Robert Downey Jr.’s Greatest Sin

- May 18th, 2012

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Robert Downey Jr. is one of the finest actors of his age, an electrifying presence on film and in person, a fearless and exultant celebrant of life and art.

 

On a personal level, he is brilliant, erudite and utterly charming — but always with a bad-boy edge of dangerous unpredictibilty.

 

He also spent much of his 20s and 30s on a kamikaze ride of drug abuse. He later said he was misdiagnosed as bipolar during that period because he was using crack cocaine in his psychiatrists’ washrooms while being assessed.

 

As a child, Robert Downey Jr. was a sick puppy. Really.

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His first screen appearance was in 1970 when, at the age of five, he appeared in his father’s absurdist comedy, Pound, about a group of animals (played by human actors) stuck in a dog pound overnight. Little Bobby had the role of a sick puppy.

Pound

Robert Downey Senior, as well as being a brilliant playwright and independent filmmaker, was also a drug addict and introduced his son to marijuana at the age of six. Junior later testified in court that he was a confirmed drug addict by age eight,  the beginning of his 30-year embrace of alcohol and drug use, overuse and abuse. Thanks, Dad.

 

As Downey’s personal life spiralled downward, his acting career climbed upwardly — from New York stage roles to the cast of Saturday Night Live to a variety of Brat Pack movies in the mid-’80s.

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As a serious actor, his breakout role was in 1987′s Less Than Zero, in which he played a rich young drug addict in crisis. Downey said his personal life ran parallel to the film production but was “an exaggeration of the character.” Art just couldn’t keep up with life.

 

His film career bounced through a well-received stream of independent and semi-mainstream films with some  highs (Oscar nomination for Chaplin) and some lows (being fired as the voice of Satan on an animated TV series).

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The period between 1995 and 2001 was Downey’s lowest period, with multiple arrests on drug charges, stays in various jails and rehab facilities, and a slew of bad publicity that left him unemployable in films because no insurance company would post completion bond for any movie he appeared in.

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And then he cleaned up his act. He just got tired of being constantly messed up and took advantage of one last court-ordered rehabilitation stint. “It’s not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems — what’s hard is to decide to actually do it,” Downey told Oprah Winfrey a few years later.

 

(By the way, Robert Downey Sr. is now clean and sober like his son. And they remain close.)

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From there, Downey’s film career resumed its upward trajectory with a mix of quirky, attention-gathering independent films and money-making Hollywood popcorn-churners.

 

And then came the pivotal year 2008 and Downey’s ascent into Hollywood pantheon of super heroes as Iron Man.

Iron-Man

The rest, of course, is history. Iron Man made almost $100 million its opening weekend and about $600 million in theatres before it was released on DVD, making even more hundreds of millions.

 

And critics loved Downey’s performance. The Rotten Tomatoes aggregate review website gave it a 95% approval rating. And, honest to goodness, one high-brow critic even said the film represented “American foreign policy realized without context.”

 

One thing led to another: Sherlock Holmes, Iron Man 2, Sherlock Holmes 2, and — ta-da — Marvel’s The Avengers.

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The bloody Avengers. Bloody successful (biggest opening weekend in North America — ever). Bloody well received (93% Rotten Tomatoes rating). Bloody awful (in my opinion).

 

Why so glum, chum?

 

Because Downey has now made it not only acceptable but MANDATORY for the leading actors and actresses of our time, artists with the genius to splash the deepest despair and delight of the human spirit across the big screen, to become cartoon super heroes.

 

Those roles used to be reserved for blandly handsome/beautiful hack performers like Christopher Reeve and Linda Carter. Look super. No acting required.

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But just stopping eight-armed other-worldly villains and holding up collapsing bridges isn’t enough any more. The cartoon heroes now have to emote  — spill their psychological guts on the ground, actually — and make their suffering seem not only believable but somehow compelling.

 

Why couldn’t the world of cinematic super heroes be left to cardboard cutouts like Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans? Why did good actors like Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson have to be dragged into this quagmire of quasi-mythology? With multi-picture contracts, no less.

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Of course Downey and his hip/chic directors (Jon Favreau, Guy Ritchie, Joss Whedon)  aren’t the only ones fostering this abomination. Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale have done their part with the Dark Knight trilogy.

 

And Johnny Depp opened the door on this cool-to-be-a-cartoon hyperbaric chamber with his exaggerated, kohl-eyed pirate Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

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But Johnny Depp, no matter how saucy and slinky, is simply not in the same league as Robert Downey Jr. when it comes to acting.

 

Downey has the ability to transform not only a movie but the way a generation sees the film experience.

 

However, instead of using that super power for good by dragging a brilliant, esoteric independent film’s viewership up by a few hundred thousand or a few million, he chose to make a deal with the devil and invest his talent in technically spectacular movies enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people around the world, but movies with all the real heft of a ping-pong ball.

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That is Robert Downey’s Jr. greatest sin — not drug abuse or violation of all acceptable forms of human behaviour, but getting his personal act together just to infuse big-budget Hollywood spectacles with vaguely intellectual and/or artistic pretensions — and a mesmerizing screen presence.

 

He could have been a contender. He could have been Marlon Brando Jr.

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Like Brando, he could have gone on to crown his film career with movies like The Island of Dr. Moreau … and Superman … and Superman II … and Superman Returns.

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Sigh. Why can’t our film heroes be truly heroic?

 

Oh, right — they’re actors, not super heroes.

 

So I guess we wait for Iron Man 3 next year and Marvel’s The Avengers 2 in 2015 and hope that Robert Downey Jr. decides to scatter a few crumbs of his talent in other less heroic but mightier film fare when time allows.

 

We can only pray Downey’s future work allows him to open up the dramatic possibilities of more compelling dialogue than “Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”

 

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