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What Jared Leto Brought to His Role in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

What Jared Leto Brought to His Role in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

In a red carpet interview on Oscar night, Jared Leto mentioned that, prior to his winning
role in Dallas Buyers Club, he hadn’t been in a
movie in six years. He
started his cinematic exodus after Chapter 27 (January 2007), the
Mark David Chapman biopic for which he put 67 pounds on his lithe frame, an act
of near-superhuman binge eating that gave him gout, skyrocketed his cholesterol
so high that his alarmed doctors wanted to put him on Lipitor, and confined him
to a wheelchair during the last days of the shoot. Old acquaintances he
encountered during the shoot regarded him with pity, the looks on their faces
telegraphing loud and clear that, in their eyes, he’d finally let himself go.
It took him a year to “get back to a place that felt semi-normal,” as
he recalled in one print interview, and you can almost hear the shudder in his
voice as he declares  “I’d never do
it again.”

In the almost two decades Leto’s been making movies, his roles
have unavoidably been about the celebration and desecration of his unearthly
prettiness. Jordan Catalano, the crush “so beautiful it hurts to look at
you” in the TV show My So-Called Life (1994-95) got off scot-free
compared to the disfigurement and debasement that befell his other characters,
like the necrotizing heroin addict in Requiem For A Dream (2000) or
“Angel Face,” the pugilist who gets his face pummeled into hamburger
in Fight Club (1999), an act of brutality the nihilistic narrator shrugs
off by saying “I felt like destroying something beautiful.” Leto’s androgynous
pulchritude—and precedent of cinematic self-destruction—made him an obvious
choice to play
Rayon, the glamorous trans woman, drug addict
and AIDS patient who helps the
equally ill Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) run a guerrilla treatment clinic
in 1980s Dallas.

But no matter
how lovely his sapphire eyes look framed by false eyelashes—and despite
accusations of “transmisogyny” from activists angered by the casting
of a man as a trans woman—Leto didn’t win his Oscar for Successful Wearing Of A Dress. Consider the harrowing scene where
Rayon, gaunt and naked and
terminally ill, begs her ghoulish reflection “God, when I meet you, I’ll be pretty if it’s the last thing I do.” Critics have dismissed this clinging to beauty as a
caricature of trans women, portraying them as petty and narcissistic (Steve
Friess of Time Magazine warns that
“sad-sack, clothes-obsessed” Rayon will be seen as cringingly stereotypical
decades from now, in the same way Hattie McDaniel’s bravura performance in Gone
With The Wind
(1939) is similarly tainted), but I see it differently.
“Beauty” here is shorthand for “value,” for “power,”
for “dignity,” for all the other vaporous externals that we grasp
tightly and futilely in the face of death, and Rayon’s pain in this indelible
scene transcends all other externals like “race,” “class,”
or “gender” that also don’t outlive our bones.

As tartly satirized in Tropic Thunder (2008) with the adage
“You never go full retard,” Oscars for acting can be cynically considered
to be handed out for parlor tricks and impersonations—deaf, blind, autistic,
spastic, retarded, insane—as long as the actor is recognizable inside the role.
Gaining weight within reason for verisimilitude (as DeNiro did for Raging
Bull
[1980] or Charlize Theron did for Monster [2003]), is
appreciated, but it gets nowhere near the monomaniacal applause reserved for
losing weight. Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Leto’s co-star McConaughey, and, it
can be tacitly assumed, almost every actress currently working in Hollywood,
get accolades for the self-control and devotion to craft evinced by their
gauntness.

But fat is the worst thing you can be in Hollywood. And it can’t
be completely unconnected that Leto’s shocking fall from Botticelli pinup into
everyman loser for Chapter 27 has nothing to do with being box office
poison for six years hence. (It’s not like Leto had nothing to do in the
meantime—he toured with his band 30 Seconds To Mars during those off years—but
I can’t imagine any actor getting through half a decade of unemployment without
becoming a little nervous.)

Only an actor who’s experienced the ego whiplash of being valued
and devalued for your looks (as specifically connected to your weight), can
competently play a woman. And only an actor who understands how survival, not
just popularity, is on the line with those good looks can play a trans woman.
Leto may have lost, not gained, weight, to play Rayon, but the power of his
performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club is still informed by his previous
weight gain experience for Chapter 27. There’s still much more to be
said about the practice of cisgendered actors playing transgendered parts—and
the “parlor trick” novelty of same—but this woman says Leto
understands enough about the female relationship to beauty, weight and power to
take on roles like this with dignity and meaning.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and
media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in
the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection
I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

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Comments

mika

i stopped reading after the first line. Mr Nobody was filmed in 2007, hence the 5-6 years off. #talkaboutresearch

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