People Like Us: Hollywood Looks at Middle America in Nebraska, August: Osage County, and Dallas Buyers Club


Hollywood has always had trouble with “flyover country.”  The movie industry had its roots in New York, particularly Manhattan and Queens, early in the twentieth century, before aspiring auteurs and entrepeneurs set their sights on the lower costs, 365-day sunshine, and lack of organized labor in Southern California.  While states like North Carolina and Georgia have since made significant inroads into the film business through a cunning use of tax incentives, the TV/film/entertainment complex remains rooted in the coastal capitals of New York and Los Angeles.

More important than any business strategies or tax incentives, though, has been the cultural domination of Eastern elites and their erstwhile cousins on the “Left Coast.”  The Right has made a lot of political hay out of the hegemonic power of a liberal establishment, whether it is found among the “nattering nabobs of negativism” in New York (Spiro Agnew), the pointy-headed DC bureaucrats who can’t park a bicycle straight (George Wallace), or the decadent and libidinous limousine liberals of San Francisco (just about any GOP ad in the last forty years—most memorably and spectacularly, perhaps, in this one).  Such critiques are classics of political misdirection, obscuring the greater power of economic elites (like the Koch brothers or any other billionaire CEOs) by focusing populist ire on the status of liberals in academia, government bureaucracy, and entertainment.

Critiques of cultural elitisim are hardly all about political pablum and hokum, though.  Without painting with too broad a brush, it’s safe to say that the graduates of elite Northeastern universities and USC film school have not always had the fullest grasp on the lives of struggling and working-class Americans in the hinterland.  As historians and media studies scholars have shown, television and film have seldom depicted the labor movement as having even a scant presence in American life, and apart from the odd Roseanne or Roc, the working-class have been often obscured in favor of affluent, professional families in shows like Family Ties or Modern Family.  When poor people are represented, they are often bigots and buffoons, in programs ranging from All in the Family to Raising Hope.

That makes the trio of Oscar-nominated films in 2014—Nebraska, August: Osage County, and Dallas Buyers Club—all the more intriguing. Mad Men and Breaking Bad notwithstanding, film has generally held the potential to be far riskier than television, particularly network TV, which is perpetually obsessed with lowering the common denominator as far as possible to ensure a large, if fleeting, audience for its commercials.  But these three films take a gamble on portraying middle America—a broad and fuzzy swath of the country, stretching from somewhere around LA’s eastern suburbs to outer reaches of Bucks County in the Middle Atlantic—as a place of turmoil, hardship, and ultimately human dignity.

One is the auter-ish, black-and-white effort of the director behind The Descendants and Election, who has brushed with Oscar glory several times without ever quite making it.  One is an adaptation of a critically-acclaimed play, and the other is an indie hit defined by the breakout performances of two underestimated actors—Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto—who provide a rich, human dimension to the retelling of the 1980s AIDS crisis launched by the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague.  Each, though, provides a fresh perspective on the Midwest, the Plains, or however you want to define the middle of the country: Texas, Oklahoma, Montana, and Nebraska.  Dallas Buyers Club is unavoidably set in the 1980s, but the tales of intergenerational conflict, abandonment, and abuse in August: Osage and Nebraska could really take place almost any time in the last 30 or 40 years.

Nebraska and August: Osage County make a very odd pair; in fact, I saw them both in one day, in a sort of Brompton Cocktail of midwestern dysfunction.  The two films are gendered in curious ways.  August is loud, melodramatic, colorful, and centered primarily on female relationships: the push and pull among sisters, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces.  Nebraska, in contrast, is a droll road movie about a son who is trying to protect his unhinged and possibly demented father from humiliation.  However sensitive and patient David Grant (Will Forte) may be toward his drunken father Woody (Bruce Dern)—who is on a quest to accept a monetary award he has no chance of receiving—David still struggles to bridge the chasm between him and his prototypically laconic, closed-off father, a Greatest Generation-esque character who has never been the same since his traumatic experiences in Korea.  Around David and Woody are a panoply of unmoving, immovable, cornfed Midwestern men—the type who sit in front of the TV, drink beer, nary say a word, and certainly never express an emotion.

