I’m all for the Matthew McConaughey Renaissance. Evidently, his acting chops were just eclipsed by his rom-com flops, naked bongo-playing and pot and Bud Light-enhanced exercise regimen on sandy beaches. Here he is making a far less laughable impression with roles in Magic Mike, Mud, True Detective, and now Dallas Buyers Club.
Dallas Buyers Club is about real life Texas whiskey-chugging, homophobic philanderer (yet likable somehow) Ron Woodroof, diagnosed with HIV in 1985 when HIV and AIDS were still wildly misunderstood. Woodroof had been so sickly for so long, self-medicating with copious amounts of booze, cocaine, and sleepless sexcapades, that when he finally lands in the hospital, the doctors cant’ believe he’s still alive. They give him 30 days. Woodroof dismisses all this, claiming the hospital mixed up his blood tests with some “daisy puller’s,” but reality closes in, his friends shun him, he gets evicted, and he gets desperate.
The FDA approved drug AZT makes Woodroof sicker, nearly killing him, and through extensive research he deems AZT toxic and certain medical and government practices reprehensible. There’s a great moment when McConaughey is in the grocery store and comically points out that lifesaving drugs are overlooked by the government, while packages of highly processed ground beef is 100% FDA approved. The audience I was in cheered. Woodroof discovers, and subsequently begins taking and smuggling, experimental but proven effective drugs and distributing them through his buyers club for a $450 membership fee. Woodroof lives six-and-a-half years beyond his grim one-month prognosis and helps hundreds of other people with AIDS in the process.
McConaughey turns out a truly stunning Oscar-winning performance, but after seeing the movie, I was more curious about Ron Woodroof. I found there are significant discrepancies between the real life story and the story of the film. Dallas Buyers Club writer Craig Borten, who interviewed Woodroof during the last days of his life, reports that Woodroof’s ugly, rampant homophobia was assuaged after his friends abandoned him and he began working closely with gay HIV and AIDS patients through the club he’d created.
But in the summer of 1992, a few months before Woodroof died, journalist Bill Minutaglio was given Woodroof’s permission to be the first person to write an extensive profile on him and his alternative pharmacy. Woodroof was colorful and foul-mouthed and outwardly enraged by the US government, medical bureaucracy, and the lies that were killing people, but he never uttered a word that would even imply that he was homophobic according to Minutaglio. Friends who knew him said that Woodroof was never anti-gay. Even his primary care doctor and other medical professionals who’d befriended him said that the Ron portrayed in the film, aside from the McConaughey’s physical appearance (he lost 40 pounds for the role) was virtually unrecognizable to them. People who knew him say Woodroof was openly bisexual (some said gay) – including his ex-wife with whom he remained close until his death.
Shortly after Minutaglio’s article, “Buying Time,” appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Borten sought out Woodroof and spent what ended up being the last three days of his life interviewing him. From those interviews, Borten culled together the screenplay for Dallas Buyers Club, but any and all attempts to get the movie made fell through in myriad and catastrophic ways over the course of twenty years. Had Woodroof been portrayed as gay or bisexual, the movie would likely have been labeled “a gay film” – harder to finance and challenging to market.
Borten stands by his story, though no one knew Woodroof to be either “as racist and homophobic as they come,” as described by Borten, or heterosexual. Borten claims that Woodroof was vitriolic in his last days. If that were true could it simply have been the bare, unapologetic pain and outrage of a man who knew he was at the end of his life? Could it have been the effects of dementia, an AIDS-related complication from which Woodroof suffered? Or was he putting on an act for the screenwriter, preferring not to be depicted in the film as gay or bisexual? Woodroof had a daughter and a sister who survive him, but they were never approached by Borten for interviews, nor his ex-wife.
Borten’s story is essentially a simpler, more convenient arc of Ron Woodroof as a trailer park bigot who overcame his prejudices in light of intractable, devastating circumstances – thereby making the story, in Hollywood terms anyway, more compelling. While I’m still all for the McConaughey Renaissance, his Oscar acceptance speech lacked any mention of Ron Woodroof or even HIV or AIDS. By the same token, without Borten’s movie, it’s probable that few would even know about Ron Woodroof or how he continuously risked his life in order to save it, or his opportunistic revelation that he could help other people who had nowhere left to go. It’s important to recognize the true life of an ordinary hero as much as we’re celebrating the Hollywood actor who, for at least as long as a film and its Oscar buzz lasts, brought one version of that hero back to life.