With the Academy Awards taking place on 2 March, a once almost unthinkable name has edged to the front of the best actor pack: Matthew McConaughey, once the bronzed clown prince of the romcom.
His film Dallas Buyers Club, which hits British cinemas this weekend, has already won him top prizes at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards. The Oscar narrative, for what it's worth, has his name pencilled in.
He plays Ron Woodroof, a roguish character with Aids who starts importing drug treatments, and generated many faux-concerned tabloid headlines for his gaunt appearance. His performance is far more than mere body shock, however.
"It's such a compelling, grand performance, that it bursts out of the seams of the film," says Danny Leigh, of the BBC's Film 2014. "It's one of those roles where in 25 years' time, as soon as McConaughey's name is mentioned, people will reach for this film."
Even relatively emaciated, McConaughey is the quintessential Southern man. Traditionally handsome, he chews gum as it was meant to be chewed, and speaks with vowels that stretch and yawn like a cat.
This charm carved out his own corner of the movie business. He played swashbuckling, wisecracking action lunks – a nice turn in dragon B-movie Reign of Fire segued into the disastrous neo-western Sahara, which lost over $120m (£73m) when it could have cemented him as a true A-lister. There was a notably manic comedy role in Tropic Thunder, and this mode can currently be seen in his Wolf of Wall Street cameo, an idiot-sage calmly addicted to cocaine and masturbation.
His bread and butter, though, was the romantic comedy. Time and again you would see him gazing from the side of a bus, eyebrows wrinkled into "whaddaya expect" dopeyness, and generally leaning on his co-stars who included, lucratively and repeatedly, Kate Hudson. It was a formula, and while banal, he perfected it into delicious empty calories. As Leigh says: "He will make hay with roles – no matter how good, bad or indifferent the films are, he will always be worth watching."
But he began to use his looks differently. The beautiful aren't expected to do ugly things, and audiences wriggle with perverse delight when they do; McConaughey seems to understand this, and has excelled in roles where he subverts his own face and body.
This approach actually launched his career with Dazed and Confused, an early film from Richard Linklater whose Before Midnight is also Oscar-nominated this year. McConaughey plays David Wooderson, a sexist young buck who's still gorgeous, but knows that he doesn't have the smarts to get out of his small town. His iconic line "that's what I love about these high-school girls, man: I get older, they stay the same age", is capped with a laugh of panic and self-loathing – an unforgettable moment. He was rarely given the chance to flex this particular dramatic muscle as romcom and action cameras gazed at the rest of his physique, but in recent years he's bulked it up again.
His closeted masochist in The Paperboy might have seemed like a cheap demolition of his constructed image were his portrait not so vivid; he again played with our expectations in Magic Mike, playing a ripped male stripper who, like Wooderson, is teetering on the edge of pathetic irrelevance. The gem of this fertile period is Killer Joe, where McConaughey lurks out of the screen as a perverted cop, using his sexuality like a cudgel.
"I'm enjoying acting. I want to go act. Right now I want to be an actor for hire," he told the Guardian's Andrew Pulver as that film was released. That eagerness to flesh out a role has led him to Rust Cohle, the lead in his current TV series True Detective, and where even a decade ago this might have seemed like career stagnancy, in the Netflix age it's an opportunity to paint on a big canvas.
And so to Dallas Buyers Club, which succeeds first because of its universalism. As McConaughey said this week: "It's not about dying, it's about living. What's the greatest opposition you can have? Death. And how do you beat it, how do you stay alive and keep it at bay?" This is fundamental stuff that always plays well with the Academy. But there is nothing contrived about it; McConaughey's naturalism is its other great success, and what will save him from a bland career. On Woodroof, he told the Guardian that "if we keep him a sonofabitch, the humanity will reveal itself, the crusader will reveal itself … [we] don't try and make it a message movie."
In the romcom story arc that is his life thus far, an Oscar for a quality drama will be seen as the moment he finally turns back to the girl he truly loves – but like romcoms, this is too reductive for an indelible actor. Where McConaughey was once led by the spurious conflict and pat resolutions of Hollywood fodder, he's now writing his own story.
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image: © GabboT