There is a touch of Hollywood elitism here, but it is hard to resist Alexander Payne’s own compassion toward the characters—quite a heartening development in itself, considering the acidic portrayal of human nature in previous Payne films like Election.  The characters, particularly the men, are often depicted as fat, unhealthy, ignorant sacks of potatoes, but they gradually acquire a depth that dispels a sense of snobbery or dismissive judgment.  The women in the film are often slotted as more demure caretakers—except, of course, for David’s firecracker of a mother (June Squibb), who sees fit to pass grandiloquent judgment on everyone and everything around her and even flashes her genitals to a headstone in order to show an ex-boyfriend “what he missed.”  What could have easily been a condescending romp with rural rubes turns into a much more empathetic and humane meditation on lost hopes and earnest ambition in the middle of nowhere.

Julia Roberts attacks Meryl Streep - August Osage County

I admit to having not seen the original stage production of August: Osage County, and I generally feel that plays do not translate well to the big screen.  The film version of August, in any case, indulges in a different sort of midwestern romanticism than Nebraska’s elemental, monochromatic scenes of fields and farmhouses: we have Julia Roberts’s overly lyrical narration about the Plains, the weather, and the landscape to frame the film, which is really a bursting-at-the-seams family saga where almost every kind of plot twist and dysfunction is marshaled in the name of dramatic ballast.

The story is unmistakably set in Oklahoma: a broad, dry, flat country where human relationships can unfold in bold relief, not unlike the cold and austere landscapes of Bergman’s films.  There is frequent reference to the stifling heat and lack of air conditioning, although, this being a Hollywood production, no one actually looks sweaty.  Without giving too much away, the story concerns a patriarch (Beverly Weston, played by Sam Shepard) and matriarch (Violet Weston, played by Meryl Streep) who clawed their way out of desperate poverty, Beverly becoming a celebrated author and professor—only to see their lives unraveled by substance abuse, adultery, and the latent trauma of their childhoods.  They’ve passed on this crushing burden to their children, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); along with their cousins, these kids have been imprinted with the neuroses and abuses of their parents, along with the cumulative classifications of favorite child, not pretty enough, and not smart enough.

The melodramatic plot does not warrant exposition.  Suffice to say that many long-festering emotional grievances explode in the aftermath of a family tragedy, and Meryl Streep in particular turns in a scene-chewing performance of near-unmatched bombast.  Only Julia Roberts comes close to Streep’s own gravitational force, particularly in a scene of a domestic dispute in which mother and daughter wrestle each other to the floor and Roberts issues a true primal scream in saying, “You don’t get it, do you? I RUN THINGS NOW!!!” to her pill-addicted, acid-tongued but nearly helpless mother.

These scenes raise a question for all movie lovers raised on a diet of quasi-realism in film: should the staginess, poeticness, and melodrama of August: Osage County disqualify it from consideration?  Should all performances be understated and believable?  Streep ate about as much scenery as anyone could, but her performance was hardly forgettable.  Perhaps it’s okay for actors (and their directors) to go over-the-top from time to time.

Dallas Buyers Club is another story entirely—several beats removed from the universalist family tales of Nebraska or August: Osage County, which unfold in a struggling and emptying world of small towns on the Plains that could be transplanted to almost any time or place.  Indeed, the performances of Dallas Buyers Club are every bit as memorable as Bruce Dern’s or Meryl Streep’s, and arguably more so.  The movie is situated in a very specific time and place: urban Texas in the 1980s, against the backdrop of a brutal and seemingly relentless AIDS epidemic.

Dallas Buyers Club offers a glimpse into the way a conservative, white male encountered HIV in the 1980s (rather like NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, whose story has been chronicled in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary).  The circumstances of how Matthew McConaughey’s character, Ron Woodroof, contracted the virus are unclear—indeed, at least one person close to the story has decried the portrayal of Woodroof as a straight homophobe, insisting that he was, in fact, bisexual and far more open-minded—but in the film the hard-drinking, coke-snorting oil rig worker finds himself a social pariah among his working-class, redneck friends, with a sentence of thirty days to live.  It is 1985, and AZT is a glimmer on the horizon.  It was not long since AIDS was known as GRIDS (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), and the stigma of the disease as one confined to homosexuals is very much in force.  Ron loses the trailer he was renting, and his job; his coworkers and friends are terrified to come into contact with his sweat or his spit, to say nothing of the blood that might be spattered during their dangerous work in the oil fields of Texas.

