‘Dallas Buyers Club’ may play fast-and-loose with facts, but those who lived it say its portrait of a man driven to save lives during the AIDS crisis is just right
The poster for the Dallas Buyers Club — the movie (opening this week in the Angelika Film Center) about an underground AIDS treatment movement in the 1980s and ’90s — prominently features the Dallas skyline.
Aside from that image, the title itself and the protagonist at its heart, Ron Woodroof, the film will disappoint viewers expecting to see familiar places (or even hear familiar names) from bygone days of the gayborhood. (It was shot mostly in Louisiana.)
Getting basics like geography wrong might lead some to question the truth of the bigger story. But don’t mistake historical inaccuracies for outright criticisms — especially not in the way the film tells an important history of AIDS that has long been overlooked.
According to the movie, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) was a hard-drinkin’, fast-lovin’, heavy-druggin’ homophobe whose reckless behavior resulted, quite by accident, in a diagnosis of AIDS by a caring physician (Jennifer Garner). At the time, doctors gave him about a month to live.
But Ron was a fighter with a hardscrabble Texas spirit. He refused to cede to death. When he couldn’t find drugs in the U.S. market to stem the spread of his HIV, he sought them out in Mexico and Japan. When the Food and Drug Administration balked at his efforts to sell grey-market drugs (with the help of a drag queen named Rayon, played by Jared Leto), he established the Dallas Buyers Club: a members-only co-op where those who paid a fee could access the drugs he just “happened” to have.
A lot of that never happened.
There was no Rayon, no FDA raiding his business regularly, no corrupt doctors on the take to Big Pharma. He was not a homophobe either, according to those who knew him, but rather openly bisexual. And the doctor who was Woodroof’s primary care physician throughout much of his treatment wasn’t a woman, but Dr. Steven Pounders, who’s still in practice today.
You might expect that Pounders, who met with the screenwriter more than three years ago to have his brain picked for details about Woodroof’s life, might object to being changed into a woman — even a beautiful one. But that’s not the case. Not at all.
“It’s a movie, but it got a lot of very true facts [right],” he says. “Ron was doing all that stuff. He was diagnosed with AIDS — not even HIV, but AIDS — and had no T-cells. He was taking Peptide T [which is shown in the movie] and Compound Q [which was not]. He had this incredible ability to fit in, which is why it was accurate to present him as [pretending to be a priest] to carry drugs over the border. It does make a good story.”
It’s “a good story” partly because it is based on true facts largely unknown outside the HIV community during the frantic early days of the plague. The Dallas Buyers Club wasn’t the country’s first such group — an under-the-table collective of HIV-positive folks who united to smuggle unapproved (but not illegal) treatments from overseas while the FDA’s bureaucracy kept them out of the hands of the dying — but it was considered one of the most brazen.
And Woodroof was a compelling personality (“I don’t think anyone who ever met him didn’t like him,” Pounders says) whose drive to keep himself, and others, alive at all costs was a rare glimmer of hope at a time when an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence.
Certainly Pounders saw that first-hand. He had just finished his residency in Houston when Parkland Hospital hired him to work in its newly-formed AIDS clinic (a clinic which came about only because of a lawsuit promulgated by activists in Dallas’ gay community). It was probably there that Woodroof first became aware of Pounders, so when the doctor went into private practice in September of 1989, Woodroof was among his first patients.
“When I met Ron, he had already started Dallas Buyers Club,” he says. As in the movie, it worked in real-life essentially as it is shown: HIV-positive people would pay a membership, show up at Woodroof’s apartment with a prescription and Woodroof would take it to Mexico to fill it. (Pounders explains that even under federal law, nonapproved drugs for personal use can be brought into the country legally, up to a three-month supply.)
What is not shown in the film is that doctors like Pounders were frequently employed to administer the drugs intravenously.
“In 1989, the only drugs we had were AZT, which was not strong enough but extremely toxic, and Bactrim, which we aerosolized and used to prevent pneumonia,” Pounders explains. Preventing pneumonia was the best way to keep people healthy while their immune systems were depressed.
But not everyone could take Bactrim. That’s where Woodroof’s foreign drugs came in. Pounders treated dozens of DBC members, saving or extending many lives. “That was incredibly real about the movie,” he says.
Still, McConaughey, Leto and director Jean-Marc Vallee know that they haven’t made a documentary. Instead, they were aiming for something more sweeping: Using Woodroof’s passion to reveal a truth about the treatment of AIDS during its precarious “plague” years. (Not everything is fictionalized. McConaughey says he based a lot of his character’s mindset on a “Pandora’s box” of information: Woodroof’s personal diary.)
“The hard truth that I could see, and the way I approached it, was him getting HIV is what gave him his purpose in life,” McConaughey says. “That’s the first time that he had something that he grabbed ahold of for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day, until he was here no longer. That’s where he found a real identity. That’s where he found a purpose.
