April 22, 2008

"THIS BEING AMERICA":

Been Up, Been Down. Now? Super (DAVID CARR, 4/20/08, NY Times Magazine)

Later this summer he will show up as Kirk Lazarus in “Tropic Thunder,” a comedy that throws multiple grenades at war movie clichés. Mr. Downey’s character is an extremely mannered Australian Method actor who undergoes a pigment change to play a soulful black soldier. There is rich historical resonance in the turn. In his writer-director father’s signature film, “Putney Swope,” the senior Mr. Downey substituted his own voice for that of Arnold Johnson, his black lead. (In “Tropic Thunder,” however, the racial co-option is mocked mightily by the character played by Brandon T. Jackson, a member of the platoon who is black.) And he has just finished filming “The Soloist,” about a homeless schizophrenic who nurses hopes of performing at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

So, superhero, arch comic in blackface and sympathetic nutball. Not inconsistent with a career that has included “Chaplin,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Less Than Zero” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” among some 50 other films.

Then again, he was extraordinary in other ways, once showing up to meet the director Mike Figgis two hours late, barefoot, with a loaded shotgun he could not quite explain. It was a while in coming, but in 1996 police officers who stopped Mr. Downey noticed he was packing an unloaded .357 Magnum, along with small amounts of heroin and cocaine. Just a month after that he was cited for trespassing and being under the influence of a controlled substance after passing out in a neighbor’s (empty at the time) home.

There were rehabs that did not work, followed by jails that did not impress, ending in hard time, twice, including a one-year stint in a state lockup where he had to fight to find a place to stand.

A winking nod to that tumultuous history is baked into the banter in “Iron Man.” The movie opens with Mr. Downey’s mitt wrapped around a tumbler of whiskey, rumbling along in a Humvee, AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blasting on the soundtrack and Mr. Downey acting all lusty and incorrigible. And when Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, the dewy-eyed, ever-loyal assistant he sees with new eyes by the end of the film, learns about his alter ego, Mr. Downey’s Tony Stark goes deadpan.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “This is not the worst thing you’ve caught me doing.”

That running dialogue — between audience and actor, between Mr. Downey’s past and present — gives the film a symbolic power not usually found in comic book movies. In the interview he preferred to leave that history between the lines.

“It has struck me lately that I don’t have to talk about last century at all,” he said with a dismissive wave. But he does so, obliquely.

“I have a really interesting political point of view, and it’s not always something I say too loud at dinner tables here, but you can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal. You can’t. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone else, but it was very, very, very educational for me and has informed my proclivities and politics every since.”

(Suffice it to say he is not one of the Hollywood types who weeps over innocents trapped behind bars.)

His romance with mood-altering chemicals didn’t end after he got out of prison. By 2003 he was an uninsurable serial relapser famous for being pulled out of hotels or other people’s homes in an addled, disheveled state. As a movie star with a lot of pals, he lived a life beyond consequence until he finally wore out the endless mercies of the entertainment business. After he was fired from his spot on “Ally McBeal,” the bottom finally came, at a Burger King of all places.

On or around Independence Day in 2003, he stopped at a Burger King on the Pacific Coast Highway and threw all his drugs in the ocean. And while he was sitting there chewing on a burger, he decided he was done. This being America, five years later you can walk into that Burger King, and if you order a Kids Meal you can get your own Robert Downey Jr. action figure, wrapped up in gadget ware. (And what does Tony Stark want when he escapes his kidnappers? A good old American cheeseburger — from Burger King, natch.)

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2008 12:46 PM
Comments

. . . As a movie star with a lot of pals, he lived a life beyond consequence until he finally wore out the endless mercies of the entertainment business. After he was fired from his spot on “Ally McBeal,” the bottom finally came, at a Burger King of all places.

On or around Independence Day in 2003, he stopped at a Burger King on the Pacific Coast Highway and threw all his drugs in the ocean. . . .

Good for him!

Posted by: Mike Morley at April 22, 2008 4:37 PM

actually, very little of the Iron Man story was changed to create this parallel between Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr. The Arrogant gasbag in the humvee very closely represents the arrogant gasbag walking with soldiers in Vietnam to test his new weapon in his comics debut. (the character debuted in the early '60s after all) and the "Demon in a Bottle" storyline that appeared in Iron Man 122-128 in the late 70's (now available in trade paperback) showed alcoholism very nearly doing what supervillians couldn't, destroying Tony Stark/Iron Man. The storyline is widely praised as one of the best of the era for the way it rose above the normal stereotypes of comic book storylines. All in all, I find in incredibly ironic that a brilliantly talented actor nearly destroyed by alcohol is playing a brilliant inventor/ businessman nearly destroyed by alcohol.

Posted by: MarkD at April 22, 2008 9:18 PM
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