Top 5 Matthew McConaughey Performances

Originally published by, Monday 13th May, 2013. To read the original, please click here.

No longer taking the backseat: In recent years, Matthew McConaughey has proved himself to be one of America’s finest leading men.

IT’S a comeback that none of us saw coming and of which Lazarus would be proud.

With the recent release of Mud, a cinematic slice of timeless, golden Americana from director Jeff Nichols, Matthew McConaughey continues his newly earned reputation as one of the finest and most exciting American actors working in film today.

McConaughey has left his rom- com days as the delectable, though, ultimately, clichéd, prince charming behind him and chosen to play chilling and disturbing characters that would leave any member of his devoted fan base of adorning teenage girls positively squeamish. The square- jawed Texan, who boasts features so chiseled that Michelangelo would throw his hammer and pick down in shame, was previously dubbed “Matthew Mahogany” by noted BBC film critic Mark Kermode in relation to what Kermode saw as McConaughey’s wooden performances in any number of vacuous rom coms. Kermode, however, has since done a U- turn and dubbed now refers to McConaughey as “Matthew McConaissance”.

In recent years, McConaughey has gone Method. Anyone see those pictures of an almost- anorexic McConaughey? The 43-year- old 6ft tall, 13 Stone 7 lbs actor starved himself down to 9 Stone 7lbs to play AIDS sufferer Ron Woodroof in upcoming flick, Dallas Buyers Club, surviving on nothing but a daily diet of diet coca cola, egg whites and a piece of chicken. It may very well prove to the role that earns McConaughey his first Academy Award nomination; he may even walk home with the Oscar for Best Actor. Rumors of McConaughey changing his surname to Day- Lewis are exaggerated.

McConaughey also joined the cast of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which is due in late 2013 / early 2014. The truth is that while some of McConaughey’s previous choices have been pretty damn awful by anyone’s standards, he’s made up for it with his recent turns. Let’s hope for his sakes and ours that it doesn’t go all Nic Cage. For now, here’s a top 5 of his best performances to date. If we’ve left any out, do let us know.

5. Roger Sherman Baldwin – Amistad

Cast as a lawyer (what is with this guy and lawyers? I reckon he wanted to go to law school before making it as an actor), McConaughey’s nuanced turn in Spielberg’s Amistad, a film that received a lukewarm reception on release but is definitely worth re- investigating, is something to behold. Acting alongside a fine cast that included Morgan “the voice” Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Pete Postlethwaite and Stellan Skarsgård, he plays a young property lawyer who works under Theodore Johnson (Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Skarsgård). Relatively young and inexperienced and the time of filming, he holds is own well and, like Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, he’s a very effective supporting actor who gains the audiences’ support and sympathy.

4. Mick Haller – The Lincoln Lawyer

Some distance from his turn as a laywer in A Time to Kill, McConaughey’s performance as Mick Haller, a sometime successful, sometime not- so- successful criminal defense lawyer who operates in and around Los Angeles county out of a black Lincoln Town Car. His client (Ryan Philippe) is the subject of what could be a career- defining case. McConaughey’s performance is a perfect example of how he has gone for a less- is- more approach, using his matinee idol looks and charisma to build a character that is flawed and in search of success.

3. Dallas – Magic Mike

An excellent performance that should have resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. McConaughey’s devilish Dallas, a shrewd, manipulative strip- bar owner is central to the action of the movie and leads him to manipulate and groom the other characters as only a villain can. Tyler Durden, but with less clothes.

2. Mud – Mud

Playing a sweet- talking fugitive on the run after killing the man who beat up the woman he loves (played by Reese Witherspoon), McConaughey’s Mud is a mix between Martin Sheen’s character, Kit, in Badlands and Kevin Costner’s Butch Haynes from A Perfect World. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with two young boys who provide him with food and deliver it to the boat on the Mississippi river, where he’s hiding out in a boat. Armed with only a pistol and a “lucky shirt” which he uses for protection; ironic giving that McConaughey has had trouble keeping his shirt on in previous films- see Matt Damon’s hilarious impression of the Texan actor after the #1 spot.

1. Joe Cooper – Killer Joe

It was a performance that nobody- myself included- thought that McConaughey had in him. Playing the suave, dirty cop who moonlights as a contract killer, McConaughey uses his natural charisma and charm to chilling effect in this darkly comic thriller from William Friedkin, which is sure to gain cult status over the coming years. It may very well be the defining role of his career re- vamp and the yardstick by which all subsequent performances from the Texan may be measured. And the chicken bone scene…the chicken bone scene. Enough to put you off chicken for a month.