“He doesn’t start off as this crusader for the cause. He’s not waving the flag. If anything, he’s a selfish son of a bitch who’s doing what he can to survive.”
Still, some early reviews were critical of the film, in part because it portrays Woodroof as heterosexual and homophobic, which others deny.
“[The screenwriters] were really concerned how the community would react if they portrayed him as a straight guy,” Pounders admits. “He seemed to me very comfortable in the gay environment, like any other gay man.”
But he adds that, in the context of the film, it makes for a “better” story. Woodroof’s transition from bigot to champion of the underdog takes on more power when framed as personal growth. In the context of the film, however, making Ron a bigot — and having him befriend Rayon, who is comfortable being gay — makes for more dramatic character development, mirroring how mainstream society itself came to soften its condemnation of gays.
“When [Matthew] portrays a guy who’s racist and homophobic, and then his arc changes slowly but surely without even realizing it,” Vallee says, “he’s going to become the spokesperson of the gay community he’s been bashing for years and years — that’s what [McConaughey] brought naturally.”
For Pounders, McConaughey’s performance was simply “uncanny — down to the look and the hair and the beard,” he says.
Mary Franklin, who worked with the real Woodroof back in the early days of the Dallas Buyers Club, says McConaughey also got the character exactly correct.
“He was a rebel, he was passionate, he was a visionary and he was a great businessman trying to survive,” Franklin says. “[Back then], if you wanted to live, or try something new, you were out of the luck. [Ron] was not going to accept that. We were in a war with a disease, and any ammunition that was available was good ammunition. Ron said, ‘If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna do it my way.’”
And that’s what he did. The Dallas Buyers Club was not the first meds exchange of its kind to pop up during the AIDS crisis, but it did have a reputation for being the most daring. And Woodroof’s take-no-prisoners attitude fueled it.
“He was the crazy cowboy. He was a rallyer, but totally underground. He wasn’t gonna lay down and let it happen, and he didn’t want other people to let it happen to them,” she says.
The movie also got that right. Woodroof did make frequent trips to Mexico (eventually using a speedboat, Franklin says, under cover of night) to purchase the meds that weren’t available in the U.S.
“He loved the adrenaline rush. He loved the whole excitement of going to get the drugs and the whole nationwide network,” she says.
It wasn’t always simple, though. Woodroof never bilked members of the club for the price of the meds — they paid the same price he paid. He made money off the membership fees … and found other sources of income.
“He was always looking for how to pay for the thing,” Franklin says with a smile. “He was full of energy — an unreasonable, crazy guy. I never saw him when he didn’t have energy, though I’m sure there were times when he didn’t. He was always proud of what he did.”
And more than 20 years later, those who were a part of the Dallas Buyers Club are proud to have been a part of it.
Chris Azzopardi contributed to this story.
QUEER CLIP: ‘DALLAS BUYERS CLUB’
In the 1980s, the one thing every straight man was sure of was that AIDS was a gay disease. Other people got it — kinda because they deserved it. Rock Hudson? Closet case.
Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) seemed to think that, too. He enjoyed tomcatting around with a parade of different women in between scamming gamblers and generally raising hell. So the day he went into the hospital and found out that he had full-blown AIDS and barely a month to live, he knew the diagnosis had to be wrong. Back then, AIDS was a death sentence. And Ron was not prepared to die just yet.
That’s the premise for Dallas Buyers Club, a highly fictionalized telling of Woodroof’s story — how, given a choice between the poisonous treatment from AZT or certain death, he picked the third option: Importing legal but non-FDA-approved drugs from Mexico and Asia to keep himself — and countless others — alive.
Ron didn’t die in 30 days, nor in 60, nor 100. He lived years longer, fighting the good fight with his grey-market drug scheme when the hierarchy of government and Big Pharma conspired to ensure higher profits at the costs of human lives.
McConaughey has often been a better actor than he’s given credit for. Since last year, he’s taken on out-of-the-box roles like a sadistic hitman (Killer Joe) and a closet gay journalist with a taste for the rough stuff (The Paperboy), but Dallas Buyers Club is his Raging Bull: A vehicle with which he can silence the naysayers once and for all about his acting chops. He compellingly transforms his notoriously ripped frame into a ghostly, wiry shell of flesh. As a Texan himself, he’s at ease with cocky swagger and effortless charm.
And he’s not the only one to make waves. Jared Leto, as a drag queen named Rayon who helps Ron launch his business, gets to the depths of the character without resorting to mawkishness or stereotypes. Jennifer Garner is strong as the one physician who wants Ron to succeed and numerous cameos (by Griffin Dunne, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn and Dallas Roberts) lend even the smallest roles heft. Director Jean-Marc Vallee carelessly peppers the film with too-many anachronisms and inaccuracies, but those can ultimately be forgiven when the final result is as powerful as this.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 8, 2013.