After years of playing douchey rom-com leads, Matthew McConaughey’s McConaissance has officially reached its peak. Last night, the actor won top prize at the Academy Awards for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club. If you only remember him by his slew of indulgent, cheesy mid-2000s films (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, anyone?), this might come as a surprise. But in the past few years, McConaughey has ascended to new critical heights, including his first Oscar nomination this year — all while maintaining his surfer-bro persona, if also wrapped in nicer clothing. Yes, this was McConaughey’s first Oscar nomination, but Dallas Buyer’s Club had already earned him a Screen Actor’s Guild award and an Independent Spirit award, so an Academy Award wasn’t unexpected. In fact, the most surprising aspect of McConaughey’s Oscar night wasn’t his Best Actor win — it was the fact that his acceptance speech was straight-up weird, and everyone seems cool with it.
While McConaughey started off in the normal acceptance speech fashion of thanking his director Jean-Marc Vallée and his costars Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner, his speech slowly (and I mean slowly, because the whole thing was about three minutes long) devolved into a convoluted mess. He profusely thanked God. He went on a tangent about how his father was probably watching him from heaven with a pot of gumbo, a lemon meringue pie, and a can of Miller Lite by his side. He said he sees himself as his hero — a future version of himself, that is. Throughout his speech, he fiddled with the buttons of his coat, shifting from one foot to the other, unable to focus on anything. He was jittery and twitchy and jumped from thought to thought, rambling on and on, with a few passing moments of clarity. And let’s not forget that he didn’t even bring up the real-life people who were actually affected by the pharmaceutical mess that was the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. (He must have been too busy thanking himself.)
But he hasn’t been lambasted. Nobody has called him crazy. Most of the media coverage surrounding his acceptance speech has been positive, his nervous ticks portrayed as signs that he is passionate and emotional, rather than incoherent. Entertainment Weekly ranked it as the top acceptance speech of the night. While MTV broke the Best Actor news with the slightly disbelieving headline, “Matthew McConaughey Actually Thanks Himself In Best Actor Acceptance Speech,” it subsequently described the speech as more “moving” than narcissistic. Part of McConaughey’s schtick has always been being a wildcard in the shape of a rugged, masculine man, who is cognizant of his place in the world, and that that place is very secure. He comes across as a well-aged frat boy. As he mimes stirring a pot of gumbo, dances a little bit on stage, and takes up three minutes of talking time (for, let’s remember, an acceptance speech), you can tell he has an unencumbered physical presence. We humor him because it seems like the most natural thing to do.
I’m not disturbed by the speech itself as much as the fact that McConaughey’s place in our culture affords him the privilege of having a slightly off-kilter personality, almost without criticism. People have (rightly) gushed over Lupita Nyong’o’s touching Oscars speech, pointing out her poise, elegance, and genuinely touching words. But would the same praise have been lavished upon her if she thanked herself in her acceptance speech, and topped it off with a mumbling “all right, all right”? Last year, Anne Hathaway was consistently derided for her “smugness” and overly long acceptance speeches, while no ill comments have been thrown at McConaughey’s shit-eating grin. Kanye West is intense, but his intensity is unfailingly characterized as “ranting,” rather than a lovable personality quirk. Covert sexism and racism are nothing new (obviously), but McConaughey’s effortless swagger only emphasizes that his is the kind of behavior that we only — and even praise — when it comes in the form of a straight, traditionally masculine white male actor.
Given his equally confusing SAG remarks, I don’t think McConaughey will ever give a “normal” speech, by virtue of his pure, unadulterated McConaughey-ness. It may just be his style of speaking. It may just be who he is. But people aren’t digging into his speech hoping to find a touching narrative or a political statement or evidence of his unlikability. They’re giggling good-naturedly because that’s just the way Matthew McConaughey is, and they know he has a good heart. Which is nice, sure; we should give our culture’s most cherished artists the benefit of the doubt. They should get to be eccentric. But it shouldn’t just be our most beloved bros who are afforded that privilege.