Top 5: Robert Downey, Jr.

So The Avengers — one of the most highly anticipated movies in recent years — comes out today. Judging only by the trailers and promos, it does not look very good at all and I remain indifferent to even seeing Joss Whedon’s Marvel Comics early summer blockbuster, even if it does co-star the stunning Scarlett Johansson. The film also marks the return of the character of Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) played by none other than 47 year-old Robert Downey, Jr., one of America’s most talented, if not complex actors of his generation.

His resume is a long and impressive one, appearing in films for pretty much his entire life – since age 5 actually, when he had a role in his father’s film Pound. If you blinked, you missed his stint on TV’s Saturday Night Live in 1985. He is usually associated with the 80’s “Brat Pack” gang for appearing in movies like Pretty in Pink, Tuff Turf, and The Pick-Up Artist – though I never really put him in that group. Of course he has had his troubles with the law and his drug addictions have been well-documented and publicized. But he has still managed to come out in the most spectacular of fashions – with 2008 bringing him to rock star/blockbuster status. Things were going so well for Downey that he even made it on The Time 100, Time magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world. Makes the word ‘comeback’ sound like a ridiculous understatement. In fact, his popularity seems to be growing the last few years. Anyway, with the release of The Avengers, I thought it would be a fitting time to list what I find to be Robert Downey, Jr.’s Top 5 performances thus far. As always, these are not a list of the best films he has been in – I am strictly looking at performance:

5. Zodiac (2007)

I have no problems with saying I did not enjoy this film, despite my admiration for director David Fincher and its appearance on a multitude of Top 10 lists of that year. I had problems with the script and its dreary pacing. Plus, as I’ve said before, it’s always a bit sad and painful to watch poor Jake try his heart out to less than adequate results. Having said that, I cannot deny Downey’s impressive performance here in which he plays newspaper crime reporter Paul Avery who begins to share information with a political cartoonist, as the two try to decode letters that have been sent to the paper by who they believe to be the Zodiac Killer. Downey almost always plays characters with tremendous egos with little humility and there is no exception here. But it is his performance that kept me (at least somewhat) interested. His sarcastic sense of humor helps this otherwise bleak film and he manages to wear the style and mannerisms of a beat reporter in effortless fashion.

4. Tropic Thunder (2008)

You may laugh at and mock me, but I don’t care. If I had a vote, it would have gone to Downey over the late Heath Ledger (I know – blasphemy!) for playing five-time Oscar-winning Australian Kirk Lazarus in this intelligent and amazingly funny Ben Stiller comedy. I know his casting here raised some eyebrows initially, but Downey does comedy extremely well, partly because he plays it completely straight. His Lazarus gets a pigmentation alteration surgery to play a black sergeant in a Vietnam film. What makes it even funnier is that, because he is such a dedicated Method actor, he refuses to break character while filming and only speaks in “Black English.” As Stiller’s acting rival, Downey is nothing short of hysterical. A brave role for him to take on and he was rewarded with his 2nd Oscar nomination for doing so (which, as we all know, he should have won). You see? Going full retard, can pay off Robert!

3. Less Than Zero (1987)

A very 1980’s look at the culture of the spoiled and the young in Los Angeles based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The film surely has its many flaws and looks pretty dated by today’s standards, but one shining light in it is Downey’s performance as Julian, a young drug addict disintegrating before our very eyes. The movie’s portrait of drug use does seem genuine and at times, downright scary. The same can be said of what Downey does here….his commendable knack for making you laugh one moment and feel incredible sadness the next is clearly on display in this film that really cemented him as a true player in Hollywood. He played some great supporting roles before this (Back to School, Weird Science) and made the most of his screen time. But this truly made him legit and opened everyone’s eyes. Today, when people think of this movie, they first think of Downey’s harrowing and intense work. It should also be noted that it is so easy to fall into the hole of going over-the-top when playing such a character (as many often do)…but I see a lot of subtlety in his work here.

