From con-man to global hero, Robert Downey Jr’s colourful career spans three decades, the lifespan of a comic genius, and the very cosmos of superhero cinema.
There have been many great stories about celebrities who have come back from personal defeat to a fame and success that perhaps was always waiting for them had they not fallen out of favour with themselves. Among them I can count Mickey Rourke, Martha Stewart and Lance Armstrong (questionable, considering the form in which he returned), but no celebrity has so persistently trampled over the remains of his past as Robert Downey Jr; an actor whose career is older than most people know, and certainly more diverse than any Iron Man fan would care to acknowledge.
Downey Jr has starred in more than 50 films, from an age as young as five. His career almost seems split in two; he was wildly popular throughout the ‘80s and the first half of the ‘90s, then he took a nosedive, rose again and is now one of the world’s most recognisable faces. I’ll be taking a look at a few of his pictures, both before and after his troubles, how his drug and alcohol addictions fuelled change, and why this man continues to enthral audiences across the globe.
The Pick-Up Artist (1987)
Jack Jericho was Downey Jr’s very first leading role. It wasn’t a very good part, nor was the film anything to recommend, but his control of the implausible character is what is remembered.
Jack is a narcissistic, self-indulgent prick who wanders the streets leering at attractive ladies as they walk or jog by. Occasionally he will intercept one and expel a cascade of half-baked, insipidly clichéd pick-up lines that he has religiously rehearsed in front of his bathroom mirror. That any woman would fall for his verbal garbage is beyond understanding, but luckily Downey Jr is equipped with a knowing, handsome smile, and a winning personality that cuts through his act.
It is easy to see why Downey Jr achieved fame after The Pick-Up Artist, despite the movie’s endless shortcomings. He was handed a leading role on faith and turned it into affirmation. He proved that he could carry a film, no matter how poorly it may have been structured. And this proof is what established him.
Chaplin was the flint to Downey Jr’s fire, a role that propped him above tacky supporting characters and lopsided heartthrobs. Up until then he was famous for being the smouldering love interest, but Chaplin allowed Downey Jr to explore range and depth by putting him in the shoes of a genius. He was nominated for an acting Oscar for his efforts, but lost to Al Pacino.
The movie was directed by the late great Richard Attenborough, whose Gandhi (1982) remains a carefully affectionate account of a serene rebel. His Chaplin, too, gazes upon its magnificent subject with loving eyes, even though Chaplin himself was not so easy to gaze lovingly upon.
I greatly enjoyed this film, even though the scenes with Downey Jr playing an aged, bent-over Chaplin seem more like SNL skits. It’s possibly overly tender too, and doesn’t quite know what it wants to say about one of cinema’s finest physical comedians, but Downey Jr’s masterful performance is its cornerstone. On the flip side, it could very well have been the role that suffocated him with superstardom, stealing the air right out of his lungs, and the movie business from under his feet. If only for a time.
Iron Man (2008)
After recovering from his bouts of harmful addictions (that plagued him from the nineties through to the early noughties), Downey Jr made his Hollywood comeback in a film called The Singing Detective (2003), playing a beleaguered crime novelist living out his own fantasies. This was made possible because Downey Jr’s friend, Mel Gibson, offered to pay for his insurance bond, a charity that allowed him the professional freedom to return full-time to his career.
This he did in 2008, a year that produced two of his most famous films and two of his most enduring characters. Iron Man is the greatest of all the Marvel movies because of Downey Jr’s participation. He elevates the material from mindless superhero action to a level at which we can genuinely care for Tony Stark, a man who ironically deserves no sympathy. Downey Jr breaks down the walls of his ego and unveils a fragility seldom seen in superhero movies.
Iron Man marked the great comeback for Downey Jr, the point at which the haunting of his dreadful past no longer carried any professional trauma. He had broken loose of his shackles, freed by ambition, and had conquered the Hollywood system. How many moviegoers of today are aware their favourite Avenger once spent six months in county jail and later broke his parole by breaking into a stranger’s house and sleeping in his bed?
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Tropic Thunder, directed by Ben Stiller, features Downey Jr in his best performance, one of intense comedy, but also of sobriety and intelligence. He was splendid as Tony Stark, but in Tropic Thunder, he reaches a kind of Zen perfection.
Downey Jr plays Kirk Lazarus, a multi-Academy Award winning white Australian actor who is so committed to playing a black man he undergoes skin pigment augmentation and remains in character even when the cameras aren’t rolling, or indeed when there are no cameras at all. It is a devastatingly hilarious performance, one that rightfully earned his first real Oscar nomination since he played Charles Chaplin in 1992.
This success arrived nearly twelve years after Downey Jr spiralled down a lonesome abyss. Now he’s everywhere; on every billboard, in every trailer, on every list of the world’s sexiest men, on every kid’s shelf of favourite superheroes. To reclaim territory like this can almost be considered hostile takeover. Who gave him the right to steal the limelight away from actors who’ve remained sober and honest their whole lives? Well, he did, by being so darn charismatic. The spark was always there, from his Jack Jericho days. Now it’s become a fire.
Images courtesy of Fox Columbia Tristar Films, Roadshow Films, Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures