Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #18 - Robert Downey Jr.

Iron Man 3
The Avengers
Sherlock Holmes
Tropic Thunder
Iron Man
Heart and Souls
Chances Are
Less Than Zero

Robert Downey Jr. is arguably the biggest movie star in the world right now. If you calculate a star's power by how much money they can demand and receive, then there is no question that he is at the top of his game. I have a soft spot in my heart for him after watching him nearly lose everything through addiction and then struggling to get everything back through hard work. His personal life is almost worth of a movie.

But even without the box office draw, Downey Jr. is one of the finest actors working. Watch him in any movie that he is in and you can see the work going on behind his eyes. He is completely present in each moment in a way that most actors are not. He has fun with his audience without winking at the camera. But you can't feel like he is letting just you in on the joke.

First, let's start with the obvious: Iron Man. I have maintained several times on this blog that there would be no cinematic Marvel Universe if anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark. He had to make Tony an unapologetic scoundrel and yet we had to care enough about him to follow his journey. Downey Jr. emanates charisma and he let that happen with Tony in a way that did not ring false. He tries so hard to never let that smirking veneer down. And yet his performance is not of simple ironic detachment. There is a beating heart underneath it. In his last moment with Yinsen, Downey Jr. delivers his line with utter vulnerability and simplicity: “You saved me.”

You can find this charming performance in many of his films including the very much underrated Chances Are, which also shows off his comedic side. His has a sense of timing and a deadpan delivery that makes the jokes fly off of the screen. Even when he took a horrible risk in playing an actor pretending to be a black man in Tropic Thunder, he played it with the intensity of the most passionate human drama that he became the only truly funny thing in that movie.

But when I think of movies where his talent truly shines I actually think back to earlier in his career. It is true that his performances are more mature and seasoned. But as a younger man, he was still bristling with talent. Heartwarmers like Chances Are and Heart and Souls showcased his ability to pull heartstrings. But he was capable of so much more.

Watching Less Than Zero is heartbreaking mainly because it is hard to distinguish the actor from his part. As a young man who is spiraling out of control and yet still reaches out to his friends for comfort and help, Downey Jr. makes you yearn to reach your hand out as well. You can see the toll that the drugs and his empty pursuits have on him. You are disappointed, but never fully repelled by him, making his descent all the more tragic.

But his greatest performance to my mind was his leading role in Chaplin. I remember when I heard about him being cast in the part, I did not think he was up to it. Those are (literally) some big shoes to fill. Downey Jr. would not only have to inhabit a believable character, but he would have to convincingly match the physical genius of the iconic actor. And I was blown away by the result.

Watching Chaplain was a revelation to me, not just of Downey Jr. as an actor, but of the art of acting itself. Perhaps I am being overly effusive in my praise, considering that the movie itself is a bit on the long side, bordering on tedious. But Downey Jr.'s Chaplain is egotistical, kind, infuriating, perverted, profound, sympathetic, cold, and warm alternately and at the same time. Watching his incredible portrayal of Chaplain showed me the difference playing a character and doing an impression. It is much easier to pick up on the superficial traits to do a good impression. Watch some of the talented impressionists they've had on SNL over the years to learn more. But Downey Jr.'s body language and action are not mere pantomimes. He brings them forth from the depths of his character so that they have an emotional impact. When he is playing the jester with his food at a fancy dinner party, it is his way of showing his utter disdain for those around him. When he does a pratfall in full costume, you can see the concentration of a dedicated perfectionist. And all the while you come to feel as though you've experienced not Robert Downey Jr., but Charlie Chaplain himself.

While enjoying his current career Renaissance, Robert Downey Jr. has his pick of projects. And I can't wait to see what he does next.

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