With his celebrated turn in “True Detective” and his Oscar-winning performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” the McConaissance of Matthew McConaughey is now complete. A movie star long stuck in the mud of generic romantic comedies (“Failure to Launch,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” “Fool’s Gold”) is now an actor with Oscar cred (an Emmy for “True Detective” is a near-certainty).
The Internet is now abuzz with snarky blog posts about other actors in need of their own career course correction. Among the most mentioned names are: Jennifer Aniston; Halle Berry; Tom Cruise; Kate Hudson; Eddie Murphy; Adam Sandler; John Travolta; and Robin Williams.
But many of these posts seem to miss the point of the McConaissance. A McConaissance is not a mere comeback of the kind enjoyed by Frank Sinatra and Katherine Hepburn, whose movie careers were moribund until “From Here to Eternity” and “The Philadelphia Story,” respectively, made them bankable again.
Nor is a McConaissance a one-and-done anomaly that, for a brief and promising moment, compels Hollywood to take a fresh look at a typecast star. Jennifer Aniston’s “The Good Girl” is a good example. But except for the odd indie (“Friends with Money”) or cast-against-type thriller (“Derailed”), she fell back into the rom-com box that McConaughey would deliberately rebel against.
A McConaissance doesn’t just happen overnight. Matthew’s was three years in the making, beginning with “The Lincoln Lawyer” and his hilarious cameo in “Tropic Thunder.” He followed these star and scene-stealing turns with solid work in “Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “Magic Mike,” and, ultimately, “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
With Eddie Murphy’s dramatic Oscar-nominated performance in “Dreamgirls,” there were hopes that his career might be similarly transformed. But next came the divisive “Norbit” and a string of failed and innocuous comedies, “Meet Dave,” “Imagine that” and “A Thousand Words.” “Tower Heist,” which was supposed to be his return to form in an edgy, R-rated comedy, was a box office disappointment.
A McConaissance, then, is not a comeback (Matthew was never gone), but a state of mind; a rededication to craft and the kind of actor he wanted to be. McConaughey made a conscious effort to turn down the romantic comedy roles that he himself called “kind of boring.” There is precedence for this kind of career rejuvenation. Here are a few actors who had a McConaissance before McConaissance was cool.
Tom Hanks: Making the transition from television to movies, Hanks had built a solid career in light comedies with one breakout Oscar-nominated turn (“Big”) an occasional foray into the offbeat and edgy (“Joe Versus the Volcano,” “Punchline”). “A League of Their Own” ushered in his own Hanksaissance (I know; it doesn’t have the same ring). “I told my agents that I wasn’t going to play (wusses) anymore,” Hanks said in an interview. “I was tired of playing, “Oh, boo-hoo—I was in love, but oh, boo-hoo-hoo.” There comes an age when you can’t do that anymore. I wanted to play men instead of boys.”
George Clooney: As with Hanks, Clooney got his start in television, but his transition to the big screen was not as smooth. His potential as a leading man was called into question with the box office disappointments “From Dusk Til Dawn, “One Fine Day” and “The Peacemaker.” And then came “Batman and Robin” which derailed not only his career but the Batman franchise as well. Clooney cannily switched gears with smaller and more substantive films, beginning with “Out of Sight.” That film, too, was not a box office hit, but it’s now considered a contemporary classic and it paved the way for “Three Kings” “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “The Perfect Storm.”
James Woods Woods was adrift as a leading man, but his showy villainous turn in the otherwise undistinguished Sylvester Stallone vehicle, “The Specialist,” redefined him as a peerless character actor who put his unique stamp on a gallery of tightly-wound, fast-talking, less-than-reputable types. You may not like his characters, but you like that he’s there to liven up the proceedings.
Time will tell if Matthew will be able to sustain his McConaissance. With his newfound equity, his career will be able to withstand a bomb or two. As Hanks has demonstrated over the course of more than three decades, when you keep your eyes on the prize (doing work that is “surprising, new and authentic,” as he told an interviewer), you can survive a flop or two like “Larry Crowne” and “Cloud Atlas.”
But it will be more interesting to watch if other actors will be inspired to follow his lead.