“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away then what are you?” asks Captain America (Chris Evans) in Joss Whedon‘s “The Avengers.” “Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist,” shoots back Tony Stark, in a quip that, delivered either of two ways, is only slightly more impressive than the actual truth. Because of course, outside the suit, and outside the Marvel films, Iron Man/Tony Stark is in fact, Robert Downey Jr., and he’s one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.
But damned if he didn’t make quite a meal out of getting there. When you consider Tom Cruise made “Risky Business” after only four other film roles, (read about his early days here), and Will Smith‘s first-ever role as the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” meant that he’d be leading “Bad Boys” after just three feature roles, it seems to have taken Downey Jr. an inexcusable amount of time to attain anything like a similar degree of stardom to those fellows. Of course, it doesn’t help that for the better part of a decade there, he was in the throes of a high-level drug addiction, and the arrests, court cases and incarcerations that happened between 1996 and 2001 made him largely unhirable and uninsurable.
But what’s perhaps more of a story than how much his drug problems hampered his career, is how much they didn’t. Unhirable as he was, he kept getting hired. And perhaps that’s because, as well as having some very loyal friends in Hollywood (itself a fact worthy of mention in that notoriously fickle town) even at the height of his off-screen excesses, Downey Jr. was never truly an unpopular actor with audiences. While some of his choices were questionable and definitely money-motivated, he was often, in fact usually, pretty great even when the films weren’t. So he’s been a fairly constant presence on our screens for over two decades now, and he’s flirted with that top level of stardom not just once, but on quite a few occasions, only for it seemingly to evaporate at exactly the point that it should have been a sure thing.
One reason we’d hazard for that constant bubbling-under is actually one of RDJ’s great strengths — he is all types of actor at once. Take a stroll through his back catalogue and you can see it as a series of near-misses or you can see it as an extended trial run for all the different kind of performer he might have wanted to become — a serious, Day-Lewis style “important” actor? An indie darling? A Hugh Grant-esque romantic lead? An out-and-out comedian? There are roles he not just won, but nailed, that suggest he could have been any of these things in a bigger way than he ever was. And luckily, blessed with all that to burn, Downey Jr. conquered his demons and finally channelled some of that restless energy into what we could grandly call a “career plan.” And it has paid off in spades, leading up to his casting as “Iron Man,” a defining role in what could be called the second half of his career.
With his third, and potentially last, time donning the suit coming to your theaters on Friday in the shape of the only-question-is-how-huge “Iron Man 3,” we thought the time was ripe to take a look at Robert Downey Jr.’s back catalogue, to see how he climbed so high. So here goes a whistle-stop tour, in which we pick seven films to use as handy milestones: good or bad, each illustrates a particular phase or a recurring theme in the actor’s long career. There’ve been many twists and turns, but is there any big star whose success feels quite so satisfying?
“Less Than Zero” (1987)
Prior to the release of this 1987 film based (rather loosely) on the Bret Easton Ellis novel, Downey Jr. was one of the lesser orbiting satellites of the Brat Pack, boasting a small role in “Weird Science” among other ’80s teen comedies. And 1987 first saw him in another of those — “The Pick-Up Artist” — which was notable for being an early lead as opposed to a best-friend role for Downey Jr., though it was more a rather dull vehicle for then-teen-queen Molly Ringwald. But it was “Less than Zero” that brought the actor the first real attention of his film career, as he got props for the eerily prescient role of Julian, the privileged college graduate who dissipates his promise and his father’s money on a drug habit that gradually spirals out of control and threatens his relationships with best friends Clay and Blair (Andrew McCarthy and Jamie Gertz).
The film has subsequently earned a kind of cult status, though we’re hard pushed to see why it deserves it, salacious themes aside. It’s true that Downey Jr., along with James Spader, gets closest to giving the film some actual bite, but with too much screen time accorded the sappy reunion/love story between Clay and Blair, the original material is shorn of most of its irony — where Ellis is a past master at using shallowness to comment on shallowness, the film lacks that subtlety and ends up more or less “St. Elmo’s Fire” with drugs, bisexuality and hooking. So really, it’s hard to tell if Downey Jr. is actually great in this, or if he’s merely much better than the other two (McCarthy and Gertz — adorable: yes, tragic: not so much) but either way, the role, which the actor claimed was “a catharsis” but also “probably the first time I created a character from scratch,” got him noticed, and became something of a template for future films in which Downey Jr. takes a slightly less central role and plays the oddball character, the misfit, the joker, the damaged one, as opposed to the straight lead.
