Gay Panic

Melissa Anderson on Dallas Buyers Club

Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 117 minutes.  Rayon and Ron Woodroof (Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey).

JEAN-MARC VALLÉE’S DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a docudrama of a Texan who died of AIDS in 1992 called Ron Woodroof. Yes, that’s his real name, not a gay-porn moniker; Ron, in fact, is aggressively not homosexual. We hear Ron before we see him: He softly grunts and pants, pressed between two women in an empty paddock at a rodeo. After this sex sandwich breaks apart, we can view the actor who plays Ron more clearly: It is Matthew McConaughey, whose perilously low body mass index is the star of this movie.

The actor lost nearly fifty pounds (and grew a chevron mustache) to play Woodroof, an electrician and small-time hustler who is told that he has a T-cell count of nine in 1985, the same year that Rock Hudson succumbed to AIDS. Ron calls the actor “a cocksucker” to a group of poker-playing buddies, all with a similar bushy strip of hair above their upper lip; after given his diagnosis at Dallas Mercy Hospital, he growls at his physician, “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker.” The protagonist’s bona fides as poon hound and homophobe thus established, the film spends the next hundred or so minutes complacently recounting how Ron, after being told that he has thirty days left to live, extended that death sentence by seven years through amassing antiretroviral meds and flouting FDA regulations. He becomes an unlikely hero for Lone Star gays living with the disease, here mainly relegated to nonspeaking walk-on roles—an inadvertent reminder that silence = death.

But to soften and further ennoble their bigoted subject, screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack do give Ron an invert sidekick: the fictional Rayon (Jared Leto, who also drastically stunt-dieted for the film), a tragic, Marc Bolan–worshipping, drug-using tranny in a pale-pink cable-knit cardigan also dying of AIDS. For her ability to sweet-talk potential clients at gay bars, Rayon becomes Ron’s business partner in the buyers club, an enterprise in which members pay $400 a month for access to the unapproved pills and treatments that Ron has brought back from his global travels. Ron displays uncharacteristically selfless behavior when he defends his high-femme associate in a grocery store; from then on, Rayon exists in the movie only so that she may perish, but not before uttering this prayer: “God, when I meet you, I want to be pretty.”

Despite the cadaverous appearance of its lead actor, Dallas Buyers Club wants to be pretty, too, presenting a tidy, uplifting history of the years when unconscionable inaction and prejudice toward those with AIDS were a matter of federal policy. Those who fought the longest, hardest, and most successfully against this bureaucratic indifference—ACT UP, of course—are referred to in passing by Ron when he says he “got the idea” for his buyers club “from some faggots in New York City.” Other oblique references to those faggots include a fleeting glimpse of Gran Fury’s “AIDSGATE” poster and a thirty-second news report about the takeover by the activist group—never mentioned by name—of the FDA headquarters. According to the press notes, Vallée asked his cast and crew to watch How to Survive a Plague, David France’s stirring chronicle of ACT UP released last year. But Dallas Buyers Club shows how little Hollywood dramas about AIDS have advanced since Jonathan Demme’s (homo)sexless, sanitized Philadelphia (1993).

Dallas Buyers Club opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 1 and nationally on November 22.