would argue that McConaughey owes his Oscar to Ron Woodroof in a more profound sense than to anyone that he actually thanked in his speech (mostly God and his mother). The story he was telling was that of a man who became a bona fide hero by organizing a buyers club to distribute potentially life-prolonging drugs to gay men, in the meantime shaking up a befuddled Dallas medical establishment and even going up against U.S. regulatory agencies in his fight to acquire and distribute these drugs.
I’ve no idea what McConaughey’s politics are, but so blatant was this omission that one has to assume it was a deliberate choice. Jared Leto, who won as Best Supporting Actor for his work as Rayon—a transgender person who became Woodroof’s business partner and friend—offered what seemed a heartfelt statement about his involvement in a project that made people aware of this harrowing episode in American history. McConaughey, in contrast, offered something of a sermon about how it was all made possible by the guy “up there”—yea, it was God who made me so great—and finished with a little screed on the virtues of continuous self-improvement.
That all this was delivered in a thick Southern accent may have neutralized its impact to some extent, if only because it played into a stereotype about a region of the country where people are seen to wear their religious convictions on their sleeve. And, of course, this accent also happens to be associated with elevated rates of homophobia (as well as other historical bigotries). Fairly or not, McConaughey’s reluctance to talk about AIDS or homosexuality—the very things that Woodroof learned to accept through his association with the Dallas gay community—only serves to reinforce a certain image of the South. Perhaps he was simply being true to his convictions, but it would have been so refreshing if McConaughey had decided to break with the stereotype and affirm the validity of his character in Dallas Buyers Club, not to mention the validity of the gay community that Woodroof served and of GLBT people in general.
Richard Schneider Jr. is the editor-in-chief of The Gay & Lesbian Review / Worldwide.