Neither Kisses, Nor Spider Women
Of the many intriguing things about Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée’s terrific new film about the AIDS crisis, the most haunting is the impressively restrained performance of Jared Leto, for which he most certainly should win Best Supporting Actor at the upcoming Oscars. The film concerns Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic Texas electrician who contracts HIV in the mid-1980s via a sexual encounter with a female drug addict. When Ron discovers that he is unable to access the highly-sought after experimental drug AZT, he starts a business importing non-FDA approved treatments, selling them out of a sleazy motel using a loophole in the law.
While in the hospital recovering from a shocking T-cell count of 9, Ron befriends Rayon, Leto’s character, a transvestite, also HIV positive. The developing relationship between Ron and Rayon—improbable because of the former’s brutal Texan homophobia—serves as the film’s emotional core, forestalling a more traditional love story, between Ron and Dr. Eve Saks (played by the horridly miscast Jennifer Garner). I want to explore the film’s collision of Ron and Rayon via a film that haunts their scenes together, Hector Babenco’s masterpiece, Kiss of the Spider Woman, from 1985.
In that earlier film, Raul Julia plays Valentin, a macho leftist revolutionary in Argentina who is imprisoned with Molina, a transvestite arrested for his homosexuality. William Hurt won Best Actor at the Academy Awards for portraying Molina as a flamboyant queen. Dallas Buyers Club is set at the exact moment in which Hurt delivered his groundbreaking performance, yet Leto relies on almost none of the traditional gestures of depicting gay men as camp icons. Yes, he cross-dresses, and playfully transforms Woodroof’s bigoted ways (at one point, Rayon intersperses a photo of himself amidst Ron’s heterosexual pornography, ruining the latter’s masturbatory fantasy), yet he does not go on and on about the greatness of Bette Davis. Leto’s performance is notably restrained compared to Hurt’s scenery chewing.
At first glance, all of this could be explained via the political differences between 1985 and 2013. In the age of the ascendancy of gay marriage in the United States, Ron’s homophobia seems anachronistic. However, there’s more to it than such simplicity; most importantly, a different sense of how film history matters to our lives. Kiss of the Spider Woman is built around a story within the story. To pass the time away in their jail cell, Molina tells Valentin about a Nazi film he once saw, Her Real Glory, in which the gay man celebrates his love for classical female film stars. Based on a novel by Manuel Puig, who wove camp film history into most of his early novels, the most famous of which is 1968’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Kiss of the Spider Woman intertextually builds its story of two men falling in love out of the building blocks of classical film conventions. As Molina’s narration progresses, the story of the cellmates dovetails more precisely with that of the German actress Leni and her character in the Nazi film, Marta (both played in Babenco’s film by Sonia Braga).
Dallas Buyers Club engages film history in a completely different way. Like Valentin, Ron begins the film knowing very little about cinema. He and his working class buddies at the beginning of the film are revolted at Rock Hudson suffering from what they falsely perceive to be a gay plague. When one of them claims not to know who the actor is, another chimes in, “Didn’t you ever see North by Northwest?” The erroneous conflation of Rock Hudson and Cary Grant, the star of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, is a profoundly important moment in the film. It demonstrates that, unlike Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman, movies are completely unimportant to these Texas rodeo aficionados. They are in this respect like Valentin, who berates his cellmate Molina for not paying more attention to political cinema, instead being swept up in the false consciousness produced by Hollywood and Nazi cinema, which Puig intriguingly conflates. Of course, Cary Grant was also a secret cross-dresser and a closeted bi-sexual, a fact that Vallée’s film skillfully leaves to linger in its elegant subtext.
And thus, when Ron meets Rayon, cinema conventions cause us to expect him to camp it up about Judy Garland. However, he does no such thing. He is indeed characterized by his cross-dressing, and with his flair for fashion; to wit, his name, an artificial fabric, which Ron tendentiously shortens to the masculine, Ray. Instead, Rayon befriends Woodroof on the latter’s terms, beating the Texan in the hospital room they share, at poker. By conventional queer theory standards, Dallas Buyers Club will most certainly be understood as a step backward in the representation of gay men. It is, after all, a film about a homophobic straight man who leads the charge in fighting AIDS, eschewing nearly entirely the radical force of Act Up protests. In short, Dallas Buyers Club is to gay liberation what Schindler’s List was to Jewish resistance, afflicted by “one good man” syndrome.
Yet what my comparison between the performances of Jared Leto and William Hurt has tried to illuminate, is that films present themselves not just as symptoms of politics, but as far more complex engagements with the fluid meanings of cultural practice. Leto’s subtle performance is markedly different than Hurt’s bravura one, demonstrating that something significant has developed in our cinema’s ability to think about the relationship between gay identity and masculinity. This is much needed, and long overdue. If it takes romanticizing Matthew McConaughey riding rodeo bulls to get us to see this on an American film screen, then so be it.
– Walter Metz