What to make of Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars acceptance speech?
Awards ceremonies are fascinating sites of analysis for those studying celebrity. While increasingly staged and manipulated, these ceremonies continue to offer the public the chance to catch a glimpse of famous people ‘being themselves’, promising us a rare insight into who they ‘really are’ behind their star image – from the red carpet interviews or falls (see Jennifer Lawrence) to candid shots of after party revelry. In this post Kim and Heather focus on one of the more rehearsed aspects of Awards shows – the acceptance speech. Here celebrities get a chance to represent themselves – as generous in acknowledging the co-workers, as family men and women, as political – as when Marlon Brando refused to attend the Academy Awards and sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American civil rights activist to speak in his place as a protest against the treatment of American Indians by the film industry. Here we focus on a neglected gem of a speech from this year’s Academy Awards, that by Matthew McConaughey, which contained the remarkable revelation that he is his own role model.
At this year’s Oscars, a number of acceptance speeches received notable commentary, many for their ‘politicised’ nature – from Lupito Nyong’o’s dedication to the slave Patsey she played in the film Twelve Years a Slave (‘It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s’) through to the film’s director Steve McQueen’s reminder of the millions still in slavery, and Jared Leto’s claiming solidarity with both AIDS victims, and the citizens of Venezuela and the Ukraine. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett used her speech to call attention to the lack of ‘meaty’ roles for women and a plea to the industry to stop ‘foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the centre, are niche experiences’.
We were both struck and perplexed, however, by another acceptance speech – that delivered by Matthew McConaughey in accepting the award for ‘Best Actor’ for his role as AIDS activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. This award marks the success of The McConaissance’s transition from king of the romantic comedy to ‘serious actor’.
The speech is worth listening to in full via the video above but in brief, McConaughey said that he needs three things in his life to survive:
There’s a few things, about three things to my account that I need each day. One of them is something to look up to, another is something to look forward to, and another is someone to chase.
In what followed, McConaughey thanked God and his family and then turned his attention to who he looks up to as a hero. The first divine ‘inspiration’ comes as little surprise to those familiar with the actor, and indeed is perhaps a common trope in American acceptance speeches. Family also features regularly in celebrity speeches – a reminder of the personal (and ‘ordinary’) self behind the star image. McConaughey brought these together as he paid tribute to his late father ‘who, I know he’s up there right now with a big pot of gumbo. He’s got a lemon meringue pie over there. He’s probably in his underwear. And he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite and he’s dancing right now’. As he says this McConaughey moves around like his father, his words and actions emphasising his Southern roots. In the image of his father’s pot of gumbo, plate of pie and can of beer we are assured of the star’s authenticity and ‘humble’ beginnings. He’s just like us. Indeed, that it is Southern roles that have been the basis of his transformation into a serious actor attests to the authenticity of his transformation.
Yet it is the third figure in this list that is most fascinating. Talking about his hero, his ‘someone to chase’, McConaughey referred to his ‘future self':
And to my hero. That’s who I chase. Now when I was 15 years old, I had a very important person in my life come to me and say ‘who’s your hero?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I gotta think about that. Give me a couple of weeks.’ I come back two weeks later, this person comes up and says ‘who’s your hero?’ I said, ‘I thought about it. You know who it is? It’s me in 10 years.’ So I turned 25. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, ‘So, are you a hero?’ And I was like, ‘not even close. No, no, no.’ She said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because my hero’s me at 35.’
So you see every day, every week, every month and every year of my life, my hero’s always 10 years away. I’m never gonna beat my hero. I’m not gonna obtain that. I know i’m not. And that’s just fine with me because it keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing. So to any of us, whatever it is those things are, whatever it is we look up to, whatever it is we look forward to and whoever it is we’re chasing, to that I say, ‘Amen.’ To that I say, ‘Alright, alright, alright.’ To that I say ‘just keep living.’ Thank you.
So how do we make sense of this? Why did it disturb and perplex us? Here are a few thoughts. We’d love it if you told us what you made of it in the comments below.
First, it strongly embodies neoliberal discourses of aspiration where investment in the self is paramount. The thing is to keep on striving and improving: even if you’ve won an Oscar, you are and can never be good enough. Indeed one must prove oneself through showing investment in always wanting to do better. As Nikolas Rose says, ‘each individual must render his or her life meaningful as if it were the outcome of individual choices made in furtherance of a biographical project of self-realization’. This is similar to Will Smith’s success philosophy based on ‘sickening hard work’ and relates to how the young people to whom we spoke stressed the value not just of hard work but of dedication, never giving up and always learning.
