Film

It’s About Time We Had A Robert Downey, Jr. Retrospective

A chronological look at one of Hollywood's great survival stories.

With Iron Man 3 holding on to the top spot at the US box office for a second week and the folks at Marvel and Disney throwing untold amounts of money at him to come back one more time, it’s fair to say that Robert Downey, Jr. is the biggest actor in Hollywood right now. It’s been a steady rise for the scruffy, handsome actor over the last half-decade, with roles in the Sherlock Holmes films and the various Iron Man and Avengers-themed flicks making him a tremendous box office draw and a household name.

Funny as it seems, his position in Hollywood hasn’t always been so assured. In fact, there was a time when the Robert Downey, Jr. narrative was the tale of a promising young actor who threw it all away thanks to drugs. With this in mind, we take a look back at the key roles of Downey, Jr.’s career, from his days as an ‘80s Brat Pack star through to the dark days of the ‘90s and his triumphant return as Tony Stark.

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1970: Pound

At the age of five, Robert Downey, Jr. had his first ever acting role, playing a human puppy in his father’s (Robert Downey, obviously, whose Putney Swope is a ’60s cult classic) comedy, Pound. He’s so cute and tiny, and yet he has that trademark sneer totally down. Also, children swearing is never not funny.

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1984: Firstborn

After a series of smaller roles, he played a troubled teen in the angsty domestic drama, Firstborn. Watch the clip closely and you’ll see a young Sarah Jessica Parker; the two met on the set and dated until 1991,when they broke up due to his increasing drug abuse.

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1985: Saturday Night Live

SNL-Cast

Downey, Jr.’s big break came when he was cast in the revamped 1985 season of SNL, alongside the likes of Joan Cusack, Jon Lovitz, Damon Wayans and Randy Quaid. In spite of the star power involved, the season rated poorly and he left after a year.

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1985: Weird Science

That same year, Downey, Jr. played the school bully Ian in the John Hughes flick, Weird Science. Although it was a minor role, he was the film’s breakout star, casually showing off his ability to be simultaneously smug and charming. Because, c’mon, that smile…

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1987: The Pick-Up Artist

At the peak of his youthful handsomeness, Downey, Jr. starred in this James Toback-directed comedy alongside Molly Ringwald. The role cemented his position as a member of the ‘Brat Pack’, a group of ‘80s teen stars that also included the likes of Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Ally Sheedy.

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1987: Less Than Zero

In this adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, Downey, Jr. played the drug-addled party boy, Julian. It was a stunning performance in an otherwise flat movie. He later said that Julian’s drug problem paralleled his own spiral into drugs, which makes the film even harder to watch.

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Sassy-Magazine-July-1989-robert-downey-jr-14015191-1573-2000

We just had to include this picture of Robert Downey, Jr. as a Sassy cover boy.

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1990: Air America

Robert Downey, Jr. and Mel Gibson in a confined space together… What could possibly go wrong? The film saw the pair playing Vietnam War-era pilots, and although the trailers suggested a feel-good buddy film, the finished product was dark and the film ended up a relative box office failure.

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1992: Chaplin

By 1992, the young actor had entered his Oscar-bait phase with Chaplin. In preparation to play the silent film star, he learned to play violin and tennis left-handed. Unfortunately, come Oscar time, he lost out to Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman. Hoo-ah!

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1993: Short Cuts

Robert Altman’s sprawling Short Cuts was inspired by a series of Raymond Carver stories and chronicled the lives of 22 people in Los Angeles. Downey, Jr. gave a signature tough-yet-vulnerable performance as a make-up artist.

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1994: Natural Born Killers

In Oliver Stone’s trashy, splashy and super violent Natural Born Killers, Downey, Jr. played tabloid journalist, Wayne Gale. It was a manic and twitchy performance, complete with a fake Australian accent, and it further showed just what a live-wire performer he could be.

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1995: Restoration

In this costume drama, Downey, Jr. plays a floppy-haired, frequently-naked courtesan who falls in love with one of King Charles II’s mistresses. The following year, he was arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine and an unloaded .357 Magnum while driving along Sunset Blvd.

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1999: Two Girls And A Guy

The late ‘90s were a dark period for Downey, Jr., who had bottomed out into a series of undistinguished romantic comedies like Two Girls And A Guy (another slightly creepy collaboration with director James Toback). In 1999, after several arrests and unsuccessful attempts at rehab, he told a judge: “It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.”

