Does Appearance Change Performance? The Matthew McConaughey Question

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(Illustration by Stamatis Laskos for The New Yorker)

By Lydia Geisel

With a charming southern accent and seriously good looks, Matthew McConaughey is a 21st century staple in Hollywood. Having explored more of his work recently, I’ve started to realize that the handsome Texan is quite the chameleon. But, is it simply surface level?

Amidst my TV binging last weekend I found the time to fit in a film I’ve been dying to see: Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Like most, I was touched by the unconventional (and biographical) tale of Ron Woodroof’s struggle with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and his entrepreneurial endeavours to fight the pharma system to save other patient’s lives. I walked away from the film with a few profound realizations but, what struck me the most, strangely enough, was McConaughey’s extreme physical transformation. Throughout the entirety of the film, I was completely awed by the heaps of weight I knew he had lost to seriously portray Ron Woodroof.

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(Still from Dallas Buyers Club, 2013)

Left only as skin-and-bones, McConaughey fully embraced the body and life of his suffering character. I became puzzled by his appearance, however, as I attempted to assess his performance in the film. How much of Woodroof’s struggle was conveyed by McConaughey’s ability to perform from within, and how much of his character’s story was simply told by his decomposing body? In his article for The New Yorker, David Denby applauds McConaughey for a riveting performance that exemplifies a shift from his romcom past. After viewing the film myself, however, I cannot help but believe that his performance in Dallas Buyers Club is not as much of a stretch as Denby would like to argue.

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(Still from Magic Mike, 2012)

Following this line of questioning, I turned to a number of McConaughey’s other works. In Magic Mike, his powerful build and muscular frame define him as “cocky male stripper.” In his most recent film Gold, the A-lister goes to the opposite extreme, baring a pot-belly and receding hairline. I do not want to imply that his abilities as a performer are time-and-again hindered by his physical transformations. I do love watching him on screen. But, I also believe that a number of his works, most significantly Dallas Buyers Club, bring to light the relationship between appearance and performance. While I don’t know if there exists a wrong or right answer, I think that there is something to be said for seemingly strong performances that perhaps rely significantly on a trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) effect.

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2 Responses to Does Appearance Change Performance? The Matthew McConaughey Question

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I think your take on the relationship between appearance and performance is very interesting. It is true, Matthew went some through extreme physical transformations for these roles. I personally think his dedication to each role is pretty incredible and adds weight to the success of each portrayal. Whether sulking in a decomposing body or sporting rock hard abs, Matthew does a great job getting into character and making each film a reality.

    -Sarah Holt

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I think actors often change their appearance for the roles they play. Christian Bale for The Fighter and The Dark Knight is a good example. It’s definitely interesting to think that the appearance and performance correlate with performance. -Jordan Hansgen

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