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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Genius Of ROBERT DOWNEY JR

Robert Downey Jr is, without question, one of the finest actors of this or any other generation. His ascent to the top of the industry, currently heading up two huge franchises (IRON MAN & SHERLOCK HOLMES), is deserved and it has to be said, should have happened a long time ago.


In truth, I have  very little interest in either of those above mentioned movies. With most actors of great potential, I'd lament them focusing their talents solely on these types of blockbusters. Yet, with Robert Downey Jr, I can't help but feel he's earned it. He showed his brilliance in the 80's, showed genius in the 90's and wisdom and maturity in everything since. He put in the ground work a hundred times over. Not only this but, we get the fairytale story too -- a troubled man who overcame his personal demons and addictions to go on to be one of the greatest actors alive, complete with a lovely wife and kids. 


Yet his personal life and financial riches are not why I am writing about him. I am writing about him because of his remarkable ability and talent. He was able to not only 'portray' Charlie Chaplin but somehow channel him, to become him. His performance in "CHAPLIN" was nothing short of a masterpiece. 

Any young person who decides to become an actor can become good. With enough practice and hard work, they can even become great.  But to get to the level of RDJ, something else is at work. Whether it's God, or luck, or a neurological malfunction, who knows. What we do know is that he brings something to the screen that so few can.

His genius has often shined brightest in mostly forgotten movies and smaller roles. His character in the heartwarming "HEART AND SOULS" is one of his most memorable. His character, haunted by four disgruntled ghosts, has to deal with looking absurd in front of colleagues baffled by his behaviour; and then the ghosts actually take over his body --- meaning Downey had to become the other characters. Two particular moments stand out, and in both of these he is forced to become a woman. One is during a board meeting, when Kyra Sedgwick's character overtakes him, and the other is when Alfre Woodard's character inhabits his body, making him act like a strong black woman, arguing with a security guard. The moment was handled so beautifully and hysterically that it leaves you craving for more of the same. Little did we know that nearly two decades later he would do something similar in 'TROPIC THUNDER'.

In 'ONE NIGHT STAND' he played the role of Charlie, a gay man who is dying of AIDS. It is quite possible that this is his finest acting performance to date. Gay characters are still, for the most part, stereotypically and ignorantly portrayed on screen. Yet Downey was able to bring us a character so real and fascinating and heartbreaking, that he makes you relate to him and feel like him. It turns out that a gay man who is dying of AIDS is still exactly like you and me. Tom Hanks did it first with "PHILADELPHIA", yet somehow Downey's subtle and little known performance feels even more authentic.


When Guy Bellow's character, Billy Thomas, was killed off in "ALLY MCBEAL", it felt like the end of the show. The Ally and Billy storylines were the heart that kept everything else in place. And then Robert Downey Jr's 'Larry Paul' walked in, and gave the show such a outrageously huge lift that when he left, after only one season, the remaining episodes were uninspired and struggled to re-capture the audience. 

The thing about Larry Paul was that he was so ordinary. A good guy struggling to be a Dad and deal with his exes while falling for Ally. The show was always about delving into Ally McBeal's crazy imagination, yet Season 4 was able to delve delicately and truthfully into the relationship between Ally and Larry, focusing on their neurotic problems which made every little thing about their relationship so difficult. 


Even though we were watching a quick talking, witty lawyer in Boston, we somehow felt like we were staring directly at ourselves. When you watch Robert Downey Jr, you see a part of yourself staring back at you. Most actors may achieve this once, but Downey reaches this level time and time again.


"ALLY MCBEAL" was very much a comeback for him. He was sacked at the end of his first season on the show for drug related reasons, which was perhaps the last great downfall in his career. Somewhere in the proceeding years found the resolve and determination to finally overcome the addictions that were threatening to ruin his career and life. He cleaned up his act, met the woman he would marry, and suddenly things looked promising again, even though productions were finding him difficult to hire due to the astronomical costs of his insurance. He was initially cast in Woody Allen's "MELINDA & MELINDA", but they couldn't afford the insurance costs. Looking back at the film, which is one of Woody's more disappointing efforts, you can't help but wonder how much better it would have been. Perhaps, if Downey had got the role, we'd be referring to it now as one of the great Woody Allen masterpieces. 

