Robert Downey Jr.

His future's uncertain, but even if Hollywood's beloved screw-up never acts again, he'll stand as the most talented actor of his generation.

Topics: Drugs,

Robert Downey Jr.

There is an image at the beginning of Mike Figgis’ 1997 film “One Night Stand” that seems to sum up the public’s perception of Robert Downey Jr. He stands on a stage, dressed in jeans and black tank top, looking gaunt and haunted, his arms outstretched at his sides while magnesium flares go off around him. It’s the image of a hipster Christ crucified for his art.

Applied to Downey (as opposed to the character he’s playing) it’s a false, romantic image — the myth of the helpless genius whose creativity is inseparable from his self-destructiveness. It doesn’t take much to see that Downey’s self-destructiveness has interfered with his creativity; it’s already robbed him and us of years of work, and stands to rob us of even more if he is convicted on his latest round of drug charges.

More and more, though, public figures and events are not talked about as they actually are but are shunted into ready-made scenarios. Anything that would unravel the constructed image is simply ignored. And what could be more ready-made for easy consumption than a talented young actor with a drug problem? The tendency with Downey is to see him as either a victim or a joke. I’ve witnessed the latter at critics’ screenings of movies like “Two Girls and a Guy” and especially “The Gingerbread Man,” where Downey’s character, a boozing private investigator, was greeted with laughter, as if playing that role didn’t take any acting, as if his private troubles were no more than late-night monologue fodder.

Just as sickening is the hand-wringing, “isn’t it a tragedy” manner that the press has used to report Downey’s troubles. At each of Downey’s arrests or trial dates, the entertainment whores on E! or ET or on your local news have adopted their stern, grave tones and asked what can be done for Robert Downey Jr. What they will never do is question the assumption that people can be saved from their own worst impulses, which, being the basis of our drug laws, has certainly contributed to Downey’s problem.

There may even be a bit of the worst-cast scenario tendency hanging over devoting a profile such as this one to a performer still only in his late 30s — as if the piece should be written before it’s time to do an obituary. So let me be clear at the outset: It’s crucial to shift the focus on Robert Downey Jr. back to his work, as befits the most talented actor of his generation.

At one time that title might have gone to Nicolas Cage or Sean Penn. But Cage has scaled back on the wonderful oddities that made him unlike anyone else on screen, even in dreck like “The Rock” and “Con Air.” And Penn, a brilliant actor, is sometimes erratically eccentric (as in his cameo in last year’s “Before Night Falls”) and seems intent on devoting his energy to his directing, which has neither the spontaneity, the clarity nor the excitement of his acting.

Downey has never consciously played the eccentric or outsider just as he has never seemed a part of the mainstream, though much of his career has been in mainstream movies. There was no telling what to make of him when he first showed up in comedies like “Weird Science” (1985) or “Back to School” (1986). In the latter movie, with his lace cravats, new-wave hair (a few blue spikes added for dash) and big, fey doe eyes, he looked like some parody of a kid in a Keane painting, a college boy who couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be Lord Byron or join Duran Duran. His manner was smiling, ingratiating — at times he seemed so eager to please he practically batted his eyes — yet there was also something secretive about his pleased little smile; you couldn’t be sure what he was laughing at, but he wore his amusement like a a snug, comfy coat. He was an alluring and not particularly trustworthy puppy.

Nothing in those movies prepared you for his work in “Less Than Zero” (1987), the first evidence of his willingness to lay himself bare. The movie is a ridiculous example of Hollywood’s playing it safe, a late Brat Pack vehicle cum anti-drug tract fashioned out of Bret Easton Ellis’ cold, repellent novel. As Julian, the poor-little-rich-boy crack addict reduced to working as a prostitute to pay off his dealer’s debt, Downey simply seems to be acting in another film. The look of shame and fear on his face after he turns his first trick is of the intensity that registers in the pit of your stomach. You feel like you know what it means to be inside Julian’s skin, breaking out in cold sweats and shaking with nausea.

