Dallas Buyers Club
Special to The History Place
So the Oscars are a week behind us already and we know that Matthew McConaughey is the Best Actor and Jared Leto is the Best Supporting Actor. Besides the simple fact that these two guys turned in terrific performances in Dallas Buyers Club, they had a leg up in the running. Hollywood has a soft spot in its mercenary heart for HIV/AIDS movies.
Who can blame the denizens of Tinsel Town? With Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson in the leading role, the drama of the eighties AIDS epidemic left the film industry prostrate. Dallas Buyers Club harks back to those horror-movie days, when hundreds of actors and others in the film and dramatic arts contracted and died from the “Gay Plague.”
Of course, as the film’s title suggests, the AIDS crisis wasn’t confined to Los Angeles. The 1980s, which began as a decade of permissive sexual practices and ended as a new age of safe sex, witnessed the Grim Reaper at large all across America, not to mention Africa and elsewhere on the planet.
The plague was greeted by many straight observers, especially those of strong religious convictions, as God’s scourge of homosexual promiscuity. Uncle Sam, though not necessarily homophobic, wore bureaucratic blinders. The FDA dug in its heals, demanding that promising pharmaceuticals emerging in Europe and Japan required the full battery of clinical tests, before they could be made available to HIV sufferers.
“But we're dying,” retorted AIDS victims. “What the heck are you worried about?” The language grew a bit rougher as the terror spread and the government stood pat. The organization Act Up took to the streets and even invaded the sanctuaries of the Washington bureaucracy in an effort to raise awareness and embarrass the bean counters into action.
Meanwhile, HIV-positive people, such as Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) took medical matters into their own hands. Woodroof, an ignorant full-time electrician and part-time bull rider, saddles up a steep learning curve after contracting HIV from one of the many hookers he patronizes. First, he learns all the latest that’s been put into print. Then he begins bribing hospital orderlies for experimental drugs, such as AZT.
After a near-death OD experience with the toxic pharma, he heads for Mexico, where a defrocked physician runs a clinic dedicated to high protein, vitamins and other immunity strengthening potions. Remarkably, Ron discovers, many of these natural products are illegal in the U.S. Woodroof becomes a smuggler. And because selling the products is verboten, he markets club memberships instead. Four hundred bucks a month provides members with the privilege of using anything the “club” has on its shelves.
Transvestite Rayon (Leto) and a sympathetic physician, played by Jennifer Garner, team up to run the operation. DEA raids and border run-ins with the Customs people are speed bumps that the tenacious trio overcome in their crusade. Interferon from Japan enters the menu. AZT leaps back on the list, as researchers realize that, while a lot kills, a little saves.
Did McConaughey deserve his Oscar? Yes, indeed he did. This is by far his finest performance since A Time to Kill (1996). The man has become a serious actor; check out the TV series True Detective, if you harbor any last doubts after seeing Dallas Buyers Club. In the latter, he lost a scary amount of weight to pull off an authentic looking AIDS sufferer, as did Leto, who likewise earned his accolade.
Earlier this month, in my review of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in this same space, I remarked that I remain amazed that Apartheid was ended without a race war and a consequent blood bath. I am equally amazed that I have lived to see a time when same-sex marriage for all practical purposes been condoned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which condemned as unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act last year. Today, when nine states subsequent to United States v. Windsor have expressly condoned same-sex marriage and many others (just last week Texas) have had their contrary statutes shot from the saddle by their own supreme courts, it’s hard to believe what the eighties and early nineties were like.
Back in the day, my pro bono work included representing HIV clients on behalf of the Pennsylvania AIDS Law Project. While Tom Hanks was garnering his first Oscar for portraying an HIV-positive attorney in Philadelphia, real Philly lawyers such as myself were fighting for our clients’ rights in the state and federal courts. [See https://articles.philly.com/1992-12-31/news/25993582_1_aids-virus-hiv-or-aids-aids-law-project]
The two-pronged effort in the courts and in the labs and clinics worked. HIV/AIDS victims – straight as well as gay – are surviving the disease, while LGBT Americans are finally being granted the same civil rights as the rest of us. Pioneer Ron Woodroof beat the doctor’s stated odds by seven years, but sadly didn’t live to see this new day. But McConaughey does a great job of immortalizing this rebel-activist of the eighties.
Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.
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Jim Castagnera is an attorney and the author of 19 books. His latest is Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom