Oscars 2014: Best actor glory beckons for slimline Matthew McConaughey

By the end of the night, west coast time, it could all have been worth it for Matthew McConaughey.

If he nets the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the Aids sufferer Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, then his dramatic weight loss, his bold choices and the careful repositioning of his screen talent will have paid off.

Many of the stars lining up with him outside the Dolby Theatre, following their annual red carpet stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, will have nothing more to worry about than the forecast of heavy rain. But for those in the running for a major prize at the academy's 86th awards, the stakes are high. Oscar night provides the final scene in one of the highest-profile dramas of their careers and it does not always go the way it did in rehearsal.

With the final pre-ceremony bets now laid, McConaughey is still the favourite, but this is not necessarily a good place to be. If, at the last moment, the name of either of the two English rival contenders, Chiwetel Ejiofor, for 12 Years a Slave, or Christian Bale, for American Hustle, is read out instead of McConaughey's, well, then a very public five-year project to alter his image as an industry lightweight will look to have foundered.

And the competition this year is stiff. Should McConaughey manage to fend off Ejiofor and Bale, many in the academy will still hope to see the Oscar go to Leonardo DiCaprio, who has not won yet and who is nominated for his latest, demonic, collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street. Others would like to see Bruce Dern, a great veteran of offbeat American cinema, walk away with the golden statuette, in recognition of his poignant performance in Nebraska.

For a perfect Hollywood ending, of the kind where everyone claps as a declaration of love is made in front of a smiling crowd, the prize really has to go to McConaughey, 44, who shed more than 18kg (40lb) to play Woodroof.

"He seems the pretty clear winner at this point," Jo Piazza, executive news director of Closer Weekly magazine, said last week. "Hollywood loves nothing more than a great transformation, especially combined with a great story, and I think we're seeing both."

Such a victory would be sweet, yet ironic, since it is exactly this sort of soppy, happy ending the actor has been desperately trying to get away from on screen. "He made movies people liked, but he did not have that defining role," Anthony Breznican, of Entertainment Weekly, has said of the actor's romcom phase. "I defy you, or anyone who is a fan of those movies, to tell me the name of one character he played."

Born in the tiny town of Uvalde, Texas, to a mother who was a teacher, and a father who owned a petrol station, McConaughey had a promising start in film. At 23, after a small role on TV, he was picked out by director Richard Linklater to star in Dazed and Confused (1993). Set in a high school in the 1970s, it became a cult classic.

McConaughey's performance as David Wooderson, a 20-year-old drifter and eternal, dope-smoking teenager, drew much praise and is still cited as a deftly drawn portrait of an enduring American type. The actor's break into mainstream entertainment came three years later, playing a lawyer in a film based on John Grisham's novel A Time to Kill. It made $150m.

McConaughey was also acclaimed for his role in Lone Star, a Texan western from the unconventional and much admired director John Sayles. He then played a lead in Steven Spielberg's historical, sea-borne drama Amistad. With three directors of the quality of Linklater, Sayles and Spielberg to vouch for him, the actor's trajectory looked assured: clearly he was bound for acclaimed and interesting work. Then the romantic comedies came to get him. A succession of roles as feckless objects of desire in second-rate date movies quickly earned McConaughey a name for cruising his way through scripts that did not ask much of either the cast or the audience.

The comedy The Wedding Planner (2001), co-starring Jennifer Lopez, was followed by How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days with Kate Hudson and Failure to Launch, opposite Sarah Jessica Parker. To be fair, there were also a few risky choices in this era, with Bill Paxton casting him as a grim baddie in Frailty; but McConaughey largely seemed to have accepted the cards his pretty face had dealt him. He was playing to the house as a full-time romantic lead.

His switch to more challenging roles dates back to The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011, in which he played a low-rent attorney. In 2012 the audiences began to notice a change of direction when he played a charismatic fugitive in Mud and a violent sociopath in Killer Joe. Later that year he surprised his fans again in the role of a stripper in the Steven Soderbergh comedy Magic Mike.

So Sunday night's ceremony will mark an astonishing turnaround, even if McConaughey does not win the big gong. After a series of demanding roles, the man once famous chiefly for his seductive Texan drawl and for taking his shirt off now suddenly represents the brave and serious end of showbiz.

The newly anointed A-lister will next be in cinemas in November as one of an appropriately starry line-up in Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's new space and time-travel extravaganza, alongside Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine and Matt Damon. The film is already the subject of excited speculation from fans of Nolan's Inception and the Batman trilogy and is thought to centre on the discovery of a wormhole in space in an apocalyptic future. The teaser trailer features a portentous McConaughey rueing the day it all went wrong on Earth.

The star, buoyed by his triumph at the Golden Globes, is now also being celebrated for his arresting cameo as a stockbroker in The Wolf of Wall Street. He recently told BBC Radio 4's The Film Programme that the strange chest-walloping noise he deployed for this part was culled from his own habit of thumping himself as he prepares to shoot a scene.

Woody Harrelson, his friend and co-star in the American TV series True Detective, currently being broadcast on Sky Atlantic, confirms the idea that McConaughey is an unusually focused colleague on set. "Usually, we finish each other's sentences but with this, Matthew was an island," he said. "He is one of the most gregarious guys I know but he is a little more method than me, and with this, he was fully in character and stayed in it."

The Texan also has a habit of playing characters with a quirky world view ("His rap is premium baloney," Emily Nussbaum wrote uncharitably in the New Yorkerof his role in True Detective). These oddball, shamanistic roles seem to chime with something soulful and preacher-like in the real man.

"It's all continuation! Even if you're dying, that's a kind of continuation, because you move on," McConaughey once told Empire magazine, adding, "And at the end of your life, all the things you thought were periods, they turn out to be commas. There was never a full stop in any of it." Even his original screen role as Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, coined the catchphrase "Just Keep Livin'," a term the actor has now adopted as the name of both his music production company and his educational charity.

A sceptical Nussbaum suggests True Detective is merely a macho bromance in disguise and, if so, it is possible that the altered course of McConaughey's career has been a clever way of regaining masculine credibility in Hollywood after all the disparaged "chick flicks".

Disarmingly, McConaughey himself is always careful not to imply that one kind of acting is any harder than the other. Comedy, he has even suggested, is often the hardest of all. The actor, who is rumoured to be considering a reprise of his humorous role as a stripper in Magic Mike 2, just needs to remember that some films, whether comedy or tragedy, prove more worth the effort than others.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent, for The Observer on Sunday 2nd March 2014 00.04 Europe/London

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