Jared Leto, left, and Matthew McConaughey in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
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True Detective, a new series starting in the UK tonight on Sky Atlantic, is a triumph for cable network HBO but also for the actor Matthew McConaughey, who plays a troubled Texan cop adrift in a Louisiana homicide department. Not long ago, it would have been impossible to picture this grinning hunk in an HBO show as stark as True Detective, with its story of murder, torture, bereavement and addiction. But recent performances such as that in Dallas Buyers Club have done much to erase memories of a decade McConaughey spent stealing hearts from the likes of Jennifer Lopez in winsome romcoms or saving the day in low-grade action romps. There’s talk of a “McConaissance”.

McConaughey’s realisation that he was stuck in a rut led him to distance himself from his old profile in the hopes of forging a new one. It was a bold move, with a dash of blind faith perhaps, but it seems to have come off.

The McConaissance tells a particular story about one actor wresting back control of his image and his career. But it also tells a general story about our weakness for a certain kind of acting. The initial stirrings of the McConaissance were the roles he played in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, in which his confidence became something abrasive rather than breezy, and his Adonis looks were transformed into a mask concealing damage, menace and pain. But it is his displays of cannonball force that have attracted attention – his brief appearance as a coke-snorting, chest-thumping stockbroker in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and his role as the Aids victim and entrepreneur Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club.

McConaughey’s powerful performance as Woodroof – a role that required him to lose 40lbs, feign coughing fits and break down in tears, all the while defeating grisly odds and playing David to the pharmaceutical giants’ Goliath – is just the kind that gets taken seriously. The McConaissance predated Dallas Buyers Club – and a good deal of fine McConaughey work predated the McConaissance – but this role has earned him his first Oscar nomination.

It is hardly the first time that an actor capable of subtlety has been celebrated for his most showy performance. Daniel Day-Lewis got nine nominations for playing a character who acts on his emotions in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York but none for playing a character who doesn’t in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, routinely described as the greatest actor of his – and thus McConaughey’s – generation, won dozens of awards, including an Oscar, for playing the eccentric playwright Truman Capote. The number he won for playing the introverted theatre director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York – his own favourite performance – can be counted on the fingers of one hand, with three to spare.

A cautionary tale about what can happen to an actor’s technique is to be found at the BFI in London, where Al Pacino is being honoured with a retrospective. In an interview reprinted in the new edition of The Godfather Family Album, Pacino talks of showing Michael Corleone, the key player in Coppola’s Mafia trilogy, as an “enigma”. But as the BFI season shows, one decade of enigmas and modulation – the 1970s – was followed by three decades of Pacino flailing his arms and croakily yelling “Whoa!” There is no denying that he made a big splash with feats of extroversion and physical transformation: just as he is most fondly remembered for swallowing the scenery in Scarface, his only Oscar has come for playing a philosophising blind man in Scent of a Woman (Hoffman’s first film).

Pacino’s contemporary and sometime co-star Robert De Niro appears to provide a contrary case. He won an Oscar for his very low-key performance as Michael Corleone’s father in The Godfather Part II. But it was for Best Supporting Actor – a category in which Hoffman was nominated three times. De Niro’s only Best Actor Oscar came for Raging Bull, for which he gained weight, got punched, broke down. We don’t talk about those eloquent glances during the driving scenes of Taxi Driver. We talk about “You talkin’ to me?”

Perhaps our relationship with film actors is merely symptomatic of our broader taste for the operatic, a desire to shout – along with Pacino – “Whoa!” Western culture started with the tragedy and the epic, not the chamber piece, and we remain in thrall to big emotional experiences.

In a crisp example of this taste for the showy, True Detective – though piercing and intricate from its opening moments – started trending on Twitter only after American viewers saw the fourth episode, with its virtuoso six-minute tracking shot. Which goes to show that we also like experiences that we can rhapsodise about at the coffee machine or on social media.

‘The Godfather Family Album’ is published by Taschen, £27.99

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