I have my doubts about the wisdom of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes for 2013 actress awards, but not for the actor ones: best actor Matthew McConaughey and best supporting actor Jared Leto, both in “The Dallas Buyer’s Club.” I also thought that Jennifer Garner was quite good as the humane physician in the bad old days of the AIDS pandemic, 1985ish. The conduct of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in blocking access to drugs that might prolong the lives of people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that had only recently been identified as the cause of AIDS deserved criticism, though the movie is guilty of overkill. I believe that people should be able to choose drugs that might help them. On the other hand, desperate people – a category in which pretty much everyone terminally ill in their20s-40s fits – are easy prey to exaggerated claims and rushing to embrace drugs that are not merely unproven, not merely ineffective, but often counterproductive. And until protease inhibitors were widely released in 1996, there were many AIDS therapies that did more harm than good, including the highly toxic megadoses of AZT.
When hard-living (somehow “promiscuous” is a label reserved for women and gay men; aside from womanizing, there was also heavy cocaine and alcohol (ab)use) Texas oilfield electrician Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) was diagnosed with AIDS (having a CD4 out of 9, which is roughly one percent of normal), “Get your affairs in order” was good advice. Viewers expect pluck to triumph and root for the defiant Woodroof who is not willing to lie down and die. He arranges to steal experimental AZT and nearly kills himself with high doses of it.
With some fresh blood transfused, he sets off to Mexico to obtain drugs not approved by the FDA, including ddI (didanosine) and peptide-T (which means that it was at least 1986, since that was only discovered in 1986). Woodroof started importing large quantities of both drugs, claiming for personal use. He could not sell the FDA-unapproved drugs, but could give them away to members of what he called the Dallas Buyers’ Club, who paid a monthly “membership fee.”
Transgendered prostitute Rayon (a composite, which is to say fictitious character, played by Jared Leto) connected the mostly gay male clientele to the club. Richard Barkley(Michael O’Neill) of the FDA used the IRS and other federal agencies to try to shut the Dallas Buyers Club down in service to Big Pharma and its local favorite (for running clinical trials), Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), who told Ron he would be dead in a month.
I’ve already said that I think there is a balance of protecting scared and vulnerable patients from their fantasies about miracle cures and not allowing them to try un- or under-tested substances. And I’ve endorsed the Oscars McConaughey and Leto earned (though starving themselves probably overly impressed voters). What I find dubious are the perpetuation of the self-destructive queen (Rayon) motif and the obfuscation of the historical reality that fighting the FDA for access to drugs was predominantly a battle waged by gay men (not all of them HIV+), substituting a straight white man as her hero of the story.
Just as Hollywood usually requires a white hero to champion oppressed blacks (Brad Pitt in “12 Years a Slave,” Ema Stone in “The Help,” McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins in “Amistad,” the deeply offensive transformation of Hoover’s racist FBI into heroes of the black civil rights movement in the South in “Mississippi Burning,” etc.). I see the straight hero here as instancing this pattern in a slightly different arena.
Airbrushing out the real Woodruff’s ex-wife and daughter (and sister) and putting him on rodeo bull (which I took to be his fantasy) and even exaggerating his initial contempt for gay people can get by as dramatic license. All Woodruff’s supposed friends shunned him when they learned of his diagnosis, he challenged the FDA, and stretched his life from the projected one month to live to living seven, points that are more important the fealty to all of his biography IMHO. (And the texts at the end reveal that the FDA allowed him personal use of the nontoxic but unapproved Peptide T.)
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack were nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar, though Montreal-born director Jean-Marc Vallée [Young Victoria] was passed over (in the best director category; he and Martin Pensa were nominated for editing, the work of cinematographer Yves Belangér [Laurence Anyways]); Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews won the makeup award). McConaughey and Leto also won their own guild (Screen Actors) award, BTW.