"KISS KISS, BANG BANG" is filled with hilarious moments. Much credit undoubtedly belongs to the extremely talented writer/director Shane Black, along with co-star Val Kilmer, yet RDJ steals the show with a great performance where his acting and comedic skills were simply irresistible. Again, he somehow managed to elevate himself above 'good acting' to a level of expertise that is a pleasure to watch if only because it is so rare.

There are two scenes in "A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS" which demonstrate more than anything else in his career just how good an actor he is. It's surprising to say that, considering his role is only a supporting one. Then again, "ONE NIGHT STAND" and "NATURAL BORN KILLERS" showed how he doesn't need a lot of screen time to steal the show.

Both scenes are between him and Rosario Dawson's character. The first is a very sweet and beautiful moment where their characters meet again after twenty years apart. It's a simple, understated moment, where Downey appears on the street below Dawson's window, calling out, "wanna come out and play?" The scene is so simple and straightforward that it needn't be so interesting, but IT IS! RDJ manages to be entirely natural, yet still extremely 'Robert Downey Jr'. What I mean is that, Downey's acting is always extremely natural and truthful, yet he is always specific. He makes decisions about his characters. What we see is never incidental or luck. It exists because of how completely he understands his characters.


The second scene with Rosario is when they're on the rooftop and she's challenging him to go take care of his Father. He does something in this scene that I have hardly seen anywhere, at all. You know that deep horrible resistance that sits inside of you? It's when people force you out of your comfort zone, when they bring up your worst fears and make you lose yourself... well, in this scene, we see Downey go there. We see him pushed past the place his character is psychologically actually able to function in. The result is one of the more truthful moments I've ever witnessed on screen. I remember watching these scenes many years ago with a girlfriend, and she kept crying her eyes out and making me stop the movie. She kept being reminded of her self, her life, of problems she'd been through -- and it was all because of what RDJ was doing. The situations were different, yet the emotion was the same -- Downey had captured something universal, that takes on meaning far outweighing the story of the movie. How often can an actor achieve that?


In the years that followed "A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS", he appeared in some films which were not particularly great, yet his performances always shined. His consistent work in "A SCANNER DARKLY", "ZODIAC", "CHARLIE BARTLETT" and "TROPIC THUNDER", showed audiences and the industry that he had, finally, truly arrived and was here to stay. With a new stability to his life and his work; he was then ready to make the leap, to become the coolest and most sought after actor in Hollywood. 


Aside from the fun "DUE DATE" and the sadly misfiring "THE SOLOIST", his schedule has been taken up almost entirely by fronting the "IRON MAN" franchise, which has a third film shortly on the way, and "SHERLOCK HOLMES" which is also likely to yield a third movie. He undoubtedly is the perfect man to lead these popular movies -- and he has joked in many interviews that he's tired of doing independent films that nobody ever gets to see. He's a joy to watch in these big blockbusters, but the concern is that we will lose the subtle and nuanced performances that he has become such an expert at. Yet, I am wise enough to know that it would be silly for an internet blogger to question a man who is, as I stated at the beginning, one of the finest actors ever to grace the big screen. I believe that, if he continues to make bold and interesting choices, his best work is yet to come. 

Care to share?

14 comments:

  1. Bonjour Kid. I have not commented on your blog for a while, but read it on a regular basis. I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed this great story about a favorite actor of mine, Robert Downey. I am glad you chose to highlight some of his less well-known movies too. I remember watching "Less than Zero" in the 1980s where Downey plays a doomed drug addict - a role probably close to his real life I realize. He was brilliant in it, stealing every scene he was in. I have watched most of his movies ever since. I, too, hope he will not stick exclusively to the blockbusters he has chosen recently. It will be interesting to see what direction he follows from now on... Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

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  2. Thanks for the filmography of RDJ. I have always been an admirer, and absolutely love him in Tropic Thunder and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, among others, but you made me want to go watch a lot of his other stuff that I never saw. RDJ marathon coming up!

