When I received an invitation to the American premiere of a movie titled Dallas Buyers Club, I knew nothing about it except the random info that its star, Matthew McConaughey, had lost a great deal of weight, 40 or 50 pounds, for the filming. Before the Academy screening began, the two women producers, Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, made a little speech about how tough it had been to get the picture made (join the club, ladies) and introduced the large cast to the audience.
What followed stunned me: It was a powerful, fascinating, often macabrely humorous film that has remained in my head ever since. I will try not to spoil your fun by going into too much detail, but I will spell out the bare bones of the true story.
The main cast at the preview I attended: Jennifer, Matthew, Jared / photo by Jay
It opens in Dallas, Texas, in 1985, at a rodeo, and we meet a boisterous, loud, uncouth electrician-rodeo rider named Ron Woodruff, a thoroughly unpleasant fellow played by a scarily emaciated McConaughey. The first scenes show him in a coke-fueled three-way at the rodeo with some trashy women. He has a minor accident repairing a junction box and in Mercy Hospital, and, after a blood test, he is told that he is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He is a homophobic straight guy who refuse to believe the diagnosis, ranting and raving and breaking things in his anger. He is then shunned and ostracized by his so-called buddies. He probably picked up the virus from an infected drugged-out woman he met. The two doctors, Denis O'Hare and Jennifer Garner, tell him that he is far advanced and has only about 30 days to live. They refuse to give him AZT, the only experimental drug available at the time to treat it, so he bribes a hospital attendant to get some -- and takes it. (The doctor cynically tells him, "The only people AZT helps are those people selling it.")
Matthew McConaughey in character / photo from Focus Features
He gets even sicker, and realizes his only hope is finding a treatment outside of the normal area. He is no fool, and researches treatments on the Internet from around the world, and begins trying them. His awakening comes in a clinic across the border in Mexico when an idealistic American doctor there, Griffin Dunne, gives him some vitamin- and protein-based anti-viral meds that help his immune system rebuild itself -- medicines and vitamins which are not approved by the Food & Drug Administration. The FDA, in collaboration with the powerful drug companies, will not endorse any other treatment except the powerful, dangerous one they are advancing. Ron begins traveling and smuggling in drugs from other countries, which seems to help, first for himself and then for others suffering from the disease.
He is aided in this by Rayon, a flashy, funny and utterly charming transgender woman he meets in the hospital, played by Jared Leto, whom I knew as the lead singer in the hot Thirty Seconds to Mars band. Dressed in a long wig, high stiletto heels, waxed eyebrows, lots of makeup and a wicked sense of humor, Leto also lost a great deal of weight for the role of the addicted friend. He is absolutely terrific in this part -- and I learned from the producers later that he never broke character during the 25 days of filming in New Orleans. He lost some 30 pounds to prepare for it, appearing on the set weighing 116 pounds. (He didn't stay for the screening I attended, and I hear that he has not yet seen the film. My prediction: a nomination for best supporting actor, for sure.) Melisa Wallck, who wrote the film with Craig Borten, told the New York Times they created the fictional character to show how Ron comes to accept the subculture of gay men, which he had dismissed. Jared auditioned for the role with French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee by Skype from Europe. Writing in Time.com, Richard Corliss said: "Leto captures the sweet intensity and almost saintly good humor of a glamorous, poignant, and downright divoon creature- a Camille who may surrender her health but never her panache."
Jared Leno in character / photo from Focus Features
The rock star as himself at premiere / photo by Jay
It was in the summer of 1992 that an aspiring writer-producer Craig Borten read about a guy in Dallas who was deeply homophobic and was diagnosed with HIV; he drove there and interviewed him for three days. He thought the story about a man in his early 40s who prolonged his life and helped thousands of other by obtaining unapproved drugs might make a good movie. That was the genesis of the film. (Ron died a few months after the interview.) After the screening at the Academy, I read about its standing-ovation debut at the Toronto Film Festival.
Matthew as himself, on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter
The film depicts how Ron and Rayon begin selling banned drugs to other HIV patients and, to get around the laws against selling unapproved drugs, they form the Dallas buyers club, which people join for $400 a month to get their meds. The FDA, in the person of an officious guy, as well as the IRS and DEA, comes after them, and eventually shuts them down. They take the FDA to court but lose the suit, although a scroll at the end says that Ron was finally allowed by the court to use these forbidden drugs for his own personal use. He lived for seven years before dying from the disease, while Rayon tragically dies earlier from his drug habit.
The two leads in character / photo from Focus Features
I know, I know... I said I wouldn't tell the whole story, but then I went into too much detail. But believe me, I have not spoiled the fun and the wonder of this movie for you. It contains so much more than the above bare-bones plot: scene after scene of riveting dramatic impact, some very funny moments and some heartbreaking ones. Jennifer Garner came to the screening without her husband, Ben Afflick, and we had a nice talk about the role. She plays a doctor who comes to sympathize with (and even love?) Ron, and is superb. (She expressed interest in reading the screenplay of my new remake of Bell, Book & Candle.)
But it is 43-year-old Matthew McConaughey about whom you come away from the movie raving. Early this year I favorably reviewed a little movie in which he starred called MUD, which incidentally was the very first screener we Academy members received some weeks ago. Yes, you can talk about the 40 or 50 pounds he lost for the film, going from 182 to 143 pounds, but it is the intensity and humanity of the man he becomes in the film which sticks with you and tears your heart out. After the screening, Matthew said to our group that he was not trying "to be a crusader in it, he's just being a businessman trying to get rich and to survive himself. In doing that, he is fighting the powers-that-be....you gotta allow people to medicate themselves." He told us that "the script had been around for some 16 years and was on my desk for four of them, and I never took it off." I learned from sources that Matthew received an up-front fee of only $200,000, although he does have some back-end profits. Matthew was quoted as saying, "The making of the movie is comparatively easy... it's what comes before that is chancy." I can only imagine what it took to finance an AIDS-related movie like this... miracle of miracles. It was finally made for $5 million by Universal's Focus Features, to their credit. Bravo to all involved!
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