Robert Downey Jr: A Retrospective
Robert Downey Jr. got his start in the world of acting before he could form memories. He watched his father, Downey Sr., on sets as a toddler and was in his first movie, Pound, in 1970 at the age of five. He spent years in the eighties as a lesser known member of the “Brat Pack,” and spent a season doing SNL in ‘85. It wasn’t until 1992, with his performance in the titular role of Chaplin that people really began to see, not only his talent, but the dedication this man could exhibit. For this role he learned to play the violin, as well as tennis left handed. His portrayal as Charlie Chaplin would earn him his first Academy Award nomination, but it would also bring public attention to this sensitive artist, that may have contributed to a downward spiral it seemed he would never climb out of.
For years, Downey Jr. struggled with drug abuse and related legal issues. He was in and out of prison, rehab, and was fired from jobs, while simultaneously winning awards during what he defines as his absolute lowest point, not caring if he ever acted again. It would take almost ten years of struggle for him to prove that he was worth the perceived liability to movie makers. The endeavor to make good work with a clear mind proved to be one of the best career moves anyone has ever made.
Downey Jr. believes the best film he’s done was in 2005 with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Commercially unsuccessful and mostly unnoticed until it came out on DVD, this may seem like an odd choice. This movie is fantastic despite its reception however. An offbeat, neo-noir action comedy starring himself alongside Val Kilmer. Once it left theaters and was available at home, it quickly gained cult status, being among “the best movies you’ve never seen” type deals. Though he had made other appearances in movies after his return, this was the movie that signaled he was truly back. His performance is hilarious and electric and it was the movie Jon Favreau saw that convinced him RDJ could be Iron Man.
The summer of 2008 brought with it the Robert Downey Jr. we know and love. Iron Man and Tropic Thunder hit audiences like a ton of bricks. The former may be the perfect superhero movie that launched a dozen franchises, the latter, an utterly absurd role that proved RDJ’s acting and comedic range, and would earn him his second Academy Award nomination, losing only to Heath Ledger’s Joker. It's rare for a role in comedy to garner a nomination from the Academy but this is not an ordinary performance. The use of something so completely tasteless as Blackface gave him a freedom to critique what actors and more widely artists believe they are allowed to do in the name of self expression, while calling out Hollywood’s willingness to cast white actors and actresses before just about anyone else, despite what the situation calls for. It's so wrong you can’t help but laugh, but it's also such a good performance that it forces you to think deeply about everything that’s wrapped up in the role: performance, artistry, racism, ignorance, and dedication. It's not just what you’re seeing on the surface or Ben Stiller and Downey would never have done it.
Only a year later, RDJ would go on to star in the Sherlock Holmes franchise with another electrified performance and continue on to be a part of every phase one Marvel movie, culminating in his stepping away from Iron Man at its end. His movies have earned a current fourteen and a half billion dollars worldwide. Seeing this process unfold and eventually close gave me great anticipation and enjoyment for over a decade, but it’s end also coincided with the end of my youth. When Tony snapped his fingers in Endgame, it was definitely the end of an era, for the characters, the cast, and for my friends and I watching. I was in high school when Iron Man came out and watching Endgame at its release, I was one month shy of five years out of college. Marvel superhero movies are far from my favorite movies of all time, but when I think of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, and how perfect he was in that moment, I can’t help but be inspired. The character was just the perfect lay-up for him, because their lives directly reflected each other. It gave him incredible freedom to turn certain parts of himself up to ten, let loose, and perform in the limelight.
Truth be told, he seems perfect in most roles I’ve seen him in, which is a testament to his craft. The timing and explosion of his career after 2008 is not something I would blame on fate or destiny. Robert Downey Jr. worked his ass off to not only keep his demons at bay, but to kill it every time he was on set. He says of his own career and success “...I’m a fan. I love movies, I love creativity, I love music, I love culture and the fact that I actually have a place in it while I’m observing it and digging it - It's an honor.” Humility in the face of his kind of success is inspiring in and of itself. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does post Dolittle...
Pierce Allen is a local musician and movie enthusiast living in Beacon, NY. His favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and vanilla mixed together.