In fact next up was “Johnny Be Good” in which he played just such an oddball to Anthony Michael Hall‘s jock (whaaa?), followed by a few other middling comedies, until his 1990 film “Air America” teamed him with Mel Gibson. Gibson would prove one of RDJ’s staunchest friends during his most troubled periods, loyalty that Downey Jr. now seems to be paying back — casting his invisibility cloak of superstardom over persona non grata Gibson at the last Golden Globes, for example. “Air America” for its part was never a great film, but has aged badly. “Good intentions, sad result” said RDJ of it at one time. “By the time we were done, the only positive thing was meeting Mel Gibson.”
His star gradually rising, and the parts getting bigger, Downey Jr. then landed his first really big fish in the shape of the lead in Richard Attenborough‘s loving biopic “Chaplin.” The actor, coming off the surprisingly fun and frothy “Soapdish” really threw himself into the role, reportedly learning to play tennis and the violin left-handed for authenticity’s sake, and was of course, rewarded with a Best Actor nomination for his troubles (and he can be justly pissed that he lost to Al Pacino‘s parodic performance in “Scent of a Woman“).
The film itself, though, feels like it’s too dazzled by its subject to give us anything more than a cursory, magazine-y look at Charlie Chaplin’s life, stretched out to overlength, especially a shame when you consider just how up for it Downey Jr. was. A more skilfully crafted screenplay, and a less embalming style of direction could have made this the much more vital piece of work that both actor and subject deserved. Still, though, Robert Downey Jr. hitting one out of the park his first time to bat as far as the “serious acting” brigade were concerned…there was no way this kid (27 at the time) wasn’t going to be huge right?
Well, wrong. Not for the last time, the good buzz the actor earned didn’t actually translate into a big leap forward career-wise. Instead he frittered his momentum away on working with auteurs, yes, but never in the leads, (Robert Altman‘s “Short Cuts” and Oliver Stone‘s “Natural Born Killers“), taking the odd arty leftfield choice (“Restoration,” “Richard III“) and retreating back into the lightweight comedy territory as a failsafe (“Heart and Souls,” “Hail Caesar,” “Home for the Holidays“).
We should also make note here of possible career nadir “Danger Zone” (1996) in which he plays second fiddle to Billy freaking Zane, for heaven’s sake. When asked why he did it, Downey Jr.’s reply was simply: “Five hundred grand for two weeks.” Which is a pretty low level to sink to after an Oscar nod for a prestige biopic just four years before.
“U.S. Marshals” (1998)
Well we did say not all the films we chose as milestones were going to be highlights, didn’t we? Really we could have gone with any number of entries from this period of Downey Jr.’s career, which we’re going to dub the “wilderness years,” but the best quotes from the man himself are about this one. A Harrison Ford-less sequel to “The Fugitive,” the film lacks all of the original’s inventiveness and dynamism and it’s one of the rare occasions where you can’t even say Downey Jr.’s presence elevates proceedings much. Wesley Snipes feels miscast in what should be a sympathetic everyman role, and Tommy Lee Jones‘ character, which had won him the Supporting Actor Oscar before, was too much of a gruff-but-decent open book for the action to have much in the way of stakes.
But as lackluster as we think the film is, we probably wouldn’t go so far as Downey Jr. who dubbed it: “Possibly the worst action movie of all time… I’d rather wake up in jail for a TB test than have to wake up another morning knowing I’m going to the set of ‘U.S. Marshals.'” To us it’s simply one more in a string of more-or-less uninspired second or third leads he played around this time from the aforementioned “Danger Zone” to “The Gingerbread Man” to “One Night Stand” to “Hugo Pool” (directed by Downey Sr.) to “Black and White.”