It’s the sort of performance that should have had directors falling over themselves to cast him in dramatic roles. Whether it was that the movie bombed or that he still carried the taint of Brat Pack, Downey wound up doing mostly comedies for the next few years. The majority of them (“Heart and Souls,” 1993, “Only You,” 1994) are forgettable, one of them (the 1991 TV spoof “Soapdish”) is hilarious and one (James Toback’s 1987 “The Pick-Up Artist”) is unexpectedly lovely. It turned out to be a great opportunity, as Downey turned into the most gifted farceur in contemporary movies.

The mistake often made with acting in farce is attempting to whip things into a frenzy instead of just allowing yourself to be swept into the whirlwind. Downey eases into farce, as if he were at home with chaos. He’s not so much a still center as an elastic one, bending with each new complication, trying to keep responding to every new situation as, drop-jawed, he struggles to comprehend it. Downey is one of the few farce performers who has learned the secret of not wearing out the audience. His relaxation, even at his most frenzied, means that you don’t stop laughing before the climax, as can happen too often in farce.

Nothing shows off his comic talent better than the 1989 romantic comedy “Chances Are,” a picture he alone saves from being utterly forgettable. Downey plays an aspiring young reporter who discovers that he is actually the reincarnation of Cybill Shepherd’s beloved dead husband. It complicates things that Shepherd’s daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson) is falling for him. The highlight of Downey’s performance is a long sequence where he’s brought home to Shepherd’s place for dinner and enters an extended state of déjà vu. Downey makes a repeated joke out of nonchalantly recognizing the surroundings and then frightening himself because he doesn’t know how he’s recognized them — and it’s funnier each time. (Trying to calm himself down, he walks around the living room where he notices an oil painting over the mantel: “Oh, it’s a picture of Uncle Marsh … Who the hell is Uncle Marsh?”)

Downey’s face — the paleness, the huge, inky eyes — had always seemed slightly out of its time, expressive enough for silent movies. That must have been part of what Richard Attenborough was thinking when he cast Downey as Charlie Chaplin in his 1992 biopic. Charlie Chaplin belongs to the group of phenomenal talents whom the public loves but whose overweening neediness can make repellent (Judy Garland is another). None of this occurred to Attenborough, for whom Chaplin is a man persectued for espousing “brotherhood,” a figure fit to take his place beside Gandhi and Steve Biko in “Sir Dickie’s Lives of the Saints.” Downey makes the movie something else: the story of a wounded monster. It’s a great performance, as emotionally complex and layered as the movie is simplistic.

Downey’s physical comedy is superb. He is remarkably agile at re-creating the drunk routine that Chaplin developed in British music halls (and later showed off in his two reeler “One A.M.”). But it’s his insight into the core of Chaplin’s character that shapes the entire performance. Downey plays Chaplin as a man who demands love but is emotionally cut off, unable to feel for anyone as much as he can feel for himself. Downey plunges into the divide between the screen image of the Little Tramp and Chaplin, the off-screen grandee, basking in the obsequiousness of the people who once spurned him.

Time and again, Downey upsets the simplistic meanings Attenborough settles for. Attenborough re-creates the plea for world peace that ends “The Great Dictator” as if it were proof of Chaplin the great humanitarian. He forgets that the focus of the scene — a huge, unwavering close-up of Chaplin — tells the real story. Somehow, Downey captures the egotism that sails over Attenborough’s head, by the gleam in his eye that tells you how thrilled he is to be the center of attention, by the rising note of monomania in his voice. Attenborough wants to show us Chaplin as the anti-fascist artist bravely taking on Hitler; Downey shows us a man perturbed by an upstart who’s had the temerity to swipe his mustache. The whole performance comes together in the final scenes where Downey, done up in aging makeup to play Chaplin in his 70s, returns to America for the first time since his deportation to accept an honorary Oscar. Sitting backstage as he waits to go on, he breaks into tears watching a montage of his clips, and you have the sense of watching a closed circuit upon which no accolade can intrude — the Little Tramp rewarded with tears by his perfect audience.

