What makes a great performance? Acting is such a subtle and mysterious art form that sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on all of the minute nuances that elevate a good portrayal to a great one. Maybe that’s why so many of us get so worked up into a tizzy when we see a movie star drop a ton of weight for a role. It’s something we can see, something we can explain in raw numbers.
Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds of Method flab to play the past-his-prime middleweight lug Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Michael Fassbender dropped 35 pounds to play imprisoned IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger. Matt Damon shed 50 pounds to play a scarred war vet in Courage Under Fire. And Christian Bale, who seems to make a habit of this kind of thing, risked his life by shedding 60 pounds to turn himself into a walking ghoul for The Machinist — a movie you’d think more people would have seen considering what a big deal critics and media types made over Bale’s ghastly transformation.
Now comes Matthew McConaughey, whose weight loss to play a man with AIDS in the very good new film Dallas Buyers Club, is merely the latest example of a big-time movie star crash-dieting for a role. I’m all for actors doing whatever it takes to summon something we haven’t seen before. But there’s something about all of these staggering weight loss feats that’s starting to feel a little familiar. Everywhere you look on the newsstand or Internet lately, you see stories about McConaughey’s drastic weight loss and how it’s a sign of his new seriousness as an actor. That he is killing off his old laid back, tawny-chested, rom-com stud persona to be taken seriously just by saying no to carbs and punching a new hole in his belt.