With the pandemic, ongoing economic collapse, and all the hours we’re now spending isolated in our own homes, it’s a weird time for all of us, including the rich and famous. Celebrities, whose jobs and livelihoods depend on their ability to draw attention to themselves, are adapting in their own ways. Movie premieres have been pushed back, TV productions are shut down, and the only paparazzi hot spots left seem to be grocery stores and the street Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas live on.
Most of the mechanisms with which famous people cultivate their famousness are out of commission; all that remains is social media. That’s why everybody and their mother and their mother’s mother has been going on Instagram Live. That’s why Gal Gadot and “friends” made that painfully awkward “Imagine” video. It’s been a rocky transition for many celebrities, some of whom have genuinely bad takes and others who have made tone-deaf attempts at morale boosting. But there’s one A-lister who has seamlessly adapted to this new era of celebrity, and that’s because awkward oversharing and walking the fine line between charm and embarrassment is what this star does best: yes, I’m talking about UT’s Minister of Culture and the Patron Saint of Alrights, the one and only Matthew David McConaughey.
In the post-McConnaissance world, we can all agree that Matthew McConaughey is capable of good acting. But I have always believed the most valuable commodity he offers is his personality. Confident, open-minded, sincere, not terribly self-aware, and always passionate, McConaughey has been laying it all on the line since the nineties. This is the man who, in the early years of his celebrity, had a scandal that could have derailed his career that involved bongos, nudity, and marijuana, and he did not miss a beat. This is a man who has starred in way more bad films than good ones, and who has never really seemed to care about it either way. I think he takes himself seriously—or at least he approaches everything he does with his own brand of seriousness—but he has never expected the public to take him seriously. He doesn’t try to course-correct when the internet makes fun of him. He starred in the movie Serenity, after all. He’s still making Lincoln commercials, and they’re not getting any less ridiculous.
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Granted, he’s a very handsome white man, so there is leeway for him to act like a fool and continue to get work and make bank. But also he just seems like a genuinely happy person, even when the Longhorns are losing. Still, his cluelessness, sincerity, and tendency to ramble on about “livin’” always entertain me. And the entertainment brings me joy. Other than inspiration and the use of their platform to effect positive change, entertainment and joy are the only things that celebrities can actually provide. Entertainment and joy are maybe the only reasons celebrities should exist at all, especially right now.
Since the shelter-in-place orders went into effect in Texas a few weeks ago, McConaughey has showed up for his home state in the following ways: on March 17, he made a video from what we can assume is his Westlake mansion in which he encouraged everyone to take care of themselves and one another as we battle the “nameless, faceless, raceless, sexless, nondenominational, and bipartisan” virus. He released another video about a week later, this time with poorer lighting, more stubble, and an un-ironed shirt, and spoke for three whole minutes about the importance of staying home to buy time for medical professionals and scientists on the front lines. McConaughey popped up three days later on a Zoom call with his fellow UT faculty members, looking, quite frankly, like shit, mirroring how the rest of us were feeling by the end of last month.
A few days later, he released a professional-looking PSA urging people to shelter in place in Texas, saying that: “staying home is not a retreat, it’s the most brave and aggressive weapon we have.” He looked even more bored a week later, launching a new Instagram series called “McConaughey Takes,” in which he would revisit some of the movies he’s made and share interesting tidbits and behind-the-scenes details. And what work did he start with? Not Dallas Buyers Club, for which he won an Oscar! Not True Detective, his most critically respected work to date! Nope, he started with 2003’s How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, speaking for two and a half minutes about the “buoyancy” of romantic comedies, and how he and Kate Hudson had such good chemistry because they both had “a lotta rock and roll,” whatever that means.
This onslaught of content is classic McConaughey: It was forthcoming, without shame, and pretty narcissistic, but coming from place of positivity and a desire to connect with others during this difficult time. It inspired its audience to wonder: “Matthew, do you know how stupid you sound right now?” much like we all did when he won an Oscar on Texas Independence Day in 2014 and thanked himself for being his own hero.
One wonders if many celebrities realize how absurd they sound these days. John Krasinski, for instance, is doing a very well-intentioned You Tube series called “Some Good News” that is still profoundly uncomfortable to watch. Ellen DeGeneres started recording her show again and promptly incurred backlash when she said that self-isolating in her $15 million Los Angeles mansion was just like being in jail. The rich and famous need us to pay attention to them, but they are having a very hard time finding the proper tone with which to relate to the rest of the country, because they still have jobs, lots of money, and huge houses, and can get tested for COVID-19 even if they aren’t showing any symptoms. There’s no way for a superstar to be “just like us” right now; the smart ones are keeping their mouths shut and just donating money to help people who are struggling right now.
McConaughey, who isn’t often described as “smart,” is definitely keeping his mouth open. But his increased public presence doesn’t feel to me like pandering. The other day he hosted a bingo night over Zoom with a Round Rock senior living facility, and the image that made its way around the internet of a scruffy Matthew squinting at his computer screen, surrounded by his wife, children, and mother, made it seem like he was having the time of his life. Was it a little embarrassing? Yeah. But it was also charming, and entertaining, and brought people joy.