It wasn’t long after “Chaplin” that Downey’s legal troubles began, and they have all but obscured the work he’s done since. Some of that work has been in supporting roles, like the boozing private investigator Clyde Dell in Robert Altman’s 1998 “The Gingerbread Man.” It’s a small part, but one that encapsulates the tenderness that characterizes Downey’s work, suggesting a man drawn to the risks of his job because he’s never learned how to protect himself. And as a choreographer dying of AIDS in “One Night Stand,” Downey passes one of the crucial acting tests with flying colors. Given the chance to revel in the part of a man falling apart physically, Downey chooses to play the character and not the disease.

James Toback, who has been Downey’s friend since the two of them made “The Pick-Up Artist,” gave the actor his best role to date in his dicey and exciting improvisatory drama “Two Girls and a Guy” (1999). Downey plays Blake Allen, a New York actor living comfortably off his family money in a Soho loft. Just after the movie starts, Blake discovers the two young women he’s been seeing (Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner) have found out about each other. It’s a role tailor-made for Downey the farceur, the ladies’ man caught up in his own lies. But what starts out as farce turns into psychodrama.

Toback had conceived of the role after seeing Downey following the actor’s first stint in rehab. What he saw was a man trying to please everyone — just as Blake is. He insists to his two lovers that he meant every word he ever told them (including that each was the only woman he desired) and it’s not a lie. He does believe everything that comes out of his mouth at the moment — even if he contradicts it minutes later. The role has the heat of gossip — we know full well watching it that Downey is drawing on whatever private hell he had gone through, especially in a stunning, uncomfortable scene where Downey looks in the mirror to deliver a self-lacerating monologue: “Is this how you want to live the rest of your life? Just damaging people around you, damaging yourself?”

Part of the thrill of the movie is that we’re being given a glimpse behind the scenes into Downey’s psyche. But the movie never becomes cheap or exploitative. Downey is using his experience to dig into the part of an actor who’s always acting, always on, always looking for corners to duck around in the argument. He’s playing a privileged, fucked-up kid, and what’s fucked-up about him is inseparable from his charisma.

But Downey uses the role’s “am I acting or am I sincere?” games less as a hall of mirrors than as a well that he keeps descending into deeper and deeper until his final scene, a sustained expression of grief that may be one of the rawest scenes any contemporary actor has ever put on film.

Only a fool would predict where Robert Downey Jr. will go from here, whether the acclaim for his work on “Ally McBeal” will buoy him or whether he’ll go back to his old habits. It’s not, however, the critic’s job to even attempt to say. I wish him well, and I pray he has years of work ahead of him. But I wish that he could be talked of in terms of the 15 brilliant years of work that are behind him instead of just as Hollywood’s beloved screw-up. There’s a moment in his sly, wily performance in last year’s “Wonder Boys” that, even if he had never garnered a tabloid headline, would stand for the position of an original, idiosyncratic actor in Hollywood. Downey’s failed literary agent is telling Michael Douglas’ failed author that the people he works with treat him as if he doesn’t exist. “I guess I just don’t fit the new corporate profile,” he says. When Douglas asks him what that is, he pauses a minute and blurts out, as if it were the most absurd thing ever, “Competence,” and the two of them burst into laughter.

Maybe to feel that line in your gut, you have to have worked in a job that you love to do and watched while passion and dedication became less valued than successful mediocrity. But the triumph of the laugh that follows it is beautiful. It bursts the boundaries of the character; it’s the triumph of an actor who, in his craft, has not been smoothed over or made salable. Where Robert Downey Jr. will be this time next year I won’t venture to guess. Artistically, I’ll tell you now, were he never to act again, he’d be the last man standing of his generation.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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