How ironic it was that American Cinematheque, this bastion of all things honoring the history of film, would choose to give Matthew McConaughey its highest honor at a warm, funny pete_hammond_300x100and revealing tribute last night at the Beverly Hilton. Because among other things, McConaughey revealed he had actually only American-Cinematheque-003-copyeven seen two movies — ever — before the age of 18:  King Kong and Orca. And though this non-cineaste didn’t specify which King Kong, I would be willing to bet it was the 1976 remake rather than the 1933 classic.

But as the evening proved, McConaughey — whom the star’s Interstellar director Christopher Nolan referenced as “the new Paul Newman” — more than meets the Cinematheque’s definition of this award for a distinguished mid-point career of excellence and contribution to cinema.

Of course there were many mentions of what is now known as the “McConaissance,” his recent spate of career-changing film choices beginning with The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud, Magic Mike, Bernie and The Wolf Of Wall Street, and ultimately his Oscar-winning performance last year in Dallas Buyers Club to his latest, the much anticipated Interstellar (November 7). But what struck me was not just the extraordinary range of these films, but how good McConaughey really was in all those movies that came before this Magic Matt period. That’s right, the romcoms, dramas and adventure films critics easily dismissed at the time.

As Nolan said in 1413980705_457628550_matthew-mcconaughey-zoomhanding him the award: “I’ve never worked with an actor who is so relentless in his pursuit of the truth in everything he does. Jennifer Garner talked earlier about two different films she’d done with him (Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, Dallas Buyers Club) explained that he’d given the same gravity, the same intensity to both different genres, and I can tell you as a director there’s no question this is a performer who can’t say ‘pass the salt’ without it being truthful, without it meaning something to him. And for that reason, he’s a performer who’s never taken his relationship with his audience for granted, he’s always understood his responsibility not just as a great actor, but as a movie star, to take the audience with him, to be the emotional conduit for the audience, to take them wherever that character needs to go.”

The generous selection of clips broken into sections of  comedies, action, law and the aforementioned “McConaissance” proved beyond a doubt he gives his all no matter what the movie, right from his memorable debut in Richard Linklater’s 1993 Dazed And28th American Cinematheque Award Honoring Matthew McConaughey - Show Confused through How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days and all those romcoms to the highly underrated and moving We Are Marshall and Dallas Buyers Club. In a nice touch, several of his female co-stars from the past including Garner, Kate Hudson and Reese Witherspoon as well as Interstellar’s Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain each came on to offer anecdotes about the Matthew McConaughey they knew and worked with (they also surrounded him at American Cinematheque 28th Annual Award Presentation To Matthew McConaughey 2014 - Showthe head tables along with Nolan and Paramount chief Brad Grey).

Garner told how he helped her get through some very trying days on Dallas Buyers Club, her first film in a year and a half where she was doubting if she should have left her young family so soon. Hathaway charmingly told a personally mortifying story about being invited to  a party McConaughey threw in Texas, only to show up and discover it took place the night before. She said McConaughey basically turned the embarrassing episode into a day-long private party for Hathaway and her husband. Hudson hilariously offered several anecdotes about becoming close to the night’s honoree and his family while making How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days and  Fool’s Gold. (She does a killer impression, by the way.)

Other co-stars Sandra Bullock and Woody Harrelson did some nicely produced and funny taped tributes as did frequent McConaughey director Linklater. Of the latter, host Jimmy Kimmel said, “What? That guy couldn’t show up here?” The Texas Tenors also turned up to do a powerful short set of Texas-themed tunes. Most of the speakers also referenced Mrs. McConaughey, Camilla Alves and gave her great propsAmerican Cinematheque 28th Annual Award Presentation To Matthew McConaughey 2014 - Red Carpet & Cocktail Reception too. There was a nice segment describing his Just Keep Livin’ foundation which benefits so many students. Of course, “Just Keep Livin’ ”  is a phrase he’s put on the map in recent years and it pretty much accurately describes the man of the night.

But, as it should be, it was McConaughey who offered an amusing, raucous, real and touching acceptance speech as he verbally traveled back American Cinematheque 28th Annual Award Presentation To Matthew McConaughey 2014 - Arrivalsthrough a 22-year career that is just hitting its peak. He kept using the phrase “it seems like it was just the other day” to describe the moment he told his father he wanted to be an actor rather than a lawyer, his discovery in an Austin bar for a role in Dazed And Confused, his audacious suggestion to director Joel Schumacher that he cast the then-unknown in the lead role of A Time To Kill rather than the small role of a Klansman, spilling his Coca-Cola all over Brian Grazer’s office and then slurping it up which led to Ed TV, getting  Dallas Buyers Club made when everyone else shut the door, standing on a glacier in Iceland for Interstellar with Nolan … and on and on. Especially funny was a riotous story about an unnamed film in the 1990s on which he learned about coming “prepared” as he suddenly realized he had to learn two pages of dialogue in Spanish just as cameras were ready to roll.

He says he may not have seen many movies before embarking on his career, but he loves the “construction” of them, he loves making them. And from the love in the room last night, one could tell that’s what this crowd hopes Matthew McConaughey Just Keeps Doin’.