Sunday, November 17, 2013

From Philadelphia To Dallas Buyers Club: 20 Years

It happened in Philadelphia.
I was sitting in my office at the Philadelphia Bar Association when I got a call from Hollywood. No, it wasn't the call from some Big Hollywood Agent that I had been waiting for. I'm still waiting for that call.
This was a call from someone representing a major Hollywood studio. He told me about a movie that the studio wanted to film in Philadelphia. They were looking for locations and they had a storefront law office or a law office on top of a storefront in mind - preferably something in or near center city.
They couldn't tell me much more except that this would be a Jonathan Demme film with major stars in the key roles. This was a Big Deal.
The movie turned out to be Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Danzel Washington. Hanks won the Oscar for his role in the film which was one of the first mainstream Hollywood flicks to tackle the AIDS epidemic. And yes, we did cooperate with the filmmakers and managed to get a small plug for the bar association in the movie.
That was two decades ago.
Philadelphia is a landmark film and has justifiably been deemed one of the 20 most inspiring movies of the 20th century by the American Film Institute.
Now, along comes Dallas Buyers Club, the newest take on the early days of the AIDS epidemic, this time starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto.
Both films tackle AIDS with an anti-establishment attitude but there the similarity ends. Because Dallas Buyers Club is more graphic, more searing, more angry, more bloody and more gritty than Philadelphia. In fact, Dallas Buyers Club is as different from Philadelphia as a bronco buster is from a Philadelphia lawyer. Where Philadelphia's battle lines were drawn in the courtroom, Dallas Buyers Club takes on the medical establishment, the federal government and big pharma.
Dallas Buyers Club is a raw, in-your-face depiction of the scourge of AIDS and the rampant prejudices that faced AIDS victims in the 1980s.
Inspired by a true story, McConaughey portrays Texas electrician/cowboy Ron Woodroof, whose free-living lifestyle was shattered when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive and given 30 days to live. Shunned and ostracized by many of his old friends, Woodruff found it hard to get help. But he was determined to live well beyond his 30 days even if it took drastic action on his part.
Doctors at his local medical center had pretty much given up on him.
So, he quickly learned everything he could about AIDS and took matters into his own hands, tracking down alternative treatments (both legal and illegal) from all over the world. Woodroof joined forces with an unlikely band of renegades and created a "buyers' club" for the drugs and additives that local AIDS victims needed to survive. Their shared struggle for dignity and acceptance lies at the core of this remarkable story. We won't tell you how long Woodruff survived beyond his 30 days but we will tell you this: You will be astounded.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee moves the story along briskly with quick cuts, fast-moving camera techniques and convincing documentary-style footage where appropriate. 
The screenplay by Craig Borton and Melissa Wallack crackles with great dialogue and a keen awareness of the time, the characters and the subject matter.
But this movie really belongs to McConaughey who embodies his character to such a remarkable degree that you cannot help but be engrossed in Woodruff's journey. If you ask us, McConaughey has almost always been underrated and here he's truly at the top of his game. Count on it: He will be nominated for the Academy Award for this performance.
Another nomination will surely go to Jared Leto for his deft handling of the role of Rayon, a drug-addicted transsexual who's hoping to undergo a sex change. It's an incredible performance.
And Jennifer Garner deserves major kudos for her depiction of Dr. Eve Saks who puts her whole career on the line to help Woodruff and his friends.
We've travelled a long and enlightening road from Philadelphia (1993) to Dallas (2013) but that's as it should be. And this is what great movies (and great actors) do: They help us to connect, to understand, to learn, to grow.
Dallas Buyers club meets that criteria, and then some.

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