In 1995, my high school graduating class picked as its senior song the Lynyrd Skynyrd ballad “Tuesday’s Gone.” Frankly, there were few obvious alternatives. The ’93 and ’94 classes had already taken Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” and Garth Brooks’s “The Dance,” respectively, using up all the clichéd favorites. There weren’t many newer songs that seemed appropriate, either. (We could hardly have the school choir singing Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage.”) “Tuesday’s Gone,” at least, had an elegiac beauty to it, filled as it is with lines about wind and trains and “rolling on” that were just vague enough to apply to our own uncertain futures. Still, you’d have been justified in asking why a bunch of 1995 kids chose an old classic rock tune, written by singer Ronnie Van Zant about his apprehensions over the band’s new record deal, as the aural time capsule of our teenage years.
If you’ve seen Dazed and Confused, however, as most of the student body had, you’d know the answer. “Tuesday’s Gone” plays during the film’s climactic blowout, drifting near-subliminally in the background as the kegs are floated and the party is dying. Richard Linklater has said he wanted his 1993 movie, about a bunch of rural Texas teens celebrating the last day of school in 1976, to be a work of antinostalgia. He wanted to show that our oft-romanticized youths were filled with more anxiety, trauma, and boredom than we care to recall. “I wanted to do a realistic teen movie,” Linklater told the Guardian in 2019. “Most of them had too much drama and plot, but teenage life is more like you’re looking for the party, looking for something cool, the endless pursuit of something you never find, and even if you do, you never quite appreciate it.”
Linklater does his best to deflate those mythologized glory days, revealing them as so much driving around aimlessly, leaning against walls and drinking cheap beer, and fretting about things that won’t matter in a year. Still, he can’t help but allow himself a moment to mourn their passing anyway—to linger in the dawn and the bittersweet realization that things will never be exactly like this, with these people, ever again. Without that grace note, it’s doubtful that Dazed and Confused would have struck such a chord with my own high school class, or become such rite-of-passage viewing for every generation since.
Go figure, then, that the character who became most associated with Dazed and Confused is the one who most puts the lie to the notion that the party ever has to end. Wooderson, played by Matthew McConaughey, is described in Linklater’s original script as the “older guy still hanging on to the high school scene, basically cool and looked up to but is getting more pathetic as the years go on.” He’s a twentysomething adult who spends all his time with teenagers; he’s not just “pathetic” but an unabashed sexual predator. Wooderson is what most right-thinking people would call a dirtbag. As written, we were meant to laugh at him, to find him repulsive, to view him as a cautionary tale about what happens when you refuse to grow up or aim higher than working some joe job so you can throw keggers with kids.
Instead, we love Wooderson. And despite Linklater’s intentions, ultimately the film loves him as well. It simply can’t help it. There are moments that, on the page, should be undercut by irony, like Wooderson’s slow-motion strut through the pool hall to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” It’s a play on Robert De Niro’s similarly swaggering introduction in Mean Streets, only rendered comedic here by how pitifully small and low-stakes Wooderson’s world really is. Nevertheless, the scene attains a mythic sweep that negates the winking lyrical asides about the man who “could’ve been champion of the world.” Even Wooderson’s closest buddies call him “Woulda-been,” but the nickname never really lands. He is Teflon in a Ted Nugent shirt. Somehow, this pathetic old man remains the coolest, cockiest guy in the room.
Why are we—like Marissa Ribisi’s budding intellectual, Cynthia—so drawn to Wooderson, even though we should know better? Obviously, a lot of that has to do with McConaughey himself. As Linklater once told Texas Monthly, he initially thought McConaughey was “too good-looking” to play the loser creep he’d written, and he was right. In McConaughey’s audition tape, he’s an Apollonian beauty, blonde ringlets and all. Even after roughing himself up with tattoos and a wispy mustache, he retains that same golden aura and easy McConaughey smile. But rather than clashing with the character, it somehow made him real. McConaughey’s innate charm (and that face) transforms Wooderson from someone so disgusting, you’d be left wondering why anyone even tolerates him, into a guy you can actually believe these kids would admire.
There is also the heft of McConaughey’s own titanic self-confidence, which became an inextricable part of Wooderson’s allure. McConaughey likes to talk about Wooderson as his “origin story,” telling and retelling the tale of his chance run-in with Dazed casting director Don Phillips at the Austin Hyatt. McConaughey usually plays it off as serendipity—the “right bar at the right time,” where two guys just happened to get tipsy and trade golf stories, until one of them happens to mention that he’s working on a movie. But as Linklater would tell Melissa Maerz in Alright Alright Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, this is pure, self-mythologizing bunkum. It elides just how calculated McConaughey was about tracking Phillips down and making things happen, in a very un-chill, very calculated way.
