Movie audiences have always loved actors who give their all emotionally and physically. There's a certain lurid fascination in watching just how far into character a determined actor will go in his or her portrayal. Boris Karloff permanently damaged his back while filming Frankenstein, Charlize Theron got herself a big case of the uglies for Monster and ditto John Hurt in The Elephant Man and Eric Stoltz in Mask, while Eddie Murphy convincingly played an elderly white Jewish man in Coming to America.
Enduring hours in the makeup chair is certainly impressive, but there's nothing like a visible weight change to offer proof of an actor's dedication. Robert DeNiro packed on 80 pounds for Raging Bull, winning an Academy Award, while Christian Bale lost that much for the otherwise forgotten The Machinist. And Tom Hanks shed 25 pounds as he filmed 1993's Philadelphia, winning his first Oscar.
Dallas Buyers Club, based on a true story, ups the ante with two such featsboth Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto lost more than 50 pounds each, giving the film instant buzz and positioning the duo as strong contenders as awards season approaches. Given the physical transformations of McConaughey and Leto, both renowned for their pretty-boy looks and normally muscular presences on screen, it would be easy to overlook the tremendous performances that both men give.
McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texas cowboy whose hard-partying lifestyle of womanizing, gambling, drugging and drinking abruptly comes to an end when he is diagnosed with AIDS and told he has 30 days to put his affairs in order. It's August 1985, when such a diagnosis was akin to a death sentence. But Ron, a homophobe who denies the truth, isn't about to go gently into that good night. For starters, he's heard about the brand-new drug AZT, which was just then going into the testing phase. Although he's not part of the initial trials, Ron comes up with a stash and begins to self-medicate.
The AZT nearly kills him but after slowly recovering, the skeletal Ron begins to hear about other drugsavailable just across the border in Mexico but illegal in the United States. He travels there and regains his health and begins to follow up on other promising anti-viral drugs being developed around the globe. Other AIDS sufferers begin to implore him to bring back medications for them as well, one of the most persistent being a sweetly funny drag queen named Rayon ( Leto ) whose wealthy family has disowned him. In the midst of the terrible plague Ron sees an opportunity and he legally forms the first of several buyers clubsselling memberships at high prices to a growing, desperate clientele and providing the drugs for free. Soon the lucrative clubs come to the attention of the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies; they go after Ron, determined to shut him down.
It's a long, tough road for Ron to go down before coming to terms with his intense homophobia and even longer for him to stop lining his pockets and looking out for himself in favor of the disenfranchised gay men he encounters. McConaughey seizes the opportunity to delve into this quasi-hero and he delivers a portrait that is ultimately moving without being sentimental. He is ably supported by Leto, who is convincing in a part that could easily have descended into pathos.
The script, by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack ( based on a 1992 magazine article ), gifts the two actors with rich charactersalthough Jennifer Garner doesn't have their luck and is stuck as a sympathetic physician and Denis O'Hare is once again cast in a nasty role as her boss. Director Jean-Marc Vallee ( The Young Victoria ) wisely keeps the camera on his two stars for the most part and, though the material is tough going ( especially for gay audiences of a certain age ), Dallas Buyers Club is both illuminating about a dreaded period in gay history and has those wonderful performances, to boot. This is a welcome addition to the queer movie canon.
The Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., has been presenting a retrospective of the French film director Claire Denis. Her 1999 adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, titled Beau Travail, is awash in male eroticism. The story is of a hunky, innocent soldier in the French Foreign Legion as viewed through the lens of his craggy, hard-bitten superior, who clearly has a major thing for himand this forms the basis of Denis' steamy film. The movie plays Friday, Nov. 8, at 6 p.m. and on Sunday, Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. www.siskelfilmcenter.com
Ky Dickensthe Chicago-based filmmaker noted for her 2009 documentary Fish out of Water, which put the Bible's seven references to homosexuality under the microscopereturns with Sole Survivor, a thought-provoking documentary that is also playing at the Siskel, beginning a one-week run Friday, Nov. 8. Dickens' excellent film centers on four of the just 14 sole survivors of large-scale airplane disasterswhom she aptly describes as members of "the loneliest club on earth." With Sole Survivor, Dickens has made a compelling follow-up to Fish out of Water that is elevated by its sensitive approach to its potentially sensationalistic subject matter. www.solesurvivorfilm.com
The Polish films Floating Skyscrapers and In the Name of…which both had their Chicago debuts during the recent Chicago International Film Festival as part of its queer film offeringswill play here again on Wed., Nov. 13, at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., at 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m., respectively. The first film focuses on a male swimmer whose fractured relationship with his girlfriend is further threatened when he becomes involved with a fellow male swimmer while the latter is the story of a conflicted, closeted gay priest who oversees a home for adolescent teenage boys. www.facets.org