film note: Dallas Buyers Club

Look back in anger

Originally published on Letterboxd, Jan 04, 2014

Note: Before I saw the film I didn’t know who the real Ron Woodroof was and so wasn’t aware of the film’s possible attempt to erase at least one aspect of his sexuality or create a new one.

I’ve added some relevant quotes about that issue at the bottom of the review.

Dallas Buyers Club
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
117 mins, USA, 2013

I’ve never seen a better or less showy performance by Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff, a homophobic rodeo electrician who contracts HIV from unprotected sex with an IV-drug-using prostitute and ends up becoming a kind of treatment activist. (One of the film’s insights I appreciated is a reminder that all treatment activists were necessarily self-interested.)

A great deal of the sense of authenticity in the character must of course come from McConaughey’s startling physical transformation that has already happened before the narrative begins, both in the character’s life and in the actor’s but also in the PR leading up to Oscar buzz.

Jared Leto is no less impressive as Rayon, Woodruff’s cross-dressing HIV-positive partner — business partner, as Woodruff stresses at one point — and director Jean-Marc Vallée is pretty savvy to feature the bodies of these two straight Hollywood men in the ways that he does, otherwise I guess a mainstream audience would find it hard to focus.

Other than Rayon’s boyfriend, everyone else seems pretty healthy, so there’s no real sense of communal emergency here, which is how I remember that time period. No matter how many times Woodruff shouts, People are dying!, only his own oncoming death matters very much.

Leto’s Rayon is around primarily so that his death can affect Woodruff. ACT UP gets a sidenote via a news broadcast covering the protest at the FDA during which nearly 200 people were arrested for civil disobedience but is referred to only as “activists.” Jennifer Garner, as the mostly superfluous Dr. Eva Saks, hears that, sighs and switches off the TV.

So while I’m glad this movie talks about a time period that most people, even most gay men, have forgotten, it’s still too bad that this kinda dry vehicle will get seen more than any of the worthy documentaries about the response to the AIDS crisis, such as Voices from the Front, How To Survive a Plague, We Were Here and United in Anger.


Notes on Ron Woodroof’s sexuality as depicted in Dallas Buyers Club

From The Huffington Post:

William Waybourn, the former president of the Dallas Gay Alliance, knew Woodroof well from volunteering together and running in the same circles in Dallas. He told HuffPost Live’s Ricky Camilleri that the movie’s depiction of Woodroof as a heterosexual who struggled to be around gay men is at odds with everything Waybourn knew about Woodroof.

“I never saw the straight side of Ron. That’s what was the most surprising part of this whole movie,” he said. “He worked in a gay center, he was surrounded by gay men, and as far as I know, had relationships with gay men. I can’t tell you exactly what his sexual orientation was — or anyone’s — but he certainly had no problems being around us.”

This Slate article sums up the sexuality controversy well. Craig Borten, the original screenwriter, says that:

During [his] three days of interviews with him, Woodroof introduced another woman as a girlfriend, repeatedly said homophobic and racist things, and made repeated and graphic references to anal sex with women, according to the press agent. As for the question of whether Woodroof was bisexual, the press agent says it never came up.

Perhaps the most significant and telling fabrication was the fact that Woodroof didn’t ride rodeo and never told anyone how he contracted HIV, something that most admit. In the film, he gets it from a prostitute whom he fucked in a trailer at the rodeo. Because good cinema?

Someone asked a question about this issue on Quora.

Finally, in this Daily Beast article, journalist Bill Minutaglio, who was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and interviewed Woodroof, says only that he didn’t witness Woodroof express any homophobia at all.

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Dallas Buyers Club
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