Matthew Raymond Dillon made the successful transition from teenage heartthrob to respected actor to inspired director. With his gravelly voice and chiselled dark features, he has always brought a sense of danger, intensity and even menace to whatever movie screen he happened to grace, while his range of acting and disregard for genre brought him an Oscar nomination and numerous plaudits.
Dillon was born 18th February 1964 in Rochelle, New York to Irish-Catholic parents Mary Ellen, a homemaker, and Paul, a sales manager. He is the second child of six, one sister and four brothers, one of whom, Kevin, is also an actor (‘Platoon’ , ‘Poseidon’ , ‘Entourage’ [TV]). He is also the nephew (through his father) of comic strip artist Alex Raymond, best known as the creator of Flash Gordon.
He got his break in acting through sheer luck, when talent scouts spotted him in school and invited him for auditions for director John Kaplan’s movie ‘Over The Edge’ (1979), a violent and nihilistic teen drama that was to characterise Dillon’s persona for much of his early career. Dillon, who was 14 at the time, smoked and swore his way through the audition, impressing the casting director Vic Ramos so much that he was cast as Richie, the delinquent pushed to the brink until he snaps. Ramos would later become Dillon’s long-term manager. Dillon dropped out of school to focus on an acting career.
Following his debut, two film roles came up in quick succession, ‘Little Darlings’ (1980), a teenage romp comedy that ended up with Dillon’s character taking a 15-year-old’s virginity, and ‘My Bodyguard’ (1980), where he played a high-school bully opposite Adam Baldwin. ‘Tex’ (1982) would be the first of three feature films adapted from S.E. Hinton’s novels that starred Dillon. In ‘Tex’, he played Tex McCormick, one of two brothers that are left to fend for themselves after their mother dies and their father leaves them.
‘The Outsiders’ (1983), also adapted from an S.E. Hinton novel, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and featured a stunning young cast that would go on to do many great things in film. The 19-year-old Dillon would shine among a cast that included Ralph Macchio (‘Karate Kid’ series, ‘Crossroads’ ), Patrick Swayze (‘Ghost’ , ‘Dirty Dancing’ ), Rob Lowe (‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ ), Emilio Estevez (‘Young Guns’ series, ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ , ‘The Breakfast Club’ ), Tom Cruise (‘Top Gun’ , ‘Born On The Fourth of July’ ) and Diane Lane (‘The Cotton Club’ , ‘Under The Tuscan Sun’ ). With such acting and directing quality in its ranks, ‘The Outsiders’ introduced America to a new generation of actors, with Dillon in its midst. His character, Dally Winston, was portrayed with violence and yet sensitivity, and remains one of his most memorable roles.
‘Rumble Fish’ (1983) was also adapted from a Hinton novel, and was also directed by Coppola. Alongside established big names and soon-to-be stars like Mickey Rourke, Dennis Hopper, Nicholas Cage, Chris Penn, Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne, Dillon starred as Rusty James, the younger brother of a street gang leader, Motorcycle Boy, who longs to follow in his esteemed brother’s footsteps. Frustrated with boredom and inactivity in the absence of his brother, James breaks the truce brokered by his brother to take on a rival gang. The sudden appearance of Motorcycle Boy leads James to redemption away from his life of violence. It was another standout performance from Dillon.
After the Hinton movies, Dillon starred in a comedy, ‘The Flamingo Kid’ (1984) that has the distinction of being the first movie to receive a PG-13 rating. His next movie was an action thriller co-starring Gene Hackman, ‘Target’ (1985) that was received with little interest. In the next few years, Dillon appeared in a string of smaller movies that were varied but were not widely appreciated, before striking upon one of his more acclaimed roles, in Gus van Sant’s ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ (1989). Dillon’s ‘family’ of junkies and drug addicts travel across America, fuelling their habit by robbery and crime.
It was another movie of redemption, but not without a trial by fire beforehand, and movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had nothing but words of praise for ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. A supporting cast of Kelly Lynch and Heather Graham, as well as a surprise cameo by Beat author and recovering addict William S. Burroughs were among the standout performances in ‘Drugstore Cowboy’.
In 1991, Dillon appeared in the HBO movie ‘Women & Men 2: In Love There Are No Rules’, a collection of three ‘shorts’ about love and relationships. Produced by David Brown [‘Chocolat’ (2000), ‘A Few Good Men’ (1992), ‘Jaws’ (1975)] and Jonathan Demme [‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (2004)], and showcasing the talents of Kyra Sedgwick, Ray Liotta, Andie McDowell, Scott Glenn and Juliette Binoche alongside those of Dillon, ‘Women & Men’ was a sleeper hit on TV.
Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles’ followed in 1992, a quirky look at the love lives of Generation X post-teenagers/young adults in Seattle, the birthplace of the grunge movement in the early nineties. Sprinkled with a great grunge soundtrack and a cameo from authentic Seattle grungers Pearl Jam, as well as a cast of Bridget Fonda and Kyra Sedgwick, ‘Singles’ did nothing to harm Dillon’s reputation as a versatile actor.
1993 saw Dillon in one of his best, most poignant, and most emotional roles ever, as a homeless schizophrenic Matthew in ‘The Saint of Fort Washington’ alongside Danny Glover. Through the eyes of Matthew and Jerry (Glover), we are shown the plight and misery of the homeless on the dark streets of New York, but crucially, without an inch of preaching. Indeed, the horror of the movie comes at some of the denizens’ acceptance of their fate, surviving while trying to maintain some shred of dignity and humanity in an uncaring ‘civilised’ society.
