By Violet LeVoit | Press Play March 5, 2014 at 12:28PM
In a red carpet interview on Oscar night, Jared Leto mentioned that, prior to his winning role in Dallas Buyers Club, he hadn't been in a movie in six years. He started his cinematic exodus after Chapter 27 (January 2007), the Mark David Chapman biopic for which he put 67 pounds on his lithe frame, an act of near-superhuman binge eating that gave him gout, skyrocketed his cholesterol so high that his alarmed doctors wanted to put him on Lipitor, and confined him to a wheelchair during the last days of the shoot. Old acquaintances he encountered during the shoot regarded him with pity, the looks on their faces telegraphing loud and clear that, in their eyes, he'd finally let himself go. It took him a year to "get back to a place that felt semi-normal," as he recalled in one print interview, and you can almost hear the shudder in his voice as he declares "I'd never do it again."
In the almost two decades Leto's been making movies, his roles have unavoidably been about the celebration and desecration of his unearthly prettiness. Jordan Catalano, the crush "so beautiful it hurts to look at you" in the TV show My So-Called Life (1994-95) got off scot-free compared to the disfigurement and debasement that befell his other characters, like the necrotizing heroin addict in Requiem For A Dream (2000) or "Angel Face," the pugilist who gets his face pummeled into hamburger in Fight Club (1999), an act of brutality the nihilistic narrator shrugs off by saying "I felt like destroying something beautiful." Leto's androgynous pulchritude—and precedent of cinematic self-destruction—made him an obvious choice to play Rayon, the glamorous trans woman, drug addict and AIDS patient who helps the equally ill Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) run a guerrilla treatment clinic in 1980s Dallas.
But no matter how lovely his sapphire eyes look framed by false eyelashes—and despite accusations of "transmisogyny" from activists angered by the casting of a man as a trans woman—Leto didn't win his Oscar for Successful Wearing Of A Dress. Consider the harrowing scene where Rayon, gaunt and naked and terminally ill, begs her ghoulish reflection "God, when I meet you, I'll be pretty if it's the last thing I do." Critics have dismissed this clinging to beauty as a caricature of trans women, portraying them as petty and narcissistic (Steve Friess of Time Magazine warns that "sad-sack, clothes-obsessed" Rayon will be seen as cringingly stereotypical decades from now, in the same way Hattie McDaniel's bravura performance in Gone With The Wind (1939) is similarly tainted), but I see it differently. "Beauty" here is shorthand for "value," for "power," for "dignity," for all the other vaporous externals that we grasp tightly and futilely in the face of death, and Rayon's pain in this indelible scene transcends all other externals like "race," "class," or "gender" that also don't outlive our bones.
As tartly satirized in Tropic Thunder (2008) with the adage "You never go full retard," Oscars for acting can be cynically considered to be handed out for parlor tricks and impersonations—deaf, blind, autistic, spastic, retarded, insane—as long as the actor is recognizable inside the role. Gaining weight within reason for verisimilitude (as DeNiro did for Raging Bull  or Charlize Theron did for Monster ), is appreciated, but it gets nowhere near the monomaniacal applause reserved for losing weight. Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Leto's co-star McConaughey, and, it can be tacitly assumed, almost every actress currently working in Hollywood, get accolades for the self-control and devotion to craft evinced by their gauntness.
But fat is the worst thing you can be in Hollywood. And it can't be completely unconnected that Leto's shocking fall from Botticelli pinup into everyman loser for Chapter 27 has nothing to do with being box office poison for six years hence. (It's not like Leto had nothing to do in the meantime—he toured with his band 30 Seconds To Mars during those off years—but I can't imagine any actor getting through half a decade of unemployment without becoming a little nervous.)
Only an actor who's experienced the ego whiplash of being valued and devalued for your looks (as specifically connected to your weight), can competently play a woman. And only an actor who understands how survival, not just popularity, is on the line with those good looks can play a trans woman. Leto may have lost, not gained, weight, to play Rayon, but the power of his performance in Dallas Buyer's Club is still informed by his previous weight gain experience for Chapter 27. There's still much more to be said about the practice of cisgendered actors playing transgendered parts—and the "parlor trick" novelty of same—but this woman says Leto understands enough about the female relationship to beauty, weight and power to take on roles like this with dignity and meaning.
Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.