Downey Not Out!
In the age of celebrity, there are few stories as irresistible as the self-destruction of a creative artist. Whether it's Britney taking clippers to her hair, Whitney turning her multi-million dollar home into a crack den, or the bad joke that was Anna Nicole Smith's short life, the headlines are as lurid as the lawyers will allow, and we all feel that combination of pity and awe that is said to be the essence of tragedy.
Hollywood wisdom has it that audiences won't sit for unhappy endings, but in 'real life' we simply can't get enough of them. We're invested in the lives of celebrities in a way that fictional characters can't compete with: it's a cliché, but stars are modern royalty; our best and brightest. And on some unspoken level, maybe we resent them for it. We want to see them brought back down to earth, to pay the price for their good fortune. Ironically the more you pay, the bigger you become. Look at Marilyn, or Jimmy, or Judy: killing yourself is the shortest cut to immortality.
As we know, bad news sells, and good news scarcely qualifies as news at all. But let's take time out for a moment to celebrate the minor triumph of Robert Downey Jr, clean and sober these past five years, working steadily to disprove the hastily written career obituaries that marked his umpteenth parole violation.
Downey had been in and out of rehab ever since he was 23 - he says he was eight years old when his father (an underground filmmaker) offered him his first joint. Whatever his problems, he didn't let them interfere with work - he made more than 20 features in his twenties, including The Pick-Up Artist, Less than Zero, Soapdish, Natural Born Killers and the title role in Chaplin (which earned him an Oscar nomination) - but in this thirties his cocaine habit got the better of him. In 1996 he was arrested for drunk driving and being in possession of heroin, cocaine and a .357 Magnum. Subsequent incidents over the next five years included the embarrassing occasion when he stumbled into the bed of his neighbour's child, apparently mistaking it for his own.
'It was like I had a gun in my mouth and I liked the taste of metal,' he's said of those days.
What made this worse was that he was supposed to have learned his lesson. In fact he was in full comeback mode, winning plaudits for his supporting role in the hit TV series Ally McBeal. When the show had to can him, there was a question mark about whether any producer would consider him worth the risk again.
If the job offers weren't exactly flooding in, Downey still had some friends. One of them, Mr Melvin Gibson Esq, owned a movie studio, and cast his Air America buddy in the title role The Singing Detective. (It was directed by another of Downey's old co-stars, Keith Gordon, who acted with him in Back to School.)
I interviewed him on the set and he was a volatile mixture of defiance and vulnerability. 'I've paid my dues ten-fold,' he said. 'There have been times - a lot of years - when I've been showing up and kicking ass. I don't have much survivor's guilt, I'll tell you that.' But at the same time he was genuinely moved by Gibson's trust in him: 'It was less than an ideal time to be saying "Let's put Downey at the front of the list and ride a bunch of dough on the guy". It's been a while, actually…[since that happened]. Mel's faith in me has really meant a lot.'
None of these movies broke any box office records, but they speak to how highly Downey is rated by his peers. He's often been called the best actor his generation, an accolade which speaks volumes when you realise that group includes Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn, much bigger stars who have regularly worked with the best in the business.
Downey, on the other hand, has often been stuck in material beneath his talents. He's done a lot of middling light comedy (he's very good at it) but his best roles - in Less than Zero, in One Night Stand, Two Girls And A Guy and Wonder Boys - have not been widely seen.
In the last 12 months he's given two more remarkable performances, but in the otherwise turgid Fur he's covered head-to-toe in thick body hair, and as a paranoid druggie in A Scanner Darkly he's been Rotoscoped out the best supporting actor nomination that by rights should have been his.
Still, things may be turning his way. Zodiac - directed by David Fincher - is out imminently, and will obviously be on every film fan's must-see list. He has a supporting role in a second collaboration with Wonder Boys director Curtis Hanson, Lucky You; and for the first time he's also turned producer for this week's excellent A Guide to Recognising Your Saints.
He even has his own superhero movie in the offing, an adaptation of Marvel's Iron Man which is shaping up very nicely: Jon (Elf) Favreau is directing, and Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard have all been cast in supporting roles. In short, Downey has every reason to be looking forward. No wonder, when he recorded an album a couple of years back, he called it 'The Futurist'.
Here's to one celebrity story with a happy ending!
Titles related to this article