It is about time I took to my soapbox and declared to the world my unadulterated love for Robert Downey Jr., and with his long awaited return to comedy in this year’s Due Date (out in November), what better time to cast a retrospective eye over what makes him one of the most talked about, talented and often overlooked actors of our generation?
It is probably best to make a she-geek disclaimer at this point, before all the warm blooded males stop reading, for fear that what lies ahead is a girly drool fest about his eyes, chiselled good looks or endearing charm (please don’t get me wrong, though, none of these facets have gone unnoticed). However, with the deserved success of the Iron Man franchise and a welcome return to the mainstream, it can be easy to forget what it was about RDJ that first endeared us to him as an actor all those years ago.
Success has not hindered his creativity
It is a trait very rarely seen in Hollywood nowadays, with meteoric rises to success occurring every week and, in some cases, overnight, but Downey Jr. has always maintained an integrity about the roles he takes on. This means that, even at the peak of his success and popularity, he has never shied away from taking on alternative performances and roles to maintain that level of creativity and versatility that makes him such a rare commodity in mainstream Hollywood.
When speaking of his 2006 performance in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus, he was quoted as saying that he wanted to “play” with the role. This would have been an instinct easy to suppress in light of his newfound popularity at that time, with the combination of his commercially successful turn in Ally McBeal, as well as the acclaimed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and A Scanner Darkly. But that need to take on a role that allowed him to embrace something different is an admirable quality.He knows ‘funny’
It is something that has certainly been utilised in many of RDJ’s latter roles, notably the likes of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Tropic Thunder and Iron Man, but it cannot be denied that his inherent sense of humour is one of the qualities that make him such a unique artist among today’s big players.
One of his earliest outings was in NBC’s Saturday Night Live, in which he’s famously played host to some of the world’s most well-known comedians and sketch artists.
This comedic form made for some incredible film performances from the young RDJ. For example, in Back To School he plays Derek, the wry, quipping sidekick to a young Keith Gordon’s Jason, an early role which sees some of the key Downey Jr. comic traits – the fast speech, cold eyes and unrelenting sarcasm – with which we have now become so familiar.
What makes his sense of comedy so appealing, however, is how he then uses it to punctuate some of his darker characters. For example, in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, Robert Downey Jr. plays the wisecracking literary agent Terry Crabtree, who pursues an impressionable Tobey Maguire, whilst simultaneously trying not to arouse suspicion in Michael Douglas, whom he is harassing at every opportunity to complete a long awaited novel.
This conflict of interests and predatory manner sees RDJ create some truly intense moments, especially in his scenes with Tobey Maguire, which are created through his subtle use of humour and comedic timing. The effect creates an almost sinister edge to an otherwise wry performance.
It was this intense relationship that caused me to get so excited when watching Tropic Thunder for the first time. Seeing RDJ and Tobey Maguire revisit what was such a memorable on-screen relationship in Wonder Boys with a knowing nod in the trailer to Satan’s Alley was a very exciting prospect for the big Wonder Boys fan in me.
It is at this point I have to release the geek valve slightly and proclaim my adoration for the movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (in fact,our very own Mark Oakley wrote a superb appreciation of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). I utterly agree with Mark that, without Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and certainly the brilliant, astute writing of Shane Black, there would be no Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes.
It was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that made us feel like we had finally seen Robert Downey Jr. at full throttle. Almost to suggest we had been teased by previous roles into imagining what a combination of the sarcastic one-liners, romantic heroism and ass-kicking action would look like in one performance.
Then, finally, all RDJ fans could throw their popcorn in the air with glee, as the role of Harry encapsulated all of the best parts of his performances to date. He appeared to almost attack the writing at times, and at other points restrained himself so beautifully that it kept you gripped from beginning to end and demonstrated an arguably more mature performance.
If you haven’t seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, please do so, right now. In fact, stop reading and go and watch it now.
He is dedicated
Regardless of the undertaking, one of the key parts of a Robert Downey Jr. performance is the dedication and immersive nature with which he approaches the role. He has previously been quoted as saying that he feels all acting can be regarded as method acting, and it is widely known that, in order to play Charlie Chaplin, he took on a huge amount of historical research in to capture the authenticity of not only Chaplin the performer, but also the man.
In latter roles, however, he has also dedicated himself to a physical regime and disciplined training to be able to carry out his own stunts and create the physicality needed for the demanding roles in Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man.
He’s an action hero, a romantic lead, a wise-cracking sidekick. One of Robert Downey Jr.’s greatest abilities is being able to turn his hand to just about any role and make it his own. The beauty of this gift is that, as his career has developed, he has avoided being typecast and will still create incredibly memorable, often scene-stealing performances, even when not playing the lead.
Depending on when you first became aware of RDJ often affects what it is you love him for. I first became aware of him as the eponymous hero in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar nominated Chaplin, a role for which Downey Jr. was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.
It was the mesmerising combination of his subtlety when dealing with some of the more tragic aspects of Chaplin’s life (the scene in which RDJ watches the superb Geraldine Chaplin crumble the breadcrumbs over her hat will still reduce me to tears), and his authentic portrayal of Chaplin’s slapstick comedy and often volatile temperament that mesmerised me.
At the time, I was a young drama student who instantly became fascinated by how one man could create such light and darkness in his performance and create such authenticity in a role, so that you forgot at times who exactly it was you were watching.
Despite my love of his entire career (sometimes when I say that sentence out loud, I have to simultaneously forget that Only You ever happened), it is that performance I will always come back to when I think of how this actor has struck such a chord with me and compelled me to follow and support his career throughout.
For other people, it may be some of his earlier comedic performances that they will always attribute to him, and undeniably, for a new wave of cinema going audiences, RDJ is Iron Man.
My objectivity starts to waiver when talking about RDJ, as there are very few people on this earth I hold up to ‘hero’ status, and he is certainly one of them. I would suggest, for anyone who has only recently become aware of Robert Downey Jr.’s work having watched Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes, that they pay a visit to the extensive and, quite frankly, awesome back catalogue of roles he has to offer, and watch the development and versatility of this actor from his comedic, wise-cracking roots to the action hero he is today via his more alternative and less mainstream roles.
My personal choice of titles to start with, if you’re looking for some further viewing, would be Weird Science, Back To School, Chaplin, Restoration, Wonder Boys, The Singing Detective, Good Night And Good Luck, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus and Zodiac.