Letters to the stars – Dear Robert Downey Jr

Art & Culture

Dear Robert Downey Jr,

It’s been quite a career you’ve had, since your first screen appearance aged 5, 43 years ago. It’s been a rollercoaster, from budding stardom to oblivion, and then a phoenix-like rebirth as one of the biggest stars in the world. Surely you won’t blow it again.

Maybe it was too much too soon. Your father was a film director, which made your entry into movies a no-brainer, and at age 18 you were launched on a career as one of the 80s Bratpack, along with such forgotten names as Andrew McCarthy, Jamie Gertz and James Spader, in such barely-remembered films as Baby It’s You, Weird Science  and Back To School. But it was Less Than Zero in 1987 that gave you your first starring role, as well as a template for what was to happen soon. This is not the time and place to go into your chequered private life, but let’s just say that when you took on the role of drug-afflicted Julian back in 1987, the similarity between life and art was uncomfortably close.

Back then, you had a cute puppyish face, but it was easy enough to see that you were a real actor among all those pretty boys and girls who were here today and gone later that evening. You seemed destined for great things. And when you got over costarring with Mel Gibson, Keifer Sutherland and Winona Ryder, you got the part of a lifetime, as cinema’s most famous face (and clothes and walk). Chaplin is far from being a great film, but to impersonate such a legendary character so brilliantly meant that few people argued with an Oscar nomination and more predictions of a stellar acting career were hurled at you. A lot of pressure for a 27 year old.

But it didn’t happen. Although you cropped up in the occasional above average film like Ian McKellen’s Richard III,  and Natural Born Killers,  the 90s were pretty much a waste of time for you and your career. Even in Wonder Boys,  a film for which I have a soft spot, your role as the wild and unreliable book editor to writer-with-blockage Michael Douglas seemed to suggest someone who you wouldn’t build two hugely successful film franchises around – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

2005 saw a change of fortune. First there was a supporting role in George Clooney’s excellent Goodnight and Good Luck,  playing an ordinary decent guy. Then, in Shane Black’s wacky post modern Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,  we had a glimpse of your grown up potential, alongside Val Kilmer’s wonderfully OTT private detective. The combination of action and comedy seemed to suit you perfectly. Oh yes, and a special mention for Zodiac, David Fincher’s exceptional and undervalued film, in which you are excellent – in a supporting role.

Nevertheless, come 2008, what was there to make anyone suppose that a 43 year old with a long and troubled personal history, full of unrealised potential, was going to emerge as possibly the most successful film star of his day? Not a lot. Enter Iron Man, the first of many Avenger-related comic book adaptations, in which you star as Tony Stark, billionaire entrepreneur turned superhero, with a wise crack ready at the drop of a hat, and all the heavy metal you could want. And unlike Robocop, you get to see his (your) face. Let’s be clear, you’re smart enough to know that these (two more have followed) are not great movies, but it was as if some key had been turned in the lock, and Hollywood finally worked out how to use your talent – and make themselves rich at the same time. 

A year later, along comes Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes,  a hideous retread of Conan Doyle’s extraordinary stories, complete with Jude Law as Dr Watson. Once again, you get to be smarter and funnier than anyone else in the room, and audiences loved it. So much so, that there has been a second, and – if we’re not careful – there’ll probably be a third. Not content with these box office behemoths, you also stole the show in Avengers, which is, let it not be forgotten, a film that grossed 1.5 billion dollars, and is third on the all time box office list.

Your one recent attempt to make a non-franchise film, Due Date, was, it is true, a painful flop. Somehow you and Zach Galifianakis failed to capture whatever it was that made Planes, Trains and Autmobiles so popular. But who cares? You are a draw. You can go on making Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes films until you or your fans get bored. There doesn’t seem to be much else on the horizon. Which is a shame, because despite the big bucks movies that have made you rich and famous, you are a good actor, and could do better, should you choose to. No one could blame you for taking the money while it’s being thrown at you, but let’s hope that somewhere along the line, you find a role that challenges you; where a quip and a smirk won’t get you by, and we see the as yet still unfulfilled potential that lies dormant.

Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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