Dallas Buyers Club: How Hollywood grapples with Aids

Matthew McConaughey is the first leading man to play an Aids patient in 20 years. Does Hollywood have a problem portraying the disease? Tom Brook reports.

“This guy’s got fangs!” That is what Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey recalls saying when he first noted the charged personality of 1980s Aids activist Ron Woodroof. McConaughey portrays Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, a new film that is opening in American cinemas this week. Not since Tom Hanks won an Oscar for playing an Aids-stricken lawyer in Philadelphia (1993) has such a high-profile Hollywood leading man portrayed a character battling the disease on the big screen.

Woodroof was a Texas rodeo cowboy and electrician who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He was rambunctious, heterosexual and homophobic – at least at the start of the film. When he could not get the medicine he needed – because it was not officially approved – he railed against the US Food and Drug Administration, the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies. He took matters into his own hands and obtained non-government-approved medicines, which he gave out to other people fighting Aids through a subscription service or ‘buyers club’. The arrival of this film has rekindled an ongoing debate in America over the often less than perfect way in which mainstream cinema depicts Aids.

Documentary filmmaker David France, who directed the award-winning film How to Survive a Plague, which focused on the early years of Aids activism, sees Dallas Buyers Club as a solid achievement. “I think this story by and large captures what it was like then – and I think it does it well,” he says. But Cathy Hannabach, who teaches film history at Temple University, believes that American Aids films have focused too narrowly on just one group affected by the disease. When it comes to Dallas Buyers Club she says: “I’m a bit sceptical that it can offer anything different from the same white, middle class male story that we’ve seen a million times.”

The forgotten victims

It is true that from the time the Aids epidemic first emerged in New York’s gay community in the early 1980s to the present day, many of those depicted with the disease on screen have been white and middle class.

But Aids activist Peter Staley, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, is  pleased the film is delving into a past era of Aids activism. Staley says, “I’m just thankful that Hollywood has begun to look back now at these years. Even a mediocre Aids film at this point in my view is a good thing. Even a politically incorrect Aids film is, I think, a good thing as long as we just start talking about it again and realising it’s not over.”

Staley is old enough to remember the silent years in the 1980s when the mainstream film industry ignored Aids.  There were notable independent films – and a landmark TV movie, An Early Frost, which depicted gay men with the disease. But there was nothing significant from Hollywood, nor that much interest among studio executives in attempting to tell an Aids story. “Nobody wanted to talk about gay men,” Staley recalls. “They didn’t want to talk about homosexuality and they didn’t care that we were dying.”

It was not until Philadelphia in 1993, more than 10 years after the first cases of Aids were reported in the US, that Hollywood featured a leading man with the disease. Initially, it might have been viewed as a risky endeavour, but having Tom Hanks playing a gay Philadelphia lawyer dying from Aids proved to be a critical and commercial success. Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of the release of the film − one that is widely seen as an important milestone in Hollywood’s portrayal of Aids. David France says, “We had for the first time a major Hollywood star in a very powerful film from a huge studio – and that meant America was going to watch and for the first time we saw a person with Aids struggling with the certainty of his death.”

Cathy Hannabach can find much to criticise in Philadelphia with what she maintains are its problematic racial and gender politics.  She nonetheless concedes that it was a significant movie. “It was the first film that paved the way for a mainstream audience to have access to information about HIV/Aids,” she says. Staley sees Philadelphia as cinema that had a potent, galvanising impact on the American public. “I think it shamed them into realising how much they were discriminating against us and helped politically strengthen the gay community’s hand as it battled for a government response,” he says.

Finding solace in film

One of the enduring problems limiting the development of mainstream Aids films has been the long-held perception that movies depicting the disease will not be embraced by audiences.

At a press event for Dallas Buyers Club at the Toronto Film Festival, Matthew McConaughey was keen to emphasise Ron Woodroof’s dynamic personality, not Aids, in positioning the film to journalists. He played down the disease aspects of the film. “This is damn good entertainment. It’s a wild bull ride of a movie. It’s anarchy, it’s rock and roll!” he said as he described the picture.

Concerns over moviegoers’ discomfort with stories about Aids are, in Peter Staley’s view, well-founded. “I think there’s a real resistance by the public to revisit Aids and to think about Aids,” he says. “People view it as depressing subject matter – so anybody that does tackle the subject, their first instinct is going to be to package it in a way that de-emphasises the Aids storyline.”

But the public may not be as wary as the film marketers might think. “I think that audiences are a lot more complex than marketers give them credit for. Many audiences would be interested in a more radical approach to the history of Aids activism,” says Cathy Hannabach.

The representation of the disease on the big screen will continue to be scrutinised but it is clear that a well-crafted Aids movie can win Oscars. Tom Hanks won his first best actor Academy Award for his performance in Philadelphia, and many bookmakers think Matthew McConaughey could duplicate that feat.  At the very least they confidently expect him to get nominated for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. 

If that happens, McConaughey’s portrayal of a feisty Texan who would not succumb to being a passive Aids victim is going to loom large in entertainment media around the world right up to next year’s Oscars ceremony – and that could have quite an impact.

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