In this focus on his future self as his hero or role model, McConaughey suggests that we need to – and should – ‘keep on chasing’ rather than ‘making do’ or being happy with your lot (even if it’s a great ‘lot’). Here happiness figures as something to be worked at rather than happened upon and the self appears as an endless project – a site of continual reinvention and refashioning, of, as Michel Foucault put it ‘care of the self’. Indeed, as we noted above, this is key to his stardom, transformation and the figure of The McConaissance.
We also wondered if there’s something gendered going on here. Generating very little criticism – and indeed a lot of praise – McConaughey seems to be allowed to get away with this self-congratulatory register, perhaps because his persona emphasises his quirky off-beat style. We know that if women talk ‘too’ positively or confidently about themselves, they risk being seen as smug or self-obsessed. So, would a female actress be able to get away with this we wonder? Anne Hathaway’s past acceptance speeches generated an infamous ‘backlash’ and associations of arrogance and faux humility.
Even given his gender, this speech could be read as narcissistic, especially in comparison to the other speeches this year which were praised as political statements and which acknowledged less fortunate others. Indeed, in one of the many, many articles on Lupito’s speech, we see her humility celebrated as both rare and authentic rather than merely professed and projected:
It doesn’t escape her for one second that her current joy directly stems from someone else’s pain. She does make the standard industry thank-yous to cast, crew, and family members, but she chooses to preface all of that with a lengthy dedication to the person whose story she told on screen. Later in the speech, she said she could feel the presence of the dead. Lots of Oscar winners try to project humility, but usually that professed humility is in relation to others in the film industry—not in relation to all of American history.
But does McConaughey’s speech about always chasing his future self represent something more complex than merely signs of the actor’s narcissism and self-satisfaction. We wonder if this projection of his future self as something to always be striving towards performs an important social function which produces him not as arrogant or above his station, but rather, as ‘like us’. McConaughey appears both ordinary and extraordinary. Being grateful but not yet (or indeed ever) happy with his lot, he appears both closer to us and deserving of his privilege, simultaneously dissolving and legitimating the gaping inequalities between us and the elite of which he is part.
Tags: Academy Awards, Cate Blanchett, family, God, heros, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong'o, Matthew McCounaughey, Michel Foucault, Oscars, role models, Steve McQueen
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I have often found MM to be a bit cringey and when I heard that he’d thanked himself, his own hero, in his speech I did a bit of eye-rolling and thought ‘there he goes again’. But, when I heard and watched the speech I felt very differently. I felt a little sorry that, as you say, we are encouraged not to stop, reflect or indeed bask in present glory (or banality) but to constantly look to the next goal before our golden statue has even attracted a molecule of dust. I too felt it was a sign of these neoliberal times. I might have preferred it if he’d said ‘look at me, aren’t I fabulous’. Great piece btw.
Yes, even happiness is always future focused now, losing what Sara Ahmed speaks about as the ‘hap’ in happiness
Great post! I watched this speech with a kind of horrified fascination. You have described many of the things that made me uneasy. Another us that it is so obviously and deliberately hammy. This adds to the sense that he is like us and we—if we wanted to—could be him because he is pretending to be not very good at the very thing that he is being rewarded for. If naturally he is no better than this amateurish turn suggests, then it MUST be all that dedication. It seems to me this performance hinges on the display of a certain kind of professional self. In neoliberal cultures of work, as Lisa Adkins has pointed out, men are frequently rewarded for the adoption of traditionally feminised traits such as reflexivity. Women are not only not rewarded similarly—after all, they are just being women—they are punished for the adoption of conventionally masculinised traits such as ambition and self-promotion.
Thanks for the comment, I hadn’t thought of the link to Lisa Adkins’ work
I can’t help supposing that there is a straight and continuous line from MM all the way back to the early US Puritans who were obsessed with their Selves, who endlessly self-analysed, who believed that only God decided who featured among the elect and yet strived continually for Worldly Success according to the backward logic that WS would assure them that God had indeed placed them among the Elect few – and who also wrote hundreds if not thousands of autobiographies: so far and yet so near – so similar to many modern US Americans, as well as so different.