Ten years ago, Matthew McConaughey literally wasn’t in anything. If you asked someone who he was, sure, they’d know — he’s that guy in all those chick flicks. His two most recognizable roles to date were in 2003’s How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (as, presumably, the guy who gets lost), and in 2001’s The Wedding Planner, which is most memorable for being “that thing Jennifer Lopez was in that was neither a music video nor Gigli.” His most “serious” role to date was probably in the illustrious Reign of Fire in 2002, which apparently also starred Christian Bale, presumably as a gravelly-voiced, masked hero who rids the streets of Gotham of its pesky dragon problem. This is a movie that IMDB* suggests that if you enjoyed it, you will also enjoy all of the Underworld movies, Pitch Black, some Nic Cage movie called Next that no one has ever heard of, and the Edward Norton version of The Incredible Hulk. No one liked The Incredible Hulk, which just goes to show that, as I have long suspected, no one liked Reign of Fire.
Of course, his best work to date would have to be his first “major” role as David Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, where he understandably gets top billing in the 22nd position on IMDB; you have to click through to the Full Cast and Crew page to find him. Having not seen this movie I am surprised he has more than one line.
Five years ago, not much had changed — he played himself opposite Seabiscuit in 2006’s Failure to Launch, the lead in We Are Marshall, co-starring Matthew Fox and getting slightly higher IMDB ratings than Reign of Fire, and Ebenezer Scrooge in 2009’s zany re-imagining of Dicken’s classic A Christmas Carol, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. And that was who Matthew McConaughey was — almost 20 years into his acting career, he was a romantic comedy lead.
This year, he continued that trend by playing Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, a madcap romantic comedy in which he stars opposite Ghosts of Girlfriends Past‘s Jennifer Garner, about … a bigot who finds out he’s dying of AIDS at the height of the epidemic in 1985 and then does everything he can to help himself and his community find the care they so desperately need in the face of certain death, growing as a person in the process to find the fundamental value in every human life. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (noting that Jared Leto won Best Supporting for his performance in the same film, and the film was nominated for Best Picture).
Starting 3 years ago with The Lincoln Laywer, which drew scorn and derision from the masses chiefly because it starred Romantic Comedy Lead Matthew McConaughey (“like that will ever work,” said a young, naïve me), but which was actually fairly well-reviewed, McConaughey pulled off a series of totally unexpected upsets, playing a complex lead character in Mud and ultimately scoring a role in not one, but two Best Picture nominees this year (Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club), plus a lead role and executive producer credit in the surefire lock for this year’s prestigious Emmy for Best TV Show Ever Created, Like Seriously How Is It Even Possible To Make a Show This Good, True Detective. In the ~words of my inestimable brother, “If I found out that Matthew McConaughey started taking an herbal supplement in 2011, I would immediately begin taking that supplement.” (I don’t actually remember what he said but it was something along those lines, only better — in the highly unlikely scenario that he is reading this, he should feel free to correct me.) He has pulled off an incredible feat in the past three years, breaking out of his typecast role and establishing himself as a true actor in a way that is completely unprecedented in modern, mainstream American cinema.
… Or is it?
That’s right — Tom Hanks, whom you may remember from his 5 Best Actor-nominated performances (and 2 wins), used to be a B-list rom-com star. People in my generation tend to forget this — we came of age during his heyday. The first thing I remember seeing him in was Forrest Gump, for which he won Best Actor. If I had been older, I probably would have recognized him from Philadelphia, for which he won the prior year’s Best Actor award, playing, of all things, a man dying of AIDS… sound familiar? (I, for one, can’t wait to watch McConaughey play a mentally challenged man bumbling his way through historical events later this year in search of his next award.) In the ’90’s and early 2000s, Hanks would go on to play Jim Lovell in Best Picture nominee Apollo 13, voice iconic main character Woody in Toy Story (whose sequel, Toy Story 3, also starring Hanks, would be nominated for Best Picture in 2010); he’d be nominated again in 2008 for portraying Captain Miller in Best Picture nominee (and huge snub, if you ask me) Saving Private Ryan, play Paul Edgecomb in Best Picture nominee The Green Mile, and be nominated for his fifth (and, to date, final) time for his portrayal of main, and virtually only, character Chuck Noland in Cast Away. In short, this is how he’s remembered by someone growing up in the ’90’s; not only as someone acting at an incredible level (joining the list of other 5-time nominees Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis, and 2-time winners Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando), but as acting in incredible films.
So it’s easy to forget that before he was in Philadelphia, he was in Splash, opposite a mermaid played by Darryl Hannah, supported by a living John Candy and Eugene “eyebrows” Levy.
After that, Hanks starred in The Money Pit, a movie which is synopsized as “A young couple struggles to repair a hopelessly dilapidated house” on its IMDB page. Sounds exciting! (Full disclosure, my parents love this movie for some reason.) In ’89, he would go on to play the lead in a “Comedy | Horror | Mystery” called The ‘Burbs, and either Turner or Hooch in Turner & Hooch, before playing the male lead in the ultimate romantic comedy, Sleepless in Seattle in 1993 — the same year that McConaughey’s breakout role as “that guy who says that thing about high school girls staying the same age” in Dazed and Confused. It wasn’t until the next year that Hanks would win his first Academy Award as a man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia.
Of course, this doesn’t paint the whole picture. During his successful, if somewhat vapid, career as a comedy lead through the ’80’s and early ’90’s, he was nominated for a best picture for his portrayal of Josh, a child-turned-adult-turned toy company genius in 1988’s Big, but I’d argue that Big isn’t of the same caliber material as Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, or True Detective. Maybe I’m not giving Hanks enough credit — not having seen almost any McConaughey work prior to this year, and barely remembering what pre-1995 Hanks work I’ve seen (A League of Their Own, Splash, The Money Pit), I don’t have the proper context to say that The ‘Burbs was or was not a better movie than We Are Marshall. Hanks’ work prior to his sudden ascendency in 1994 maybe does seem more prolific, and perhaps of higher quality, both in terms of overall production value and individual range, than McConaughey’s pre-2011 work. Regardless, Hanks’ case serves as some precedent for what we saw happen this year.
So what does this mean for McConaughey’s future? Probably nothing. Maybe he’ll go on a run like Hanks did; maybe he’ll fall back on his old typecast role. I think the lesson to be learned here, though, is this — if McConaughey flops in his next role, or ends up in a movie in a few years that makes you think “what happened to him? He came so far! And now he’s back to this mindless crap?” just remember that, in between Toy Story and Saving Private Ryan, Hanks starred in That Thing You Do. That in between Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile, he starred in You’ve Got Mail. And that since then he’s starred in not one, not two, but three Dan Brown adaptations.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re really hoping Matthew McConaughey will get back into the romantic comedy business, there’s still hope.
* Literally all of the “research” done for this post was done through IMDB.