It was also a period that coincided with his most public and disastrous arrests — indeed he needed a special dispensation to be able to complete filming on the similarly crap Neil Jordan horror “In Dreams” prior to being committed on a three-year sentence to a substance abuse center (he’d serve one). It would appear that the drug habit that he had for so long maintained without any noticeably detrimental effect on his acting abilities, was starting to take its toll.
“Wonder Boys” (2000)
Exactly how and when Downey Jr.’s personal recovery really started we can’t guess, and of course our chronology will be a bit out of whack due to the vagaries of shoot times and release dates, but safe to say that by the time that first string of arrests and relapses and, most importantly, stale, insipid movies had run its course, certain damage had been done to his ability to win over an audience. His career rehabilitation started, to our minds, with his role in “Wonder Boys,” Curtis Hanson‘s adaptation of the beloved Michael Chabon novel.
Again, Downey Jr. is the third lead, technically taking a backseat to Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. But his Terry Crabtree, the publisher of Grady Tripp’s (Douglas) constantly postponed book who needs a hit almost as much as Grady does but falls for James (Maguire) while in town, is a terrific turn, full of the almost-trademark jaded humanism that his recent performances had been sorely lacking. It was a role that reminded us all over again that Downey Jr., as he said of his character “can pretty much drink and take pills and smoke pot and make huge mistakes, and in the midst of all, he still has this genuine talent.”
Sometime around then too, Downey Jr. landed a recurring role on TV with “Ally McBeal.” Despite the actor’s own protestations that his performance was overrated, and his relapse and re-arrest leading to his dismissal from the show, he was nominated for an Emmy and widely credited with the ailing show’s suddenly improved ratings. So for the next few years, Downey Jr. found himself in the unenviably ironic position of being an actor everyone wanted to see more of, but no one could hire, unless, like Mel Gibson on the folly that became “The Singing Detective,” they were willing to insure him themselves. Woody Allen reportedly wanted him (and fellow “jailbird” Winona Ryder) for 2005’s “Melinda and Melinda” but couldn’t get bonded for either. Trust superproducer Joel Silver to find a way around it though. Casting Downey Jr. in the compellingly terrible Halle Berry vehicle “Gothika,” he hit on a scheme that became standard for RDJ contracts for the following years: he withheld a large percentage of the actor’s salary as his own insurance policy for completion. And if his performance, and the film in general didn’t impress, well, anyone else, it impressed Silver, and led to much better things in the shape of…
“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005)
Notable not just for being Downey Jr.’s first go-round with writer/director Shane Black, who landed the “Iron Man 3” gig, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is actually a kind of redemptive film for almost everyone concerned. Once famously the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, Black (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Action Hero,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight“) had lost some of that gloss prior to making this, his directorial debut. Co-lead Val Kilmer had been languishing in B-movie purgatory for nearly a decade (and in fairness, he kind of went straight back there afterwards) and Downey Jr. hadn’t had a critical hit since “Wonder Boys.”
The film inexplicably failed to find much of an audience on release, but it’s a terrifically fun, dark, self-reflexive deconstruction of the comedy/crime/cop/caper genre that Black had helped pioneer. In it, actor and unreliable narrator Harry (Robert Downey Jr.) is studying and shadowing cop Gay Perry (Kilmer) for a role when he gets embroiled in a deranged, twisty and very funny murder and mayhem plot. It was a gift of a role for Downey Jr., defining that self-aware, arch, witty persona he does so well, whose bravado masks a wide, endearing streak of self-doubt. In fact watching the film now feels a lot like seeing someone come home: as good as RDJ has been in various performances throughout his career, this role fit him like a glove, so much so that it’s the kind of persona that has conflated irresistibly with the real-life guy.
Good as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was, it was underseen, and so yet again, didn’t provide an immediate springboard to megastardom. But for once we’re glad, because over the next few years, Downey Jr. took some interesting smaller roles in films like “Good Night and Good Luck,” “A Guide to Recognising your Saints” and “A Scanner Darkly” that firmly established the sober RDJ as, if anything, superior, in terms of acting ability, to the less reliable earlier incarnation. There’s a certain worldly wisdom that he brings to these parts, a sense of a life lived before and after and outside the frame of the films that the less mature version didn’t have.
