How Matthew McConaughey made quick switch from beefcake to Oscar bait

Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday Matthew McConaughey was the guy best known for playing the bongos naked and for taking his shirt off in really bad romantic comedies with Kate Hudson? Now he’s poised for his first Oscar nominations – and wins? – for “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Mud.” How did he pull off such a quick about-face?

It’s almost as if three or four years ago the actor called his agent and said, “I’m getting too old for this shirtlessness. Win me an Oscar!” If that’s the case he’s got a very good agent, very good taste in scripts, or both, because the last couple of years have been an object lesson in establishing “serious actor” cred.

After 2009’s “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” — to date the last of his hunky rom-com roles — he teamed up with an Oscar-winning director, William Friedkin, on the edgy crime thriller “Killer Joe,” earning an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead. Then he worked with another Oscar-winner, Steven Soderbergh, on “Magic Mike,” which won him the Supporting Male Spirit Award the same year.

I think “Magic Mike” was the crucial turning point, simultaneously playing into his shirtless-hunk persona and playing against it, while also putting him on the radar of film critics – in a good way this time: he won awards from the New York and National Society critics’ groups.

Add to that a couple more small, critically acclaimed films – reuniting with his “Dazed and Confused” director Richard Linklater for “Bernie,” teaming with Jeff Nichols for “Mud” – and just like that you’ve earned your bona fides to be taken seriously as an actor.

Okay, so he also made “The Paperboy” during that time, but even though it was a misfire, it was enough of a creative departure that he gets an A for effort, or at the very least none of the blame for the film’s flaws. As an added bonus, it let him pass the beefcake baton to co-star Zac Efron, who spent much of the film in his tighty-whities, freeing McConaughey to focus on the flexing of his acting muscles instead.

With McConaughey’s acting cred now proven, “Dallas Buyers Club” is cued up perfectly to be his Oscar vehicle, combining his strong behind-the-scenes narrative (shallow rom-com actor goes legit) with the kind of role custom-built for awards: (1) important subject matter (the AIDS crisis); (2) a biographical role (Ron Woodroof, who fought for access to medications to treat the disease); and (3) a dramatic physical transformation (he lost almost 40 pounds for the film).

But if McConaughey’s career transformation seems as sudden and surprising as his physical one, keep in mind that other actors have done it before.

Sandra Bullock, for years the queen of romantic comedies, proved her acting chops in dramas like “Crash” and “Infamous” before cashing in with “The Blind Side.” Just four years later, she has a chance to win a second Oscar for “Gravity.”

Penelope Cruz was hardly a critics’ darling when she crossed over to America from her native Spain, playing pretty-face roles in films like “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and “Sahara” (with McConaughey no less) and earning a Razzie nomination in the process. Then she returned to Spain and proved herself in “Volver” before winning Oscar for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

Model-turned-actress Charlize Theron played hotties in “2 Days in the Valley,” “Trial and Error,” and “Mighty Joe Young” in the ’90s before getting a taste of serious drama in a Best Picture-nominee, “The Cider House Rules,” and finally jumping in the deep end to win an Oscar as a serial killer in “Monster.”

Still more actors have transitioned from less prestigious beginnings to Oscar success, from Robin “Mork and Mindy” Williams, to Tom “Bosom Buddies” Hanks, to Sally “The Flying Nun” Field.

So will McConaughey’s career revitalization pay off in an Oscar nomination or win? And if so, will he ever meet-cute again? Make your Best Actor predictions below:

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