There Can Be Only One: McConaughey Vs. Cranston

If you had said in 2008 that the two actors consistently competing for Best Actor across mediums was Matthew McConaughey and Malcolm’s dad, AKA The Jewish Dentist from Seinfeld, you would be committed to either the looney bin or exposed as a strange elaborate joke.

But here we are, on the precipice of one of these men winning half an EGOT in the same calendar year. (To be fair, Cranston already is halfway there even without a win on Sunday after winning a Tony for his portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson). Sure there are others nominated, but anyone who has paid attention to movies this year knows that it comes down to these two, who traveled very different roads to get to here.

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McConaissance Man

Matthew McConaughey had seemed destined to keep making the same movie over and over again, one attractive, two-dimensional character at a time. A real guarantee when teamed up with a Kate Hudson type, Kate being the Ryan to his Hanks, he was a sure fire way to put the muff in the seats and all the ladies attached to those muffs could be counted on buying SOME form of overpriced chocolate and a Diet Coke.

This wasn’t always the case. Sure his filmography is littered with films like Glory Daze and Larger than Life, the worst Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel, not to mention Disney’s continued pursuit of that elusive “kids who like baseball” market with Angels In the Outfield. The good stuff, however, was really good.

His character in Dazed and Confused could easily be the most quoted part in a very quotable film, making him more memorable than the rest of an ensemble cast that included Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams, and Mila Jovovich. Whether it was his utterance of “Alright, Alright Alright” in a drawl that has become a great asset and at times a limitation, or his rumination on dating younger girls that predated Aailiyah’s naive justification of R Kelly’s predatory dating, you remember him more than any other.

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Dazed and Confused was nothing compared to the performances he would give in A Time to Kill and Amistad, Contact, and later Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. It seemed like Matthew McConaughey’s stock would continue to rise. Surely he would get better as we come to expect from actors who have successfully given progressively better performances throughout a decade.

So it wasn’t so much as a Failure to Launch as it was a failure to the escape the orbit of mediocrity. How to lose your credibility in less than 10 years perhaps? Because for whatever reason – money, his heartthrob status, the ability to just phone it in – McConaughey stopped trying. Maybe not completely but he stopped trying very hard. Each romantic comedy more groan inducing than the last, with plenty of “Okay-But-Nothing-Specials” sprinkled in between, he seemed destined to never be anything other than just another Freddie Prinze, Jr. or Ryan Reynolds.

That all changed with the dawning of the McConaissance, which the experts of the Internet have charted as beginning in 2011 with the far better than expected The Lincoln Lawyer, which also stars Cranston as a detective who is out to get McConaughey’s ethically challenged (aren’t they all?) but changing for the good lawyer. Technically Tropic Thunder and his small role in Eastbound &  Down predate The Lincoln Lawyer, but Tropic Thunder was followed by Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and the what I can only imagine is autobiographical, Surfer, Dude. The Internet is never wrong.

This would continue with roles that would challenge the public’s perception of McConaughey – that is if the public was watching the mostly indie flicks. In Killer Joe he played the titular psychopath, in Paperboy a gay reporter, and while Mud looked like he had reverted back to the barely-buttoned-shirt McConaughey of old, it was a compelling tale of a drifter and young boys that doesn’t end in years of therapy and drug abuse.

The McConnaissance would finally be acknowledged in the mainstream when in Magic Mike he played a meta version of the Matthew McConaughey that the world had come to expect – shirtless nearly all the time, sexy and dripping with drawl. His name was even Dallas! But this role was an inversion; an acknowledgement of who he was that in some ways buried this version of him once and for all. Where Magic Mike brought McConaughey back into everyone’s goldfish like memories, it was what followed that would make people like myself who had talked negatively about him for a decade stop and say “I stand corrected.”

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His short amount of screen time in Martin Scorsese’s tale of excess The Wolf of Wall Street literally set the tone of the movie, his speech inspiring the Id of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort to fully take hold and blossom into the maniac that he could always be. Like Magic Mike, it seemed like a comment on the man he was thought of, banging out a beat on his chest in one of this year’s most memorable – and viral- movie moments.

That would be the end of the self-reflecting roles and beginning of an era that I hope last longer his initial rise to fame and his lost years combined.

Barely recognizable in Dallas Buyers Club due to a dramatic weight loss that would have made his Reign of Fire co-star Christian Bale tip his hat, the real feat was his acting, which was without argument the best he has ever done. It was one of the first times I personally forgot him as the actor and saw solely the character he was playing. An amazing accomplishment considering how prominently his trademark drawl played into the characterization of Ron Woodruff, and his portrayal of the dead man walking would gain him a deserved Oscar for Actor in a Leading Role.

The same could be said about Rust Cohle, the character he played in HBO’s True Detective that earned him the Emmy nod. Complex, mysterious, and essentially two different characters at two different times, Rust was a perfect balance of Nihilism and optimism as well as a counter balance to the contented and unenlightened Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson (also nominated in the Best Actor category and also guilty of acting in Surfer, Dude). Playing Rust proved that the hype is justified in that it showed McConaughey has the talent to synthesize two different iterations of one character into one cohesive whole.  A beautiful, conflicted whole. Like the synthesis of The World’s Sexiest Man and a great fucking actor

(I don’t mean he is a porn star, K? The “fuck” is for emphasis, not necessarily a descriptive word here. I mean, I’m sure he would be a GREAT porn star, but you never know. Just drop it, OK? Sheesh. You. You’re alright still I guess.)

