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Icons / February 2017

The Comeback: Matthew McConaughey

Ed Cripps explores the career of the Texan heartthrob Matthew McConaughey, and while it’s fluctuated between mediocracy and Oscar-stardom, he’s a fully fledged member of Hollywood royalty.
The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013. Photo by Appian Way/Paramount/REX/Shutterstock.

Of the recent Hollywood comebacks (Ben Affleck, Michael Keaton and now, unfathomably, Mel Gibson), Matthew McConaughey's beguiles the most. In her excellent piece ‘The McConaissance’, New Yorker journalist Rachel Syme describes the actor’s reinvention as “a clever (and purposeful) undoing of a mythos and the embrace of a more authentic McConaughey, even if that reveals something grimy and sad under the creamy Texas accent”: his new persona is “casually weird and much darker than expected”. With those lemon blue eyes and a voice as hummingbird-light as ravine-deep, he has always shimmered with charisma, but the mind has finally outshone the physique.

At 23, he won the definitive role of his early career as Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused after impressing the film’s casting agent on a boozy night out (“I thought this was a bar!”, bellowed McConaughey after they were ejected). Wooderson is the oily campus life-guru, full of glib wisdom and proud that he gets older as the high-school girls stay the same age. After he played a defence lawyer in John Grisham adaptation A Time To Kill opposite Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, a meaty role with the requisite heroic closing argument, Vanity Fair anointed him the new Paul Newman.

The world was his, and yet he soon became best known for amiably forgettable rom-coms like The Wedding Planner, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and Failure To Launch, not to mention his abs (in 2005, he was voted the Sexiest Man Alive). Detractors accused him of complacency and vanity - was he as content in the stupor of escapist fantasies as his character in Dazed and Confused? Yes and no. For a young actor mindful of how quickly the Hollywood wind can change, it was pragmatic, invaluable experience. A turn as an agent in Tropic Thunder showed a glimmer of effervescence. Then, after filming Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, he made a conscious decision to “unbrand”. Work dried up for a while, but in his own words he suddenly became “a new good idea for some good directors”.

What directors they were. He terrified as a murderous detective in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, glistened as an Arkansas Magwitch in Jeff Nichols’ gorgeous Mud, reunited with Richard Linklater as a Wheel of Misfortune-spinning DA in black comedy Bernie and (most satisfyingly of all) dismantled his studmuffin persona as a weary stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, a tragicomic, self-referential examination of selling one’s body for dollar bills.

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Ed Cripps

Ed is a screenwriter and journalist. His TV CV includes Episodes, Fresh Meat and Made in Chelsea (his first series of which won a BAFTA). In 2016, his piece on The South Bank Show came second in The Observer's Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. In addition to The Rake, he has written for the TLS, MR PORTER and Little White Lies.