Let’s all give a great tip of the hat to Best Actor nominee Matthew McConaughey, a man who not long ago smirked and drawled his way through a string of bland romantic comedies, and was celebrated only for his sweaty dedication to his pectorals. In a swift and elegant turnaround, the 44-year-old spent the past three years disappearing into rich characters dreamed up by some of our best contemporary storytellers. Now his fans, and I count myself among them, love to talk about the artistic courage of such a bold reinvention.
Without taking away from his fine work, I wonder if McConaughey’s story is less about bravery than about the gift of being a white, middle-aged male actor. Yes, he’s brilliantly milked his McConaissance, but it’s because he’s navigated his career with powerful agency. He chose unpredictable supporting roles in films like Magic Mike and The Wolf of Wall Street, while digging deep into messy hero stories in Dallas Buyers Club and Mud. Try to picture any of the man’s former romantic co-stars — Kate Hudson, Jennifer Garner, Sarah Jessica Parker, or Jennifer Lopez, to name a few — having a shot at a single role as weird and surprising.
Maybe you’d dismiss these women as not being as smart or cool or talented as McConaughey. But who thought he was an underutilized dramatic ace back when he was a beefcake playing bongos in the buff? He made us reconsider his chops because there were roles available to force us to do so, parts that didn’t trade on being either the marrying kind or merely maternal. In other words, he got to play grown men who weren’t types.
“We have all these amazing women who have capabilities that are just vastly underserved,” says Nina Jacobson, producer of the Hunger Games franchise. “We need more great material.” Her production company is adapting Maria Semple’s hysterical novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, in which a fortysomething mother is driven mad by domestic ennui and a lack of professional fulfillment. (Interestingly, also the logline for Gwyneth Paltrow’s future memoir.) “You wouldn’t believe the calls we’re getting from the incredible actresses who have read it and loved it,” says Jacobson. “It’s a ridiculous, almost depressing embarrassment of riches. You don’t get those kinds of calls when you have a property with a male protagonist.”
What I wouldn’t give to see Julianne Moore or Hope Davis or Catherine Keener gnash her teeth into Bernadette. Or even Cameron Diaz, who deserves more chances to stretch out of her sparkly-eyed (and shrinking) box. Or Julia Louis-Dreyfus, so funny and heartbreaking in Enough Said. Or Renée Zellweger, if we stopped sniping about her appearance and re-enlisted her talent.
There are women out there who have wriggled outside their pigeonholes. Sandra Bullock, whose best work in my mind is her sturdy oak of a performance as Harper Lee in Infamous, continues to confound expectations. And Reese Witherspoon, so flinty in her few minutes on screen in Mud, for my money outshone McConaughey. But they are as few and far between as the roles available to them.
At the end of his jocular acceptance speeches, McConaughey likes to use his it’s-all-good catchphrase “Just keep livin’!” How many actresses can approach their lives, let alone their careers, with such joyful nonchalance? Just keep workin’, I say to these women. Somehow. Just keep workin’.