Hollywood Gets Serious About the Eighties

Dallas Buyers Club recalls the chaotic early days of the AIDS crisis

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In 1986, Matthew McConaughey was a 16-year-old high school student in Longview, Texas. A few hours west, in Dallas, electrician Ron Woodroof had just been diagnosed with HIV.

As McConaughey was being named Most Handsome in his class, graduating and going on to the University of Texas, Woodroof was starting the Dallas Buyer's Club, a group of HIV patients who joined forces to order unapproved meds from abroad, often personally smuggled into the States by Woodroof.

Nearly 30 years later, McConaughey stars as Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club (in theaters Nov. 1). The dramatic turn isn't exactly a departure for McConaughey, though his recent run of acclaimed roles hasn't ended his association with shirtlessness. But it is a departure for Hollywood's portrayal of the '80s.

Until now, the fall's most prominent pop-culture product associated with the era has been The Goldbergs, an ABC sitcom with an omnipresent matching-sweater ad campaign. It's an example of what the '80s have come to represent--big hair, leg warmers and the knowledge that they were the last years before the Internet changed everything--tinged by snark and sentimentality. A movie about McConaughey in high school might fit that genre, but Woodroof's story doesn't. So Dallas Buyers Club, despite huge cell phones and high-waisted pants, bucks the stereotypical cheesy innocence and nostalgia for the decade.

"I remember that time," recalls McConaughey, who turns 44 on Nov. 4. "People didn't know anything about [AIDS]. I remember that there was a lot of frenzy and a lot of ignorance. I remember there was a lot of fear."

Dallas Buyers Club is a sign that pop culture is ready to take the decade more seriously, specifically when it comes to AIDS, says David France, the filmmaker behind last year's Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague and author of a forthcoming history of the disease, which was first reported in the U.S. in 1981. "We're just starting to tell those stories, the stories of what people with AIDS and their advocates had to do. There's a whole bunch of movies, Philadelphia and even And the Band Played On, the miniseries, that were stories about what it was like to have this plague wash in," says France, "but what the community did in response to it, that's a story that people seem now ready to receive."

Dallas Buyers Club--which had been in the works since screenwriter Craig Borten met Woodroof shortly before the latter's death in 1992 but didn't go into preproduction until 2012--is only one such story. The club in Dallas, which served thousands by the time Woodroof died, was one of several in the U.S. But as France (who gives a thumbs-up to this retelling) says, even people whose family members were patients were often unaware of what was going on.

"I was reminded by doing the film that nobody knew what to do, even the doctors," McConaughey says. "Everyone was in the dark." McConaughey, who lost nearly 50 lb. to play the dying Woodroof, remembers the confusion: he knew someone who was HIV-positive and who, like Woodroof in the film, was shunned by friends. He also knew people who thought HIV could be communicated by a handshake.

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