Jerry tries to earn a few cents by washing car windows at traffic lights; how many times have we spurned their advances? He does it with a smile and the forced optimism of one who has no choice. The chemistry between Glover and Dillon as well as the fine individual acting carried the movie and certainly invited more plaudits to be thrown in the direction of the latter.
‘Mr Wonderful’ (1993) and ‘Golden Gate’ (1994) came and went without much fanfare, but Dillon’s choice of unusual roles in non-commercial movies deserves some praise. ‘To Die For’ (1995) saw him team up with Gus van Sant again, this time co-starring with Nicole Kidman and a younger supporting cast of Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix. Dillon played the part of the doomed husband admirably, although the focus was on Kidman as the shallow news presenter wife who hires some teenagers to kill her husband because “he got in her way”. ‘To Die For’ was Kidman’s breakout film, but it did Dillon’s reputation no harm at all.
‘Frankie Starlight’ (1995) held a lesser role for Dillon, but audiences were attracted to the amazing story of a man struggling with dwarfism. Another non-starring part in ‘Beautiful Girls’ (1996) alongside the ensemble cast of Timothy Hutton, Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rapaport, Uma Thurman and a 14-year-old Natalie Portman saw him take a backseat to the story, then next was another understated role in the rock ‘n’ roll movie ‘Grace of My Heart’ (1996).
Dillon returned to the spotlight in Kevin Spacey’s ‘Albino Alligator’ (1996), a low-budget hostage drama that focused less on blowing cars up and more on character development and dialogue – the cast consisting of Dillon, Faye Dunaway, Gary Sinise, Viggo Mortensen and Joe Mantegna was crucial in the success of this movie. Frank Oz’s comedy ‘In & Out’ (1997) saw Dillon play a none-too-bright actor who outs his former teacher (Kevin Kline) as being the inspiration for his Academy Award winning role as a gay soldier. The movie then follows Kline’s exasperated and comical attempts to deny that he is gay himself.
Two major ‘Hollywood-type’ roles followed for Dillon. First was in the erotic thriller ‘Wild Things’ (1998), where the lucky man got to cuddle both Denise Richards and Neve Campbell in a steamy menage a trois. Often dismissed as a brainless sex-romp, the dark psycho-thriller actually had more below the surface (as did Campbell and Richards).
The Farrelly Brothers’ ‘There’s Something About Mary’ (1998) elicited a collective gasp of vicarious agony from men worldwide when Ben Stiller got his delicates caught in his zip, but the sight of the fumbling bumbling nerd chasing the beautiful Cameron Diaz touched the hearts of many. Dillon’s sleazy private investigator hired to spy on Diaz and who ends up falling for her boosts the conflict, but in reality it was the mixture of lowbrow (but sidesplitting) toilet humour and nerd vs. smooth-talker chasing beauty queen rom-com formula that really worked for ‘There’s Something About Mary’.
Dillon went back to doing more subtle black comedy in ‘One Night at McCool’s’ (2001) with Liv Tyler as the object of his desire. ‘Deuces Wild’ (2002) saw him take more of a back seat as a Godfather-type leader of a street gang, but it was also in 2002 that Dillon’s first directional effort was released. ‘City of Ghosts’ was 6 years in gestation and fruition, and it is understandably the piece of work that Dillon is most proud of. He plays a conman who pursues his mentor to Cambodia to collect on his share of a scam, with dark consequences. Filmed almost entirely on location in Cambodia, including Phnom Penh and Bokor Hill Station, a mountaintop French-colonial era retreat, ‘City of Ghosts’ was praised for its rich portrayal of Cambodia and its people.
After ‘City of Ghosts’, Dillon returned somewhat to type in the comedy ‘Employee of the Month’ (2004) but it was as a racist LA cop who saves a black woman in the ensemble award-winning movie ‘Crash’ (2004) that really stood out. Told in mosaic fashion, its underlying premise is the inter-connectedness of all humans rendering racism meaningless and irrelevant, and for Dillon to receive his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a cast that included Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Ludacris, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Brendan Fraser and Jennifer Esposito is no mean feat indeed.
2005’s ‘Loverboy’ raised dark questions of parental love, and although Dillon’s role was a smaller one, the Kevin Bacon-directed psychological examination of the Oedipus complex was both intelligent and disturbing. ‘Factotum’ (2005) saw Dillon take on the more challenging role of Henry Chinaski, author Charles Bukowski’s alter ego. Bukowski was an interesting character in real life, a layabout, a drunkard, womaniser and inspired poet and author – it took a master performance from Dillon to portray Henry Chinaski, and ‘Factotum’ is as much a snapshot of seedy LA as it is a homage to the writer/alcoholic that walked its streets. ‘Factotum’ excited both praise and indignation from dedicated Bukowski fans and was never going to be a box office hit, but Dillon’s performance and bravery in taking the role is again to be admired.
Herbie, the Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own was brought to life on the big screen in ‘Herbie Fully Loaded’ (2005), with Dillon an arrogant street racer attempting to win Herbie from his owner Lindsay Lohan. Another feel-good rom-com followed alongside Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson in ‘You, Me and Dupree’ (2006). Next, Dillon finished filming ‘Nothing But The Truth’ with Kate Beckinsale in 2008. his latest roles have included 'Pawn Shop Chronicles' (2013) and 'Sunlight Jr.' (2013).
We have not seen the last of this versatile and courageous actor who is in Hollywood’s A-list but rarely takes it up on its A-listed roles.