The Sexiest Man Living 2008

He is a rogue, a gentleman and a brilliant actor. We loved him through good times and (very) bad, and we're so glad he's back.

Published November 20, 2008 12:02PM (EST)

And Salon's award for the Sexiest Man Living 2008 goes to ...

Robert Downey Jr.

He was once arrested while driving naked in a Porsche, he's done jail time for drugs and has cycled in and out of rehab -- and yet still we love Robert Downey Jr. We find him wildly sexy not just because he is a rogue, but also because he is a romantic hero in the flesh, a bad boy brimming with goodness. Even in his darkest days (remember the time he wandered into a stranger's house and fell asleep on the bed?) we wanted to see him make it back to us with all of his intelligence and wit and charisma intact.

And so he did: 2008 thoroughly redeemed Downey, a man who commits to his roles the way he commits to everything, whether it's drugs, crazy behavior or comebacks. He starred in two of the biggest movies of this year, "Iron Man" and "Tropic Thunder," with performances so resounding that it's hard to imagine that he was ever anything less than a superstar.

No one has ever doubted that Downey, 43, is immensely talented. He was nominated for an Oscar 15 years ago for "Chaplin," in which he proved himself simultaneously adept at physical comedy and poetic drama. He has always radiated sensitivity and devilish charm, even in early movies like "The Pick-Up Artist" and "Less Than Zero," before it was clear the devils he portrayed so accurately might have been his own.

Both "Iron Man" and "Tropic Thunder" could have been awful, and with a less brilliant actor, both of Downey's characters could have come off as thoroughly creepy and unlikable. In "Iron Man" he plays a reclusive genius/arms dealer who transforms himself into a flawed superhero, and in "Tropic Thunder" he burrows under the skin of an absurdly intense method actor named Kirk Lazarus who loses himself so deeply in his role as a black soldier that he forgets he's white. But in each movie, you can practically hear Downey's complicated, quicksilver brain whirring, and you can sense his vulnerability from the last row. While controversy engulfed "Tropic Thunder's" mentally disabled characters, nobody protested Downey's blackface, because it was so perfectly calibrated and perfectly hilarious: As Lazarus explains sweetly, "I'm just a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!"

But Downey himself is never "just a dude playing another dude." He is an actor "forged in a cauldron of his own genius," as Jack Black teased at the MTV Movie Awards earlier this year. He's been dancing around the void for a long time now, pouring his self-destructive intensity onto the screen, his beautifully chiseled features now weathered just the right amount by the passing of hard time. Even Oprah looked like she might melt when she interviewed Downey and his then-fiancée (now wife), producer Susan Levin, a few years back.

This year's Sexiest Man Living goes to Downey because he breaks our heart, onscreen and off. He wears his age and experience like a badge of honor and looks comfortable in his own gorgeous skin. The buzz is that Hollywood is looking for an excuse to give him an Oscar this year or next. To give him Salon's highest accolade, we don't need any excuse.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Sexiest Man Living 2008