Watch Your Words, Matthew McConaughey: Why AIDS Movies Are a Political Minefield for Nominees

Matthew McConnaughey Jared Leto - H 2014
AP Images

Matthew McConnaughey Jared Leto - H 2014

The stars of "Dallas Buyers Club" face special scrutiny as their movie navigates tricky political waters.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Last year, David France's  Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague showed how gay activists fought the government, drug companies and sometimes one another before treatments for AIDS emerged. Dallas Buyers Club tells part of that larger story: how Texas good ol' boy Ron Woodroof, diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, defied what seemed an imminent death sentence and began smuggling drugs for himself and others with the disease.

PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Now, the Dallas filmmakers are discovering that while celebrities no longer wear red ribbons, they still must navigate tricky political waters surrounding discussions of AIDS as their movie heads toward the Oscars, where it is nominated in six categories, including best picture.

After winning Golden Globe, Critics' Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards, Dallas stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are frontrunners in the lead and supporting actor categories, respectively. But their Globe victories also proved problematic. Caught up in the moment, an exuberant McConaughey did not explicitly mention the battle against AIDS, though he did enthuse: "This film was never about dying. It was always about living." Leto, playing to the ceremony's party atmosphere, joked about waxing his legs to play the transsexual Rayon and having a "tiny little Brazilian bubble butt" in the movie.

Some observers were offended. France called McConaughey's failure to mention AIDS "egregious" and said Leto's speech was "discomforting all around. I didn't think his bubble butt was that cute. I didn't like the part as written or interpreted." Salon's Daniel D'Addario called Leto's remarks "homophobic."

By the SAG Awards, though, it was clear Team Dallas had received the message. At the winner's podium, McConaughey testified, "I share this with the entire Dallas Buyers Club family of filmmakers, cast and crew -- and the real-life Ron Woodroofs and Rayons who continue to fight and live with dignity." Added Leto in his acceptance: "Today you not only honor me but also all those around the world living with AIDS and all those who have lost to this disease. Thank you for recognizing them and recognizing their struggle through Dallas Buyers Club." The second time around, both actors got much better reviews. Said France, "I laud them for being better at acknowledging AIDS and trans people."

STORY: Bolstered by Major Oscar Noms, Focus Takes 'Dallas Buyers Club' Wide

But Dallas is not home free; other lingering questions surround the Focus Features release, which has grossed $20.4 million as of Jan. 26. Articles in the LGBT newspaper Dallas Voice and on Slate have challenged the movie's portrait of Woodroof as a homophobic straight man who only gradually came to respect gays who shared his fate. Bill Minutaglio profiled Woodroof for The Dallas Morning News in 1992, a month before he died. He doubts Woodroof was homophobic -- although by then he would have seen the light -- saying, "I never heard Ron disparage anyone who was gay." Steven Pounders, Woodroof's doctor, says of his now-famous patient: "He never seemed like a straight guy. I would think he would always have been bisexual."

But Craig Borten, who wrote the movie's Oscar-nominated screenplay with Melisa Wallack, insists the film's character arc is accurate. "I met with Ron Woodroof for three days [in 1992]," he says. "He did not allude ever to any type of bisexuality. In fact, he had a daughter and a girlfriend. Matthew had access to my interviews and Ron's diaries, and Matt met with his family, and in no way did anything ever come up about bisexuality." He also contends that "within my interviews there was homophobia and there was racism, and it was in his diary."

PHOTOS: Oscar Nominees

Debates about factual accuracy drive Oscar campaign consultants crazy. At best, they serve as distractions; at worst, they can derail the conversation entirely. But even if Woodroof was more complicated than he is depicted onscreen, the latest quibbles probably don't matter and come too late in the day to overshadow the two widely admired performances.

"I'm not necessarily offended if the real Ron was gay," says John Griffiths, president of the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association. That group tabbed McConaughey as its actor of the year (though it gave its top film award to 12 Years a Slave). Says AIDS activist Peter Staley, a script consultant on Dallas, "I hope Matthew McConaughey wins an Oscar." Even Pounders, the doctor who questions some of the movie's details, says it gets "a lot of facts right," that McConaughey's performance is "uncanny" and that Woodroof "would have loved Dallas Buyers Club and reveled in the publicity."