With Focus Features restructuring and shifting its identity toward the mainstream, “Dallas Buyers Club” represents the last Oscar hurrah for the division’s James Schamus-led era that gave us great movies such as “The Pianist,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Lost in Translation” and “Moonrise Kingdom.”
And Focus is clearly going out swinging. The studio just mailed DVD screeners of “Dallas” to the 105,000-plus voting members of SAG-AFTRA, making sure its movie will be the first to arrive in Screen Actors Guild Awards voters’ mailboxes.
“Dallas,” based on the life story of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a hell-raising homophobe who began smuggling anti-viral medications into the country after he was diagnosed with HIV, won three SAG Awards nominations last week, individual nods for actors McConaughey and Jared Leto along with a coveted ensemble nomination.
The recognition for McConaughey and Leto wasn’t surprising. The actors’ work has been lauded, first in reviews and, lately, in year-end prizes from critics groups. Beyond the obvious quality of the performances, the “Dallas” roles offered a showy hook to voters, since they required the actors to lose a collective hundred-plus pounds and, in the case of Leto, switch genders to play the transgender woman who partners with Woodroof.
But SAG’s ensemble nomination -- citing cast members Jennifer Garner, Dennis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts and Steve Zahn, along with McConaughey and Leto -- came as a bit of a surprise and might indicate that the movie could still find its way into the back end of the best picture Oscar race.
A cast nomination doesn’t guarantee a best picture nod, as the makers of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Bridesmaids” and “3:10 to Yuma” will tell you. But “Dallas,” a movie that has produced a fair amount of passion for its acting, subject matter and overall quality, better fits the type of message movie that many academy members like to honor.
And, with a “Dallas” vote, there might also be one message the academy would like to send of its own -- an appreciation for Schamus and the wonderful work he shepherded during his tenure at Focus. “Dallas Buyers Club” -- fierce, entertaining, vital -- ranks right alongside its best.