And here’s something else you won’t forget: Matt Damon’s now legendary impression of Matthew McConaughey:

Oh, Russell: How Oscar- Nominated Writer- Director David O. Russell Finally Came Good

The Fighter: David O. Russell has overcome setbacks to become one of the most complete writer- directors of the current era

Well, I don’t want to be accused of micro-managing, but I cannot understand why “I Heart Huckabees” is on a list of DVDs considered suitable for armed-forces entertainment. That self-indulgent crap is not suitable for combat troops.  – Linton Barwick, character from Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop (2009)                                                         

While David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook may only have claimed one Oscar (Best Actress for a very deserving Jennifer Lawrence) from the seven major categories for which it was nominated , the success of the movie- artistically, critically, commercially- has quashed any suggestions that the success of Russell’s 2010 drama The Fighter, during awards season, as well as with audiences and critics alike, was a fluke. Now in his 50’s, the writer- director who once seemed to be on verge of becoming another burnt- out Hollywood casualty has become one of the most celebrated directors of the age. Along with Clint Eastwood, Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne, Russell has, on the back of both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, earned a reputation as the ultimate “Actors’ Director”. During this year’s Academy Awards, Russell achieved the rare feat of having his Silver Linings Playbook stars nominated in all four acting categories- Best Actor, Bradley Cooper; Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence; Best Supporting Actor, Robert De Niro; and Best Supporting Actress, Jacki Weaver- a feat that hasn’t been achieved in 31 years since Warren Beatty’s Reds was nominated in all four acting categories. It hasn’t always been plain- sailing, however, for the New Yorker.

In 2008, David O. Russell looked finished. Like Michael Cimino, the Oscar- winning director of The Deer Hunter, and American History X director Tony Kaye before him, Russell’s career as a director seemed doomed to suffer a similar fate, making him another Hollywood director whose erratic working methods were sabotaging his own reputation.

It was during shooting for Nailed, a political satire ( a project, which has since been put on hold after production stalled mid- way through filming), that cracks began to appear. James Caan, the notoriously tough, thick- skinned, hard- necked, Bronx- born actor was reported as having walked off the project due to “creative differences” between himself and Russell.

Caan’s beef with Russell was, of course, only the latest episode in a catalogue of incidents that had characterized Russell as a difficult director with whom actors had trouble working; an abrasive and demanding taskmaster who seemingly struggled to communicate to his actors what it was he wanted.

Indeed, the stories of Russell’s on- set tantrums were the sort of infamous Hollywood stories with which Peter Biskind has compiled several books. The oldest, no doubt, is Russell’s on- set bust up with George Clooney, the ever- genial, ever- good- natured star about whom co- stars, co- producers, co- writers and directors alike cannot help but gush with praise.

On the set of 1999’s Three Kings, Russell’s on- set frustrations became contagious. Extras and crew members alike were, allegedly, subjected to demeaning, foul- mouthed rants from the director. Clooney, for his part, claims to have extended an olive branch more than once. Having written a letter to his director about one particularly dismal day of filming, all order seemed to be restored. After an episode when Russell grabbed an extra and threw him to the ground, Clooney objected and, was, allegedly grabbed by the neck by Russell and a fracas ensued. Russell goaded Clooney into punching him and, sure enough, Clooney is said to have clocked Russell. Both Russell and Clooney are said to have gotten through the shoot while gritting their teeth.

Though Russell’s reputation as an on- set hot- head was by no means a secret, it was the uploading of a candid, on- set video from the shoot of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees that didn’t help matters. In the footage, not only does Russell destroy props like a bratty child in need of “time- out”, but he addresses lead actress Lily Tomlin with the most demeaning, humiliating and vulgar pejorative that any man can hurl at any woman. In another video, Tomlin is seen throwing a fit, frustrated at Russell’s indecision about the tone of a particular scene and his general lack of communication and direction. Her co- stars in the scene, Dustin Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg, and a sneering Naomi Watts, barely know where to look.

The enduring problem for Russell and his audience, however, was his unpredictable and checkered output. While Three Kings worked well as a satire and was the perfect springboard for many of the political and satirical movies that George Clooney would later create as an actor, writer and director, I Heart Huckabees should have cemented Russell’s standing as a fine, contemporary film- maker, more than able to hold his own with the most celebrated directors of the day. It didn’t.