Yet even this speaks to McConaughey’s peculiar trick of making his ambition and unwavering self-regard seem ingratiating and sort of charming—even downright inspiring. He brings this same quality to Wooderson, whose bluster would have come off as clearly ridiculous or insufferable had McConaughey not imbued him with his own endlessly marketable style of breezy conviction. It’s little wonder that Wooderson became not just the origin story of McConaughey’s acting career, but of his entire persona, which was simultaneously born and in full bloom the second that first “alright” left his mouth.
But while Dazed introduced us to Matthew McConaughey’s whole deal, Wooderson also worked because you probably already knew guys like that. Maybe they weren’t as charismatic, and surely not as attractive, but it’s easy to believe Linklater when he says people have come up to him for years swearing that they had a Wooderson in their town. That number includes McConaughey himself: “I ain’t this guy, but I know this guy,” the actor told Linklater at their very first meeting. McConaughey himself was more of a preppy college kid, favoring crisp polos and khaki shorts. But he’d grown up worshiping guys like his older brother Pat, who tooled around their hometown of Uvalde in his Camaro, blasting Judas Priest and AC/DC. In Maerz’s book, McConaughey talks about the life-changing moment when he saw Pat smoking a cigarette behind the high school, his knee cocked up against the wall, and decided right then that there was no one cooler on the planet. It was Pat who inspired Wooderson’s strut, McConaughey said, of “shoulders back, kinda leaned back a little bit, the pelvis pushed forward, preceding the chest and the head.”
If you grew up in East Texas, as McConaughey and Linklater did—or any place with a self-mythologized hero leaning against a wall somewhere, bragging about his car and his conquests—then you probably knew guys like that, too. For better or worse, Wooderson feels like one of our own.
Although Dazed and Confused was filmed all around Austin, and it was clearly inspired by his high school years in Huntsville, Linklater intentionally didn’t set out to make a “Texas” movie. Still, bits of the state clearly seeped in: Austin’s moontowers; those long stretches of farm road broken up by liquor stores; the football coaches that I swear also worked at my school, with their double-knit polyester shorts and demands for a “serious attitude adjustment”; the way adults don’t think twice about pulling a gun on a kid.
But mostly, Dazed feels like a Texas movie because it’s about making the best out of nothing. It’s part of a long lineage of movies about bored Texas youngsters: Hud, The Last Picture Show, Fandango, Linklater’s own Slacker and Suburbia. Spiritually it also feels like a prelude to Austin director Eagle Pennell’s films—of which Linklater is an avowed fan—The Whole Shootin’ Match and Last Night at the Alamo. There you’ll find even older, even more pathetic former football stars drinking too much and clinging to their glory days—still searching for the party, still incapable of appreciating what they’ve already got.
Several of the characters in Dazed and Confused spend the night talking and stumbling their way through this quintessentially Texan struggle. Starting quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) is so preemptively jaded about where his future’s headed, he can’t even enjoy what should be his glory days: “If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself,” Pink mutters. Cynthia takes a less jaundiced view, but she’s grappling with a similarly existential problem. “If we’re all gonna die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now?“ she asks. “I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.”
And then there is Wooderson, Buddha of the beer bust, who may be kind of a creep, or a loser, but you can’t deny he seems to love every minute of it. With his “just keep livin’ ” monologue—which McConaughey, still reeling from his father’s death a few weeks into shooting, reportedly improvised on the spot—Wooderson whips up an entire philosophy in just a few artfully drawled sentences about not letting the bastards grind you down.
As far as ideologies go, “just keep livin’ ” isn’t much. A bit of Zen and a touch of Stoicism, with a floater of go-to-hell nihilism. Arguably, the monologue that Sasha Jenson’s Don delivers immediately afterward—his resolve to someday “look back and say that I did the best I could while I was stuck in this place”—has more poetry. It resonates even more deeply with the movie’s themes. But “just keep livin’ ” is agreeably simple. It’s clean. You can see why McConaughey turned it not only into a mantra but a mission.
“Just keep livin’ ” and “alright, alright, alright” got all the fame, but I have a fondness for Wooderson’s much less quotable line from much earlier in the film. Some of the guys outside the pool hall are about to take a joyride, and they ask Wooderson if he wants to come along. Wooderson’s reply is firm: “I’m here, man,” he says, a line that McConaughey emphasizes by holding his palm flat in a way that seems strangely benevolent and reassuring in its certitude.
Here’s a man who may seem to be stuck in the past, but he may be the only one who knows exactly where he is and who he is. Wooderson is fully and deeply in the now. It’s icky, yes, but also kind of intriguing that Wooderson ends the film by finally setting up a date with Cynthia, who’s been yearning to cultivate that exact kind of mindfulness. And it’s little wonder why we keep coming back to Dazed and Confused to see him—to hang out with these people again, to feel the nostalgic sting of their Tuesdays gone and parties past, and to have Wooderson awaken us all over again to the simple joys of the present, and give us our third wind to get back on the road.