2. Iron Man (2008)

When I first learned that Downey would be starring as a superhero in Jon Favreau’s mega-blockbuster, I thought it a very peculiar casting choice to say the very least. I just didn’t see it — and I am sure many others felt the very same way. But after years of being very successful in film and TV, this is where Mr. Downey hit gold. Now it’s next-to impossible to think of Tony Stark and not picture the the brash Thespian. Tony Stark is an ego-maniac, and we love him anyway. He is eccentric, brilliant, self-promoting, cocky, sarcastic, and courageous. Downey is a master at playing these quirky and gregarious characters – but what makes him so special is that he is also able to show us the vulnerable and the frightened. Whoever thought of casting him at the center of the Hollywood heavyweight surely has more foresight than me. The first Iron Man flick worked in so many ways (unlike the obligatory sequel which was weighed down by an unfocused script), and Downey was indeed a huge part of that. He said of landing the role: “I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job.” Whatever he did worked — and he has brought life to one of the more fascinating superheroes to come to the silver screen.

1. Chaplin (1992)

This selection is a no-brainer for me, even with Downey’s many great performances. You can count the number of geniuses who have worked in film on one, perhaps two hands — and Charles Chaplin is indeed one of them. Talk about enormous shoes to fill. Richard Attenborough’s movie left a lot to be desired, but you can’t say that about Downey and his efforts…he gives a tour de force performance and unlike anything he had ever done to that point. Of the project, Downey stated it was, “The biggest humiliation I’ve ever experienced. It was like winning the lottery, then going to prison. I realized that nothing that had worked for me before was going to work here.”  Downey does a brilliant job at not only nailing the monumental moments, but also, at capturing the tiniest of Chaplin’s nuances. He received his first Oscar nomination for his work here and solidified his stature as a leading man. Watch the video below — it is the magical (albeit fictional) moment when Chaplin experiences a life-changing epiphany and creates one of film’s most iconic characters – The Little Tramp. It is a wonder to watch and it gives you just a small glimmer of the masterful work Downey does here. Watch his eyes, his body language, the brows…it’s remarkable work. His best to date, in my opinion. But with the roll he is on, there is no telling what he’ll come up with next.

A quick P.S. — I loved Mr. Downey’s work in Short Cuts, Natural Born Killers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and especially Wonder Boys…but as always, 5 slots goes by way too quickly.
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8 Responses to Top 5: Robert Downey, Jr.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi peter ,Thanks for getting back to me .Congrats; you are the first person who ive ever received reply from these blogs so i am chuft ‘so thanks Pet for that!, id not checked onto this site latlely ! I really dont know what film he played this hippy type guy your prob spot on one those films.. Please check out Less Than Zero if youve not seen it. When he climes the stairs overdosed and too that brilliant Thomas Newman soundtrack which i love to listen to. I like the seen also where he goes to the tennis crt of his dads home for help, it is quiet moving Does anyone else think this film is underated!

  2. Anonymous says:

    thank you peter” and respondants, yes; great actors so often get put into nitches;; alot people dont realise Rob, downey also sings and dances, eg, two girls & a guy, very very funny, but that scene where he goes up the landing foeming on drugs in Less than Zero wow” spine tingling performance and to that soundtrack by bob newman is it just me or is that thomas newman score just sublime, any comments appriciated from silver

  3. silver says:

    Again one my fav; actors. Like day lewis very versitile,such range and depth so underated before iron, loved him in ” Less than Zero- made me cry’ what a great performance that was.
    Can anyone tell me what film he starred as a 70,s high school hippy,he was terrific in that,he was that guy in that film, like he was really Julian-L T Zero.

    • Thanks for the comment. I do think he can be very versatile – lately, I think he’s been getting typecast as the smart guy with the sarcastic sense of humor. Has a great resume. I’d like to see him dig deeper in the future. Are you referring to Greaser’s Palace or the early 80’s Baby, It’s You?

  4. Barb says:

    Robert Downey, Jr. was not in Pretty in Pink…just sayin’

  5. Mike says:

    You forgot “Back To
    School”…Just saying

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