And during this period he again showed that the the amount of screen time his character was given didn’t necessarily have a bearing on the impact he could have. This team-player side to his talents found a great vehicle in David Fincher‘s all-round terrific, low-key “Zodiac.” Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery, the San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter who first leads the paper’s investigation into the Zodiac killer. He also proves one of his more oblique victims, as obsession with the case leads to paranoia, alcoholism and drug dependency, before he quits the newspaper, and passes the baton of obsession to Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s definitely an ensemble piece, with an odd, episodic structure (trying to mirror the real-life unfolding of events) that means that Avery is not ever the sole focus of our attention, but Downey Jr. owns the role, and gives a stellar portrait of a smart man whose intelligence turns in on itself in self-destructive fashion when faced with a problem he can’t solve. And in terms of Downey Jr.’s career, the Fincher film really marks the end of the extended, extended “before” period, as the following year he would hit our screens as…
“Iron Man” (2008)
So if there was a theoretical Big Bang at the start of the Marvel Universe project, it happened in 2008 with Marvel Studios‘ very first independent feature, “Iron Man.” The history of that property is a tale for another day, suffice to say it became an example of congruence and serendipity, with the studio dodging bullets like rights issues, scripting difficulties and Len Wiseman, to settle on Jon Favreau for the eventual director, and Robert Downey Jr. for the star. Himself not an obvious choice, Favreau was initially keen to get an unknown for the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man, but Downey Jr., apparently a fan of the comic, had some inkling of what the role could mean for him and convinced the director otherwise. He went after it full-bloodedly: “I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job,” he told Playboy in 2010.
And while story and action was meticulously planned in advance, Downey Jr. did end up improvising or reinventing a lot of his dialogue, so that feel you get while you’re watching Tony Stark trade quips, makes it seem that they’re his quips, has some basis. A sense of humour was something he and Favreau both believed the role sorely needed, and Downey Jr. apparently mined his own experiences with going into and the coming out the other side of, addiction and drug dependence. “Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic-book character who is having trouble in high school, or can’t get the girl.” said Favreau.
So an unusual alignment of the planets or something caused the right script to go to the right actor under the right director at exactly the right time. And for Downey Jr., the film’s massive success, and his own hugely lauded role in that, changed the trajectory of his career forever. Subsequent to “Iron Man,” of course, his raised profile has enabled him to mount another franchise in the “Sherlock Holmes” movies, as well as to pursue more personal (and the cynic would say Oscar-baity) projects like “The Soloist.” But his second Oscar nomination actually came the same year as “Iron Man,” for his hilarious but decidedly-not-Oscar-baity role in “Tropic Thunder” — that Downey Jr. could negotiate the minefield of performing in a comedy in (satirical) blackface and come out with Academy approval is nothing short of miraculous, but perhaps points to just how much even they were rooting for him to be the huge star he has since become.
With two more “Iron Man” films under his belt and a very central gig on the 3rd-highest-grossing movie of all time “The Avengers,” (for which he reputedly pocketed a cool $50 million in a back-end deal), Downey Jr. is, after all these years a massive star. And that’s not likely to change any time soon, with a crowded upcoming slate that may not feature Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Inherent Vice,“ but will see him take on “The Judge,” opposite Robert Duvall, and possibly the mooted “Pinocchio” before “The Avengers 2” arrives in 2015. But there is something about the self-awareness that the long climb and his frequent stumbles have given him, along with a string of witty awards speeches and note-perfect red carpet appearances that makes his success hard to begrudge. More than his peers, there’s a feeling that RDJ earned his spot at the top table, and maybe still remembers what it was like to be on the outside.
“The morning Jon Favreau called and told me I’d gotten the [‘Iron Man’] gig—I still get all choked up just remembering,” Downey Jr. told Playboy in 2010. “It was such an invitation to this cornucopia of possibilities. And it all happened.”