What makes a great performance? Acting is such a subtle and mysterious art form that sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on all of the minute nuances that elevate a good portrayal to a great one. Maybe that’s why so many of us get so worked up into a tizzy when we see a movie star drop a ton of weight for a role. It’s something we can see, something we can explain in raw numbers.

Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds of Method flab to play the past-his-prime middleweight lug Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Michael Fassbender dropped 35 pounds to play imprisoned IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger. Matt Damon shed 50 pounds to play a scarred war vet in Courage Under Fire. And Christian Bale, who seems to make a habit of this kind of thing, risked his life by shedding 60 pounds to turn himself into a walking ghoul for The Machinist — a movie you’d think more people would have seen considering what a big deal critics and media types made over Bale’s ghastly transformation.

Now comes Matthew McConaughey, whose weight loss to play a man with AIDS in the very good new film Dallas Buyers Club, is merely the latest example of a big-time movie star crash-dieting for a role. I’m all for actors doing whatever it takes to summon something we haven’t seen before. But there’s something about all of these staggering weight loss feats that’s starting to feel a little familiar. Everywhere you look on the newsstand or Internet lately, you see stories about McConaughey’s drastic weight loss and how it’s a sign of his new seriousness as an actor. That he is killing off his old laid back, tawny-chested, rom-com stud persona to be taken seriously just by saying no to carbs and punching a new hole in his belt.

According to these stories, McConaughey lost 38 pounds for the film. Unless of course, you’re reading the stories that have already upped that number to 50. I’m sure that by the time the Oscar race is in full swing and his team of publicists and awards wranglers get their frenzied spin going, the number will be up to 100. Take that, Bale! Suck it, Damon!

I agree that McConaughey is great in the film — actually, he and his costar, Jared Leto, who also went the skin-and-bones route, are much better than the imperfect movie itself. But his weight loss may be the least interesting part of his performance. I also agree that McConaughey has shown a new commitment lately (starting with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and on through Bernie, Magic Mike, and Mud). But I think there’s a disservice and a danger in the knee-jerk reaction a lot of us have when an actor loses a ton of weight for a part — that he is automatically Laurence Olivier because he ate twigs and skinless chicken for a month. Our reverence for these daredevil bits of actorly prep-work runs the risk of confusing shocking physical transformations with art. It can also reduce what truly are great performances to self-indulgent stunts.

I’m looking forward to seeing McConaughey’s performance (and Leto’s) in Dallas Buyers Club again. I just worry that when we all see him on screen — sickly, emaciated, and concave — we single out and trumpet the wrong thing for praise. Personally, I’d prefer not to know how many pounds he lost or what his dietary regimen for the sake of his craft was. That’s between him and his priest…or acting coach. Frankly, it bores me to tears. And I worry that McConaughey (or Bale or Damon or Fassbender) agreeing to talk too much about this stuff to help sell the movie and their own Oscar contention makes them look superficial and kinda show-offy. Let the performance speak for itself and let how you arrived at it remain a mystery.

What do you think? Should we care about how much weight actors gain or lose for roles?

Dallas Buyers Club
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