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It’s a Bad, Bad World

Bryan Cranston’s road to the Emmy awards and the final chance to officially cement the legacy of his greatest role to date, Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher who would make an improbable transition from hero to anti-hero and back to hero again was a little different than McConaughey’s. His success is less a Renaissance and more of a payoff for years of paying dues.*

Sure Tim Whatley (his reoccurring and recognizable Seinfeld character AKA his “big” break) was a fantastic character, as was Hal, the father of Malcolm in the story of a boy who overcomes his birth order to go to college. They were just mere stepping stones though; place markers for a career destined for far, far greater things.

Malcom would give Frankie Muniz the money to be far more sexually active with more attractive women  but it would do far greater things for Cranston; even if that too was not apparent at the time.  At minimum it would elevate him from the samsara of one-offs on all the shows you forgot about from the late 90s: The Pretender, Chicago Hope, Working, Honey I Shrunk the Kids the TV show, V.I.P. , as well as Diagnosis Murder. No small roles, right?

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His rise to celebrated actor and perennial Emmy favorite is more akin to fellow nominee and AMC protagonist/anti-hero Jon Hamm. Both had modest roles for years in both comedy and drama with small gains here and there until a life changing role and both have been consistent in that role since. The two have brought a fully fleshed out character to life in a way that makes you want to see them get what they deserve for all their selfish and immoral behavior while simultaneously hoping it works out for them in the end. They are like those exes that you just can’t hate no matter how hard you try.

Most notably, this year saw Cranston breathe one last breath into the revered/despised Walter White in a final season that most TV critics agree delivered everything its potential promised. He too played a man in two times in a way that made the journey from before and after so captivating. Just like McConaughey, he was able to create a cohesiveness that made future Walter White a product of profound experiences that made sense and ultimately felt rich. Of course that was to be expected.

Even many of Cranston’s smaller roles feel different and fresh – never are you reminded of the roles that made him famous or earned him the most acclaim. McConaughey may be branching out into different roles, but that drawl always reminds you of who he is, more so than many other actors. Cranston could be anyone else as long as his he doesn’t have a shaved head and goatee. He was also in Godzilla far less than one would have hoped despite being featured in most commercials, which flattering as that may be, it is no different than putting the chocolate eating muff in the seats. That is probably what led to his award winning portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in the play All The Way, his first foray into Broadway and first nomination.

Winning the Emmy will prove how great Cranston is even though it doesn’t need to be proved anymore.  His greatness is already crystal clear.

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 There Can Be Only One?

The reason why the success of both men is so sweet and so similar is that no one can say they saw it coming. Cranston’s run came out of nowhere and helped establish and anchor AMC’s block of original serial programming, while McConaughey’s revival was still very much simmering mostly out of sight as it had taken place in indie pictures. The idea of him winning an Emmy seemed even more preposterous than his Oscar because True Detective received very little hype until its initial release, debuting in the wake of Boardwalk Empire and the subsequent holiday break and before monster hit Game Of Thrones.

There is no telling how Emmy voters will land. Neither answer is wrong as both were amazing from top to bottom; examples of a compelling stories being told in a way that is stunningly visual, edited perfectly, and acted exquisitely well.

While Breaking Bad ‘s final half season was a nearly flawless culmination of one of Television’s greatest series that left its fans (and fans to come) with closure and nearly everything they could have asked for, True Detective Season 1 may be one of the best seasons on television period. Both shows were anchored by two actors giving incredibly strong performances, one stronger than the other of course, but still dependent on the chemistry between the two leads. Because it’s all about the chemistry, right?

That is why one can make an argument for either show sweeping the drama category. Neither answer is wrong as both were amazing from top to bottom; examples of and compelling stories being told in a way that is stunningly visual, edited perfectly, and acted exquisitely well.

That’s why predicting a winner and forming and an opinion about the rightful winner come down to a few simple questions. The first is “what do you value more?” Is it the thing that you EXPECTED to be tremendously done, or the thing that surprised you and knocked you off your feet. The established V. the upstart. The second is: how much do you care about justice? Because in a just world there is only one man who should win and that man is Bryan Cranston.

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True Detective is cheating. It is technically a miniseries, but entered into the series category due to a little known rule. I was cool with the choice to enter as a series initially, but the more I think about it, the more it strikes me as cheating. I understand why they want to compete as a plain, old drama. The Drama Series category is the most prestigious category, whereas there is something less special about the Miniseries one. Logic aside though, it is a different beast altogether. A comedy is different than a drama, and both are very different than a series that tells one story over one season and never deals with the character ever again. You don’t have to worry about fully developing your characters over time; you can get it all done in two-to-however many episodes in one run and be done with it.

I said I understood the reasoning, but I still can’t get behind this complete disregard for categories that make are there for a reason. It would actually be more prudent to submit Louie as a drama than it does to submit a miniseries as typical series, especially given the fact it aired in hour blocks this season. An Emmy is an Emmy…as long as it isn’t a creative Arts or Daytime Emmy. They could have completely dominated the Miniseries category and they would still have Emmys, but they had to prove that they could compete with the big names in the Drama Series bracket and muddy up the system.

I know I said there is no wrong answer, but there is a right answer: Cranston’s Walter White. I might not feel that way if the story of True Detective was going to back the showing the exploits of Marty and Rust, but they aren’t and that is pretty common knowledge. It is also pretty underhanded. I feel bad because McConaughey deserves an Emmy for his Inter-stellar performance, but he won’t get what is coming to him because cheaters should never win.

*I am obviously not downplaying the work that McConaughey has put in. I’m just saying that his path involved a lot less small, shitty roles that pay the bills and moved you forward in your career. Face it: the world is biased towards attractive people. Sucks to be everyone else.

Author: Josh Richer

Josh lives in NYC (OK OK! Staten Island) and would love it if you employed him. Send Josh an email