The Thin Men: Actors who starve themselves for an Oscar

Matthew McConaughey is the latest actor to emaciate himself in pursuit of awards glory. It’s an example of a disturbing trend, argues Lisa Schwarzbaum.

Matthew McConaughey looks awfully believable as a man dying from Aids in Dallas Buyers Club: haunted, weak, emaciated. Best known as a hunky movie star who enjoyed running shirtless along beaches within camera range of celebrity-beat photographers, McConaughey jettisoned his glowing beauty for the role, embarking on a drastic diet that resulted in a loss of an extreme amount of weight. He looks shockingly, dangerously skinny.

The actor is very impressive in the role of real-life Aids patient Ron Woodroof, a swaggering Texas cowboy suffering at the height of the American Aids crisis in the 1980s. And for his good work, McConaughey has won a Golden Globe for best actor, followed immediately by an Oscar nomination. But make no mistake: the fact is, McConaughey starved himself for a movie. Not out of desperation and not out of actual illness, nor because of an eating disorder, but out of a business arrangement. He boasted about it, too, a few months ago in a People magazine interview: “I ran into somebody and they didn’t just ask if I was all right, they said, ‘My God, we need to get you some help.’ And I thought, ‘There we go. That’s the perfect spot.’”

This is obscene. It is neither impressive, nor proof of a serious commitment to art, nor a testament to the resilience of the human body. Instead, it is a grotesque form of physical vanity. It’s also a creepy trend: while hunger, malnutrition and disease ravage the health of millions around the world who will never receive applause for their endurance, movie stars such as Matthew McConaughey are interviewed for their diet tips. Did you know the star reportedly subsisted on Diet Coke, egg whites and the rare piece of chicken? Unless you read other reports, in which he says he lived on tiny portions of fish, vegetables and the occasional glass of wine. Dig deeper to learn that, apparently, he received weight-loss advice from Tom Hanks. (Not coincidentally, Hanks was diagnosed not too long ago with a type of diabetes he says may well have resulted from the extreme weight gains and losses to which he has subjected his body in the course of his long career.) These pseudo-medical details about pounds of flesh and muscle mass lost have actually become reader-bait for journalists covering popular culture, faithfully repeating publicity-generating factoids about celebrity diet regimes.

Losing to win

Weight gain in the name of art has been in the news ever since Robert De Niro ballooned to play boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull 34 years ago. He won the Academy Award for best actor, in part because many voters believed his physical transformation an uncanny dedication that revealed a near-spiritual fusion of actor and character. Among the ladies, Charlize Theron is a title holder for fattening up to play real-life serial killer Arlene Wuornos a decade ago in Monster – which also won her an Oscar.

But starvation is a newer, more disturbing bit of showmanship. Christian Bale nearly killed himself, wasting away to death-camp proportions, for the forgettable 2004 thriller The Machinist. Then he nearly repeated himself for his Oscar-winning role in The Fighter. Michael Fassbender willed himself to become disturbingly thin to play real-life IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, who did kill himself, in Steve McQueen’s 2008 Hunger. (Fassbender’s every shriveled body contour was bathed in the filmmaker’s beatifying light.) Matt Damon hollowed out for Courage Under Fire; 50 Cent went gaunt for All Things Fall Apart; Tom Hanks lost mass and muscle tone for Philadelphia – but gained an Oscar – and repeated the feat, minus Oscar, for Cast Away; Adrien Brody shrank for The Pianist, and also received an Academy Award for his effort. Coming soon, Jake Gyllenhaal’s sunken eyes and wizened frame − in the forthcoming thriller Nightcrawler − are bound to draw attention. But was extreme weight loss absolutely critical for any of these performances to be more effective? It is method acting taken to its absolute limit – to the point where acting becomes a stunt.

It is worth noting that actorly emaciation is a particularly male performance stunt. Anne Hathaway got stringy for Les Misérables, and Natalie Portman dieted and danced herself to crazed-ballerina proportions – and an Oscar – for Black Swan. But the media and the public apply a harsher, more judgmental standard to female weight loss, a double standard that quickly tilts the scales from admiration to criticism. Which is to say that what is perceived as McConaughey’s integrity is observed as Anne Hathaway’s eating disorder.  As discovered by Renée Zellweger during her work in Bridget Jones’s Diary, weight gain by a woman in the name of art is tolerated and even admired as “brave” (assuming the actress quickly and gracefully drops the excess mass after the job). But noticeable thinness receives merciless commentary. Ask Keira Knightley.

There is no question that for an actor to convey the suffering of a man or woman wasting away from a life-threatening illness, physical and cosmetic adjustment is a part of the work – the vulnerable bones, the haunted eyes, the general air of depletion and exhaustion. But there is also no question, for this movie lover, that we are in a disturbing pop cultural moment when starvation has become a movie-star stunt in the service of Oscar. Pure acting, with full appreciation for said movie star’s fortunate, well-compensated and healthy body, cannot be oversold as a better option.

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