Well, that was fast. It was only three years ago that Matthew McConaughey’s comeback—famously dubbed the McConaissance—reached its glittering apex, the then-44-year-old actor winning an Oscar for his role as a man diagnosed with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. The Academy Award capped an excellent three-year run in which McConaughey put aside the dopey cartoon version of himself—that shirtless, beach-bum love interest you’d see in terrible rom-coms like Failure to Launch and Fool’s Gold—to get serious about his career. Excellent, committed turns in movies like The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud, Killer Joe and Magic Mike (not to mention the HBO series True Detective) felt like a revelation but also a mea culpa of sorts, McConaughey apologizing for his earlier persona and finally showing the world what he could do.
But since 2014? McConaughey has not exactly reverted to form—but the smarter, less embarrassing movie star we briefly had in our midst has gone away.
The latest indication of this reversion came during recent comments that the actor made on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show while promoting his new movie Gold. People reported that Marr described the film, in which McConaughey plays a modern-day gold prospector, as a story about “redneck America sticking one up to the snotty East Coast elites.” And in response, McConaughey said, among other things, “He’s our president. And it’s very dynamic and as divisive of an inauguration and time as we’ve had. At the same time, it’s time for us to embrace and shake hands with this fact and be constructive with him over the next four years.”
The story quickly went viral, with everyone from Time to Vulture picking up the story and emphasizing the actor’s notion that we should “embrace” Trump. Not surprisingly, culture writers and film critics took this news very, very badly:
Is it time to cancel the McConaissance? Probably but, frankly, it ran out of steam a long time ago.
First, though, it's worth pointing out that McConaughey didn't actually advocate supporting Trump or his policies.
If you go to 2:16 on this video, Marr mentions that he sees Gold as somewhat representative of “Trump’s America,” which McConaughey pretty much sidesteps to describe the movie as an “underdog story.” Then Marr presses him on the fact that “every single American actor or arty type … dumps on Trump. You all completely hate him. Do you think it’s time that maybe Hollywood and the cultural elite of America gave this guy a break?”
Most outlets have condensed McConaughey’s response. But here’s the whole thing:
Well, they don’t have a choice now. He’s our president. It’s a very dynamic and as divisive of an inauguration and time that we’ve ever had. At the same time, it’s time for us to embrace, shake hands with this fact, and be constructive with him over the next four years. Even those who most strongly may disagree with his principles or things he’s said and done—which is another thing, we’ll see what he does compared to what he had said—no matter how much you disagreed along the way, it’s time to think about how constructive can you be. Because he’s our president for the next four years, at least—president of the United States.
On the face of it, these are hardly pro-Trump sentiments. But they speak to the c’est la vie, let’s-make-the-best-of-it attitude some celebrities have spouted since the Donald’s election, which make them seem desperately out of touch with everyone else’s panic about the misery that this administration could unleash. (The worst of these came from Gwyneth Paltrow, who blithely declared in late November, “It’s such an exciting time to be an American because we are at this amazing inflection point.”) McConaughey wasn’t nearly as glib, but the idea of being “constructive” with the new president feels an awful lot like capitulation.
For McConaughey, though, the problem goes deeper. What made the McConaissance so successful was that it made people see the actor in a new light. For a guy who named his foundation Just Keep Livin in honor of his laidback philosophy of life, McConaughey suddenly seemed focused on his craft rather than just being a gigantic doofus.
But since his Oscar win, his choices have been questionable. He first starred in Interstellar, which was a huge hit but was critically underwhelming. (It was oddly prescient that he costarred with Anne Hathaway, another former Hollywood darling that the public has turned on viciously.) Since then, he’s appeared in a series of flops—Free State of Jones, The Sea of Trees, Gold—that have systematically drained away most of the goodwill we once felt toward McConaughey. Everybody has misfires, but his seemed to be the product of a guy incapable of sustaining his hot streak. McConaughey was not particularly good in any of these films, his more serious approach to acting suddenly starting to feel like its own lazy shtick.
And then, of course, there were those terrible Lincoln ads.
Stars’ popularity is such a fickle thing. Hit movies make a difference, but there’s also a mysterious, ephemeral X-factor that plays a part. One day, we think Amy Schumer is a genius. Then, we decide we’re sick of her. Will Smith can do no wrong for years—then, poof, he becomes a joke. Matthew McConaughey has not destroyed his career because of his Trump comments. But those, paired with his recent duds, have made us start to rethink why we were so gaga about the guy not that long ago.
Partly, there’s a weird sense of personal stakes that we feel toward McConaughey. C’mon, man, we thought you were better than this. We believed in you! But when actors we’re collectively crushing on let us down—either through bad roles or bad opinions—the betrayal cuts a little deeper. And the backlash becomes a little fiercer. People can choose to let his Trump remarks be their deal-breaker, but it now seems inevitable we were heading for a divorce sooner rather than later. What a difference three years makes.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.