With physicians telling him he should get his affairs in order, Ron first decides to blow it off, drink a lot, and snort some coke.  But he soon realizes that his situation is dire and needs urgent attention—far more urgent, indeed, than the doctors at Dallas Mercy suppose, since they are content to wait for a double-blind study funded by pharmaceutical companies to determine whether AZT helps (or kills) AIDS patients.  Ron learns that there are other medications available elsewhere in the world that have not been approved by the FDA, and he launches a quintessentially American, free-enterprise effort to smuggle them into the US from Mexico, Japan, and other countries.  He sets up a “buyers club” that hides his smuggling and drug-dealing behind the fig leaf of a “membership” that entitles subscribers to the medication, but the FDA is always nipping at his heels.  (The film’s narrative parallels the campaigns of ACT-UP and other groups in the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, as activists pressed earnest and confrontational campaigns to force the FDA to make more potentially life-saving drugs immediately available—with some organizers coming to doubt the wisdom of such demands when medications became available and proved unhelpful, or even harmful.)

Ron’s story is a familiar enough one in the Hollywood stable of tropes.  He is a bigoted cowboy who has to come to terms with “fags” when his own health leaves him vulnerable. His relationship with Rayon, a transwoman played by Jared Leto in a heartbreaking performance, is the vehicle for Ron’s realization that the old norms of gender and sexuality are not sufficient, and he has a humanist awakening of the best Enlightenment variety.  Ron’s story may be that of one individual genuinely grappling with the implications of social change and simple compassion, but it also works nicely as a metonym of America’s own slow coming-to-terms with the humanity of LGBT people—a process defined more often by direct encounter and practical necessity than abstract principle.

This is not to belittle the heroism that the real-life Woodroof and his allies accomplished in trying to save their own lives and the lives of others.  It is merely to acknowledge that Dallas Buyers Club fits the mood of a moment when injustice against gays, lesbians, transgender and intersex people has become the stuff of inspirational docudrama—a circumstance that might have been much less commercially viable ten or fifteen years ago. The seminal documentary Paris Is Burning (1990) attempted to “humanize” gay and transgender people of color nearly a quarter century ago, but was conspicuously silent on the subject of HIV.  Admittedly, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia broke ground with a moving tale of a gay man and HIV sufferer in 1993, but the performances of McConaughey and Leto reveal the pathos and courage of those affected by the epidemic in rawer terms—gaunt, in drag, taking substances legal and illegal to survive.

Of these three films, Dallas Buyers Club is by far the most informed by a sense of Hollywood liberalism—of a persecuted minority triumphing (or at least heroically striving) against provincial bigotry, although it is also the story of an innovative small business struggling against government bureaucracy and regulation, an arguably more conservative theme.

By comparison, both Nebraska and August: Osage County look more like dramas that transcend time and place, even if the politics of gender are braided through both.  Nebraska, perhaps, comes out as the least grounded in clichés: a story of an old man, frustrated by life, and the venal dealings of small people in a small place.  Yet each speaks to the hardship of more or less ordinary people: a partying cowboy with HIV; a family coping with the legacy of physical and psychologial abuse; a senior citizen ground down by years of PTSD and alcoholism, clinging to a thin and ridiculous reed of hope.

They offer a panorama of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people struggle against the sometimes insurmountable burdens of American life in the late twentieth century, from the epidemiological (Dallas) to the economic (Nebraska) to the familial and psychological (August). Together, these films represent some of the finest expressions of prairie populism since David Byrne’s oddball, Reagan-era film True Stories, with its depiction of small-town Texas eccentricity and its anthem about “People Like Us,” voiced by John Goodman in a climactic scene:

In 1950 when I was born
Papa couldn’t afford to buy us much
He said be proud of what you are
There’s something special ’bout people like us

People like us
Who will answer the telephone
People like us
Growing as big as a house
People like us
Gonna make it because

We don’t want freedom
We don’t want justice
We just want someone to love…

What good is freedom?

God laughs at people like us