There’s much to admire about Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. In the role of Ron Woodroof, a cocky Texan whose HIV-positive status leads him to battle the FDA and the medical establishment, McConaughey is both powerful and nuanced. And at times extremely funny too. But virtually every review praising his performance mentions that he lost over thirty pounds (or forty, or fifty, despending on what source you read) to achieve the skeletal frame of a man dying of AIDS. This was a far cry from his 2012 Magic Mike, in which he buffed up to play a male stripper.
McConaughey isn’t the first Hollywood star to punish his body in the service of his art. Tom Hanks also got skinny to play an AIDS sufferer in Philadelphia. For Cast Away he ate himself pudgy to portray a sedentary middle-aged guy. Then production was halted for a year of serious dieting so that he could look suitably gaunt as a man marooned on a South Pacific island. Hanks recently revealed he’s got Type 2 diabetes, a situation that may (or may not) have been encouraged by his years of yoyo-ing weight.
Other stars who’ve lost major poundage to take on dramatic roles include Christian Bale (The Fighter), Matt Damon (Courage Under Fire), Matthew Fox (Alex Cross), and Curtis “Fifty Cent” Jackson, who played a football star battling cancer in All Things Fall Apart. Michael Fassbender starved 42 pounds off his frame when portraying real-life Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger. Another actor who whittled himself to a point of near starvation was Adrien Brody, playing a Warsaw musician hiding from the Nazis in The Pianist.
Brody won a Best Actor Oscar for his pains, the youngest man ever to do so. Likewise Tom Hanks was honored for Philadelphia, and McConaughey is considered a serious Oscar contender this year. In 2011, Christian Bale won for his supporting role in The Fighter, and Jared Leto (who also dropped significant weight to play – brilliantly -- a transsexual AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club) is frequently mentioned in this category. So acquiring a lean and hungry look can have its rewards. Obviously, Oscar voters are impressed by guys who go without dinner.
Women who’ve found success in today’s Hollywood of course know a thing or two about dieting. Even for those who are NOT playing cancer patients or concentration camp inmates, thin is definitely in. The web is full of blow-by-blow accounts of the workout and dietary regime that allowed the already slender Anne Hathaway to squeeze into her cat suit for The Dark Knight Rises. She went beyond slim and slinky to play the tortured Fantine in Les Miserables. For this she too won an Oscar, along with (I suspect) the adulation of teenage girls keen to latch onto her diet secrets.
The determination by Hollywood stars to lose weight at all costs is nothing new. Back in 1967, Faye Dunaway was cast as outlaw Bonnie Parker in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Her previous film had been Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, a Southern-fried melodrama in which she played the supporting role of a hearty country gal. Costume designer Theadora Van Runkle confirmed to me Dunaway’s instinctive sense that she’d need to be thinner to do justice to Bonnie’s 1930s look. She slimmed down almost overnight, strictly through will power: “I never saw her eat anything.” Which made Dunaway not the pleasantest person to have on a movie set. But what price glory?
All the above is making me mighty hungry, so I think I’ll go gobble some pumpkin pie. Happy Thanksgiving!