Matthew McConaughey is Mark Hanna in "The Wolf of Wall...

Matthew McConaughey is Mark Hanna in "The Wolf of Wall Street." Credit: Paramount Pictures / Mary Cybulski

Not too long ago, you could depend on one thing in a Matthew McConaughey movie: He would definitely take off his shirt.

McConaughey's habit of parading his firm pecs in otherwise unremarkable romantic comedies made him something of a pop culture punchline. Even Matt Damon repeatedly poked fun at his longtime friend on "Late Show With David Letterman," doing impersonations of the actor on-set: "I think today's scene would be a great opportunity for me to take my shirt off."

Last year, McConaughey revealed his physique yet again in "Dallas Buyers Club." This time, however, no one was laughing.

McConaughey lost more than 40 pounds to play Ron Woodroof, a man diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, a time when the disease was a death sentence. In the film, the muscular, 6-foot McConaughey is nearly unrecognizable, skin taut against his skull, bony legs moving with the clackety gait of a marionette. Essentially, the actor starved himself, often substituting ice for meals. In one scene, when Woodroof's wasted frame is stretched out on a hospital bed, McConaughey weighed a pitiful 135 pounds.

The role also transformed McConaughey's career, drawing widespread critical acclaim, landing him on countless talk shows and -- last but not least -- earning him his first Oscar nomination, for best actor.

McConaughey's new success may seem sudden, but it's actually been part of a larger plan. A few years ago, the well-paid, bankable star, once crowned People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, halted his smooth-sailing career and began taking challenging roles in smaller, more serious and sometimes rather weird films. It was a risky and unusual move, if not an unprecedented one, that paid off in full.

"I in no way feel like this is a surreal moment," the 44-year-old actor told CNN's Piers Morgan recently. "I'm very engaged in what's happening."

Engaging performance

McConaughey, a native of tiny Uvalde, Texas, whose easygoing charm stems partly from his soft drawl, first caught moviegoers' eyes in the early 1990s. Fellow Texan Richard Linklater directed him in the 1970s period piece "Dazed and Confused" (1993) in the role of David Wooderson, a shaggy-haired lady-killer who prefers underage prey. McConaughey made the character so likable that you almost overlooked the loser within. "That's what I love about these high school girls, man," he said in what's now an immortal line. "I get older -- they stay the same age."

"His performance in 'Dazed and Confused' has become so legendary, but it's really tiny," says Jenelle Riley, associate features editor at Variety. "It's just one or two lines, but it really made an impact. And that's a movie star for you."

Within a couple of years, McConaughey was starring in the latest John Grisham adaptation, "A Time to Kill," which earned an impressive $152 million. He played the lead in Ron Howard's reality-television comedy "EDtv" (1999), though the film was overshadowed by the previous year's similar hit "The Truman Show." The middling World War II film "U-571" saw a crew-cut McConaughey playing a submarine commander in 2000.

It was the 2001 Jennifer Lopez vehicle "The Wedding Planner" that launched McConaughey's romantic-comedy phase, one marked by box-

office gold but critical condescension. "Jennifer Lopez looks soulfully into the eyes of Matthew McConaughey, but is he looking back?," Roger Ebert wondered in his review of the movie. An Entertainment Weekly review of "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" (2003) barely mentioned him; The New York Times, reviewing "Failure to Launch" (2006), compared him to Travis Stork of "The Bachelor: Paris."

"He made movies people liked, but he did not have that defining role," says Anthony Breznican, of Entertainment Weekly. "I defy you, or anyone who is a fan of those movies, to tell me the name of one character he played."

Shifting gears

Then, a couple of years ago, came McConaughey's left turn. Under his long-ago collaborator Linklater, he played a district attorney in the 2011 black comedy "Bernie," starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine. In 2012, McConaughey played a mysterious fugitive in "Mud" and a violent sociopath in "Killer Joe." And although he again went shirtless in the 2012 stripper-comedy "Magic Mike," the movie capped a breakthrough year in which McConaughey was repeatedly honored by film critics' associations and won several niche awards, including a Gotham and an Independent Spirit.

The actor's next film role is in Christopher Nolan's under-wraps epic, "Interstellar," due for a November release, but he's currently enjoying more critical plaudits for the HBO series "True Detective" and for his small but memorable turn as an off-kilter stockbroker in "The Wolf of Wall Street" (he also sings the film's closing song). As for his Oscar chances next Sunday, McConaughey looks to be a sure bet after his win for best actor at the Golden Globes. (He's been opening his acceptance speeches with the refrain "All right, all right, all right," the first words he ever spoke on film, in "Dazed and Confused.")

"He seems the pretty clear winner at this point," says Jo Piazza, executive news director of Closer Weekly magazine. "Hollywood loves nothing more than a great transformation, especially combined with a great story, and I think we're seeing both."

Other McConaughey roles

Though it may seem that Matthew McConaughey has suddenly switched gears, he's been trying out various roles and different genres since his career began. Here are five McConaughey movies you may be less familiar with:

Angels in the Outfield (1994). In Disney's syrupy family film, a young McConaughey shows up briefly as outfielder Ben Williams, who is hoisted into the air by winged angels to catch a bleachers-bound ball.

EDtv (1999). In this comedy about an average guy who becomes a reality television star -- a hilarious premise at the time -- McConaughey's earthy charm served him well. He also makes out with Elizabeth Hurley.

U-571 (2000). A World War II uniform didn't seem to suit McConaughey, who looks a little stiff as the young Lieutenant suddenly in charge of a submarine. Most critics ignored him and carped about the movie's historical inaccuracies.

Surfer, Dude (2008). A weirdly titled stoner comedy about one waveless month in the life of a surfer. The actor's one genuine bomb went almost completely unseen, except by critics, who gave it a combined 0% rating on RottenTomatoes.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011). As a shady but good-hearted attorney who works out of his car, McConaughey showed off his charm, his acting chops and his star potential in this old-fashioned but thoroughly satisfying courtroom drama. Though a middling performer at the box-office, it now looks like a pivotal movie in the actor's career.

Top Stories