Having recently re- visited I Heart Huckabees since first viewing it in on the big screen at its time of release, my feelings for Russell’s pretentious, over- written, badly edited movie, have not changed, almost ten years on. The problem with watching …Huckabees now is that it can’t quite hold its own against many of the quirk- indie films at that time, such as Adaptation and  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the latter being the film which we now know to have launched a thousand imitations. In fact, …Huckabees, which announced itself on theatrical posters as “an existential comedy”, couldn’t stand up among those films at the time. In Mark Kermode’s brilliant review of …Huckabees for the New Statesman in 2004, the noted film critic suggests that, unlike Eternal Sunshine…, …Huckabees is all head and no heart; it lacks any emotion to the point where the audience doesn’t really care about any of the characters. And as the epigraph suggests, …Huckabees eventually became a by- word for pretentious, self- indulgent, quirk- indie, arty farty film- making.

But Hollywood loves a comeback. Whether it’s a washed- up John Travolta delivering a career best performance in Pulp Fiction, Mickey Rourke putting Lazarus firmly in the shade for The Wrestler, or Robert Downey Jr. finally overcoming his addictions to fulfill the promise he once showed in Chaplin; studios, ad people, industry insiders, journalists, film fans…we all love the rags- to- riches- to- rags, again, to- riches, again, stories that are the stuff of Hollywood legend. So what inspired Russell’s return to form?

The answer, quite simply, is back- to- basics film- making. After …Huckabees, Russell became less concerned with style and more concerned with substance through character and plot. Most importantly, his post- …Huckabees output has heart, heart, heart. In fact, Russell himself acknowledges much of this in the interview embedded below; in the six- year hiatus that followed …Huckabees, during which he not only got bogged down with the mixed reactions to …Huckabees, but also went through a divorce, the humbled director found his focus through his new, stripped back approach to story and character. Quite simply, Russell now seems to be more interested in character development and the personalty that his actors can bring to each part than his earlier work would suggest.

These are all qualities, of course, that are shared with some of the all- time great Actors’ Directors. The nuanced, drama /comedy and realist drama, respectively, of Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, are enough to remind one of those great directors whose focus on character and personality have produced some of the greatest films of the last century; Elia Kazan, Frank Capra, Milos Foreman, Sidney Lumet, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby…directors who rely purely on the quality of their actors, a strong screenplay brimming with dramatic action, three- dimensional characters and arresting plot developments. In this regard, Alexander Payne may be Russell’s only true contemporary; both men are directors whose work could have quite easily existed and stood shoulder to shoulder with the best work from the last Golden Age of American cinema during the 1970’s.

Where Russell will go next is anyone’s guess. Rumors have indicated that production on Nailed may well resume, while Russell himself has spoke of his intention to work for a second time with Oscar- winner Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner on American Bullshit (working title, apparently), a story about an FBI sting operation in the 1970s called Abscam, which lead to the conviction of United States Congressmen. What Russell’s next project may be is uncertain, though two things are known for sure: David O. Russell is a great American writer- director and we are very lucky to have a film- maker of his calibre in this era of cinema.

Oscars 2013: Ben Affleck snubbed by the Academy for Best Director Oscar Nom for ‘Argo’

It’s that time of year again with the full list of nominations for this year’s Oscars available here.

As ever, the talk has turned to those unfortunate few who missed out on nominations: John Hawkes was unlucky not to get a nod for Best Actor for his marvelous turn in The Sessions, while Quentin Tarantino- who is nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category for Django Unchained– has voiced his disappointment at Leo DiCaprio’s absence from the nominations.

However, the most noticeable omission, and, perhaps, a talking point in Tinseltown for some time to come, is the absence of Ben Affleck’s  name from the list of nominations for the Best Director category for his work on Best Picture nominee, Argo. This is the first year since 1989 that a Best Picture nominee has not had a director nominated in the Best Picture category  that year, director Bruce Beresford, who helmed 1989 Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy was snubbed by the Academy. Though I feel Affleck is deserving of a nomination- possibly, in place of Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild- the award for Best Director is, effectively, a two- horse race between Ang Lee for Life of Pi and Steven Spielberg for Lincoln. Lee previously pipped Spielberg to the post several years ago for Brokeback Mountain. My feeling is the Academy will award the Oscar to Lee for Life of Pi, one of the most artistically successful and enjoyable films I have seen in 3D, which is still finding it’s feet among cinema audiences.

Affleck has successfully rejuvenated his career after a string of flops and unremarkable performances rendered him a Hollywood casualty. Since then, he’s reinvented himself as a director of note, with The Town and, now, Argo.

Between now and the official ceremony, however, Affleck should console himself with this footage of Steven Spielberg watching the live announcement of Oscar nominees in 1975, earnestly hoping for a Best Director nod from the Academy for his work on Jaws. Since then, we all know what Spielberg has gone on to do; one feels this isn’t the last we’ve heard of director Ben Affleck.