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2000: Ally McBeal

After spending close to a year in court-appointed substance abuse rehab, Downey, Jr. took a role as Calista Flockhart’s love interest in the hit courtroom comedy series, Ally McBeal. It was a light-hearted turn for the dark and serious actor, and is generally considered to be the first tentative stage of his career comeback.

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2000: Wonder Boys

Downey, Jr.’s professional rehabilitation continued with a wonderful turn in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys. As eccentric book editor Terry Crabtree, he matched wits with Michael Douglas and had an affair with Tobey Maguire. The brilliance of old had once again begun to shine through, although in the years that followed, he would again face drug-related arrests.

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2005: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

It was not until 2005 that Downey, Jr.’s professional career was truly back on track. He missed out on a part in Woody Allen’s Melinda And Melinda because nobody would insure him, but his true comeback came in the form of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a low-budget crime caper (written and directed by his Iron Man 3 director — and similar cautionary tale — Shane Black) that went on to be a huge sleeper hit.

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2008: Iron Man

Who the hell is Iron Man, anyway? Some superhero that nobody outside of comic book nerds had even heard of, right? Actually, Downey, Jr.’s performance as the cocky, confident businessman Tony Stark was the beginning of a monster film franchise. The film was a surprise hit, grossing $585 million, and on the strength of its success, Downey, Jr.’s people negotiated a lucrative slice of the gross from the sequels.

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2008: Tropic Thunder

Look, I’ll be honest. I have no idea just what the hell Robert Downey, Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder was meant to be, but this crude comedy was way funnier than it had any right to be, and also introduced the world to the phrase ‘full retard’.

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2009: Sherlock Holmes

Guy Richie’s balls-out, brawling Sherlock Holmes gave Downey, Jr. yet another hit franchise, and basically cemented his position as the blockbuster actor of the moment. His bromance with Jude Law’s Watson was truly one for the ages.

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2010: Iron Man 2

This big-budget sequel fell into the not-quite-as-good-as-the-original trap, but it featured a memorable turn from fellow ‘80s bad boy Mickey Rourke, and out-grossed the first at the box office. The film’s success suggested that Tony Stark would definitely be sticking around for a while.

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2012: The Avengers

The Avengers brought Iron Man together with his fellow Marvel superheroes and became the third highest-grossing film of all time. At around the same time, Tony Stark’s ‘genius billionaire playboy philanthropist’ quip made Robert Downey, Jr. the most quoted man on the internet.

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2013: Iron Man 3

To be honest with you, I haven’t seen this yet, but apparently everyone else has, as the film’s gross is edging its way towards a billion dollars worldwide. The Iron Man juggernaut is basically unstoppable at this point… well, providing Robert Downey, Jr. sticks around.

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What happens now?

Robert Downey, Jr. is at an interesting point, career-wise. He’s 48 years old, and reportedly getting a bit sick of all this superhero malarkey. With the great success of Iron Man 3, Disney and Marvel want to continue the movies for as long as possible. However, Downey, Jr.’s contract is up and it’s unconfirmed whether or not he will return to the suit.

Iron Man movies tend to gross a lot better than those featuring his fellow Marvel superheroes like Captain America and Thor, so Downey, Jr.’s departure will likely cost the studios dearly. It seems they have two options: throw a shitload of cash at him and hope he comes back, or cast a knock-off Tony Stark for the sequels. Nobody wants that second thing.

According to IMDB, Downey Jr.’s next project is The Judge, a drama about a successful lawyer who gets involved in some John Grisham-style intrigue when he returns to his home town. It stars Vera Farmiga, who is great in pretty much everything she does, so that’s a promising sign.

But after that, who knows? Downey, Jr. might reap untold millions in a return to Iron Man, or retire to a lake somewhere to paint watercolours and tasteful nudes. At this point in his career, though, he’s certainly one of Hollywood’s great survival stories.

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NOTE: Robert Downey, Jr. has been in a lot of stuff over the years. If you’re a fan of Only You or Zodiac or whatever Danger Zone is and you’re pissed that I left those ones out, please feel free to address this in the comments.

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Alasdair Duncan is an author, freelance writer and video game-lover who has had work published in Crikey, The Drum, The Brag, Beat, Rip It Up, The Music Network, Rave Magazine, AXN Cult and Star Observer.