I heard lots of good stuff from thoughtful people about Matthew McConaghey’s performance in The Dallas Buyers’ Club, so I have no particular reason to doubt that he deserves the Oscar, but I still wonder about a pattern. I wonder whether anyone who gains or loses a lot of weight for a role, or torments their bodies in some other way, goes into awards season with a head start. For example: McConaughey and Jared Leto this year, Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, winners all. The Academy also loves portrayals of characters it views as deeply Other: transgender (Leto), mentally disabled (Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, an Oscar-nominated performance), autistic (Raymond in Rain Man, an Oscar-winning performance).
Underneath it all lie two disturbing, related tendencies. One is the Othering of certain kinds of people. The other is a lack of respect for the craft of acting. In my view, Leonardo DiCaprio is just as thoroughly inhabiting a character foreign to his own when he plays a stockbroker as when he plays a person with a mental disability. Isn’t he? He is not those people. He is creating them. That’s what it means to be a fine actor.
Instead of rewarding acting, or at the very least, overlaid on that appreciation, and in my opinion, eclipsing it, in the Oscars we sometimes see the attitude of the crowd at a freak show. Look at the weird autistic guy! Look at Dustin Hoffman being a weird autistic guy! . . . Look at Matthew McConaughey acting!–No, never mind that, this is more amazing: look at him dieting!
A real respect for the craft would regard the acting, and the tremendous discipline and insight that go into creating a character, as more important than the physical exertions that go into a few roles.