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  3. GREAT post! I love Robert Downey Jr. as well. The last scene of Two Girls and a Guy where he is playing the piano is one of my favorite RDJ moments of all time.

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  4. This is a most heartfelt writeup on an actor I don't care for much (I think of RDJ as a less ingratiating Clooney, but I can't stand Clooney). He is a talented actor, though. Take THE SOLOIST for example, obviously Joe Wright's weakest film but still an interesting, if somewhat vaguely focused, film. Its major issue is not knowing which story it wants to tell, and RDJ is so excellent in a thinly drawn role.

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  5. I have so fond memories of his appearance in Ally. As you say, it really brought the series to a new level and I was so sad when he disappeared so quickly from it. A real downer.

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  6. I think AVENGERS will be the greatest hit In 2012.Because he is one of the finest hollywood actors in hollywood

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  7. Robert Downey Jr is seriously one of my favorite actors of all time. His whip-smart dialogue that he constantly turns out, his ability to transform himself into his characters, his, uh, good looks (okay, so maybe I have a little bit of a crush) and his work ethic always end up blowing me away.

    About a year ago I read an interview with him where he stated, as if it was a perfectly normal idea, that he is a constant state of challenging his fear-based rituals. And I ripped the page right out of the magazine of the lobby where I was reading it (bad Tracy! Bad!) but I had to keep that quote because it was just the most astoundingly beautiful concept I've ever read. And to this day - and I'll be blogging about it later this week actually - it was one of the most important ideas I have ever come across.

    So yes. I adore that man. Very much. :)

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  8. FRENCH GIRL - I agree, it will be fascinating to see what the future holds for him. I'm glad you're a fan of his!

    LUCKY PUNK - KISS KISS BANG BANG is genius! I must blog about it soon.

    BRITTANI - Great that you're a fan!

    ANDREW - Surprises me you're not a big fan of Downey. Of course, these things are always down to opinion - but I thought Downey was above opinion!

    JESSICA - I'm still waiting for Larry to return!

    ACHMAX - We shall see!

    PHOENIX - You should scan that bit of magazine in. Thanks for sharing!

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  9. I think AVENGERS will be the greatest hit In 2012.Because he is one of the finest hollywood actors in hollywood.because he is a good actor.

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  10. Thanks for this write up. RDJ is one of my favorite actors of all time. There are several films here that I have never heard and must find!

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  11. RDJ is one of the best actor ever! And he is a really fascinating human being.Thanks for your story!

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  12. RDJ is the kind of actor that dives so deep into the character to the point where the line between them becomes thin, and you have to pause and rewind the movie to fully understand just what you've witnessed. "Wait, was that fact or fiction??" He IS Iron Man, he IS Sherlock, there is no one else who could possibly play them, other than Robert. I think that's brilliant, and there's no doubt that he is gifted beyond his years. Specially if you consider the early roles that he took, the depth of interpretation was remarkable for such young man to portray (at the time) It's like he was born to play each of these characters. I think for me, the point break was Chaplin. I was a kid when i watched it, and i guess it takes one hell of an actor to make a child realize talent when she sees one. I could honestly talk about his work for weeks! Subtlety is one of his biggest qualities, like the way he breathes a certain way when tension is building, the inflections in his voice, or when he doesn't say a word because the emotion in his expressive eyes say it all. I loved him on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, because he captures the change in his character beautifully well. Due Date, The Soloist, Charlie Bartlett, all of these roles too are fascinating to watch. I can't blame him for taking blockbusters because his talent needs huge outlet. But like you, my greatest concern is that his masterful subtlety might get lost in the way. Anyway, amazing write up on this genius actor!

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  13. My son who is 5 yrs old is one of his biggest fans. He really thinks he is Tony stark. Every movie that robert downey jr is in, my son will say "thats tonys stark , he is awesome" When the avenger movie came out we watched it and of course Tonys stark was his favourite! i think it is great how i was a fan as child and now my son is too!

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  14. You guys should try and watch downey with marissa tomei in only you.

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