If 2013 belonged to any one person at the movies, it was Matthew McConaughey. First there was “Mud” (where did that come from?). Then there was “Dallas Buyers Club” (how did he lose all that weight?). Capping things off was “The Wolf of Wall Street” (why did that character have to disappear?). McConaughey’s bravura cameo is the best thing in the movie: idiosyncratic, compelling, utterly assured.
The star of “Wolf” is, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the lupine title character. Yet McConaughey’s just as big a star as Leo is, though he has only a few minutes of screen time. That’s part of the kick of seeing him onscreen. An entrée seems even tastier offered as a bite-size portion.
McConaughey’s performance is just the latest example of a relatively recent Hollywood category. Call it best star in a supporting role. It started back in the ’80s, when Jack Nicholson won the supporting actor Oscar for “Terms of Endearment.” A few years later, Michael Caine won for “Hannah and Her Sisters,” then Sean Connery for “The Untouchables.” Subsequent movie stars to win in that category include Gene Hackman, for “Unforgiven,” George Clooney, for “Syriana,” and Christian Bale, for “The Fighter.” Oh, and actresses, too: Don’t forget Cate Blanchett’s supporting actress Oscar, for “The Aviator.”
Last year had a bunch of stars in supporting roles: Harrison Ford, in “42,” seemingly half the cast of “The Butler,” Clooney (sort of), in “Gravity,” Jeremy Renner and Robert De Niro, in “American Hustle.” But none of them gets to do what McConaughey does in “Wolf”: offer wise counsel, beat his chest (literally), hum, and order enough martinis with an aplomb not seen onscreen since the heyday of the “Thin Man” series. He also discusses the vocational virtues of (let us say) self-intimacy. Maybe it’s just as well McConaughey has such limited screen time. Otherwise, he might have been expected to show as well as tell.