In the original six-page article in Dallas Life Magazine that inspired “Dallas Buyers Club,” written by Bill Minutaglio, the gay community is mentioned exactly once. Gary Lantham, an HIV-positive Dallasite, talked to Minutaglio about his own relationship with Ron Woodroof’s now-famous buyers club. “We have people like Ron Woodroof, someone who doesn’t have a formal education, who has taken the initiative to do things. And he is not necessarily supported by the gay community,” he says. “It is a travesty.”
In just a few words, Lantham has given us a kernel of uncomfortable truth around the Woodroof story, one that is left mostly by the wayside in “Dallas Buyers Club,” the new film on the subject. Writers Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack are more interested in the character himself than his context, which is an entirely fair call in a biopic. The problem is that, when translated to the screen by director Jean-Marc Vallée and leading man Matthew McConaughey, the omissions begin to glare. “Dallas Buyers Club,” while in many respects a perfectly good movie that is certainly bolstered by two awards-worthy performances, has nevertheless taken the AIDS epidemic and used it to tell a heartwarming narrative about the against-the-odds triumph of straight people.
Maybe the best, and most obvious place to start is in the characterization of Woodroof himself. Vallée seems determined to remind his audience that Woodroof is exclusively turned on by women, as often as possible. His character arc begins with recreational drug abuse, virulent homophobia and a constant need to assert his libido. Yet as the film progresses, his wall of pinups follows him to the motel-room office of the buyers club. His sexuality now becomes the means by which he is endeared to the audience, whether through his constant pursuit of Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) or his comic objections every time Rayon (Jared Leto) sneaks a photo of a man into his display of scantily clad women.
Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem on its own. The issue has to do with the context. Early on in the film, when Woodroof’s friends find out that he has AIDS, he is given a small taste of the fanatical paranoia and rejection that was the norm for those with the disease in the height of the American epidemic. His home is vandalized, a homophobic slur spray-painted onto his trailer. This is a complex, troubling moment. On the one hand, it is crucial for this narrative to emphasize the hateful, anti-gay climate surrounding the outbreak of AIDS in the United States.
Yet as “Dallas Buyers Club” progresses, this atmosphere fades and the specter of villainy is shifted from the wider culture to the much less menacing suits of the FDA and US Customs. This early moment of homophobia changes character in hindsight. It seems to be asking us to feel extra sorry for Woodroof, as if it is somehow worse that he’s facing discrimination because he isn’t actually gay. The implication of this cry of injustice, however unintentional it might be, is that hate speech against genuinely gay people is somehow slightly more justified.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that the film does not include much in the way of actual context regarding the community that Woodroof is theoretically in the process of saving from disaster. The notable exception is Rayon, whose over-sexed martyrdom is a single, exquisitely acted step forward from Tom Hanks’s sexless martyrdom in 1993’s “Philadelphia.” There’s an important layer of dignity to the character, supplied mostly by Leto and perhaps later robbed by the film’s emphasis on her manic charm and excessive drug use.
Beyond that, there’s not much. There are a lot of silent, pleading faces on beautiful young men who know they may die within the month. There are a lot of grateful men who thank Woodroof for helping them save their own lives, occasionally in groups. Yet there is little actual characterization, either of individuals or the gay community at large. There certainly isn’t any sense of what Lantham, in describing his experience of the crisis to Minutaglio, referred to as “genocide.”
Of course, this context would invariably complicate things. Woodroof was not necessarily a hero. He was both a victim and a profiteer, and some accused him of overpricing his drugs. He was both within and without the community of those affected, and as a result was able to forge his individual destiny. He occupies a very strange space in the history of the AIDS epidemic in America, one that necessitates at least a confrontation of the context. This makes for an intriguing idea for a film, but also a tricky one to pull off.
This makes him oddly reminiscent of Benjamin Murmelstein, Jewish Elder of the Theresienstadt concentration camp and the subject of Claude Lanzmann’s new “The Last of the Unjust” (which will be released in December). Murmelstein was also not quite a victim in the fullest sense, finding himself in a position of relative power during a catastrophe of a much more insidious origin. Lanzmann builds his film from its context, rather than choosing to ignore it. “Dallas Buyers Club,” on the other hand, barely acknowledges the role of organizations like ACT UP in the entirely relevant conflict over the availability of AIDS medication, and gradually muffles the collective insanity of anti-gay AIDS panic of the period.
Why is this? My first impulse was to say, perhaps reductively, that “Dallas Buyers Club” has less of a mainstream legacy to live up to. “The Last of the Unjust” could not get away with a lack of context even if that were Lanzmann’s desire, due to the documentary triumphs of Holocaust cinema (notably his own “Shoah”) as well as the collective cultural moments of fiction cinema (“Schindler’s List,” for example). It is simply much less possible to get the Holocaust story wrong, because of pre-existing popular successes. It seems, at first, that we have not had the same collective experience revisiting and exploring AIDS.
However, that would ignore the body of work we already have. “How to Survive a Plague” is almost a “Shoah” for the AIDS crisis, if such a statement can be taken as anything other than hyperbole. The recent spate of other documentaries on the subject certainly helps as well. Then there are the significant works of television, from “And the Band Played On” to “Angels in America.” Popular culture has had plenty of opportunities to learn the story and get it right, even if there have major setbacks like “Philadelphia” along the way.
So how did we end up with a film like “Dallas Buyers Club?” Its intentions are good, if misguided. Yet it can get away with its lack of context precisely because, for whatever reason, the films and television programs that have dealt with AIDS were not enough to make such a blindness inconceivable from the beginning. Would a major Hollywood production help? It certainly would, but I’m not holding my breath.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is now the third high profile film of 2013 in which a straight director tackles a gay subject. Steven Soderbergh did a good job with “Behind the Candelabra,” while Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” barely takes gay people seriously in the first place. If this is a sudden trend, it’s had very mixed success. I can only wonder whether this is because mainstream filmmakers and the culture at large have already forgotten the queer cinema of the past and present, or simply choose not to seek it out.
When the subject is fictional French lesbians, I can understand that it’s easier to get away with that sort of willful ignorance. But with AIDS? “Dallas Buyers Club” is a somewhat uncomplicated, reasonably commercial film about an odd, uncomfortable chapter of the epidemic. It stands awkwardly on its own, without the apparent obligation to address either the fighting-and-dying leaders of the gay community or the pervasive cultural panic of the 1980s. The film ultimately adds very little to our national understanding of the crisis, which is fine in a vacuum but stings when we so desperately need something that does.