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Sunday 4 December 2016

life's ups and downeys

Published 01/05/2010 | 05:00

This week Robert Downey Jr will don that impressive flying metal suit to head up the summer's first big blockbuster, Iron Man 2. A sequel to the highly successful 2008 superhero movie, Iron Man, the film will continue the adventures of Tony Stark, the billionaire inventor who decides to become a crime-fighter after witnessing first-hand the horrific destruction his company's armaments can inflict.

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In Iron Man 2 he'll be rejoined by his glamorous assistant and budding love interest Virginia 'Pepper' Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and will face a pair of deadly Russian enemies in Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The first film made almost $600m (€448m) around the world, and it's expected that Iron Man 2 may do even better, thus firmly establishing Mr Downey as an A-list action star.

Five or six years back, this scenario would have seemed extremely unlikely, as Downey -- who is arguably the most talented screen actor of his generation -- had shot himself in the foot so many times that his film career looked all but over. But the man is nothing if not a trier, and the last couple of years have been perhaps the most successful of his whole working life.

Since confounding his many critics by becoming the unlikely star of Iron Man, he's earned an Academy Award nomination for his hilarious role as a blacked-up actor in Ben Stiller's 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, and headed up another action franchise by playing the lead in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, a big international hit last Christmas. He's agreed to make at least one more Holmes film, and there'll also be an Iron Man 3, and in the meantime he'll be starring alongside Jamie Foxx later this year in Due Date, Todd Phillips's follow-up to his hugely successful 2008 comedy, The Hangover.

In short, at 45, Downey is on top of the world, but in spite of a number of golden opportunities early on, he's taken his own sweet time getting there.

Downey's childhood was so immersed in things theatrical that it would have been a surprise if he hadn't become an actor. Both his parents were actors, and his father, Robert Downey Sr, is a respected underground filmmaker whose movies are often cited as influential.

Born in New York on April 4, 1965, and initially raised in and around Greenwich Village, Robert Jr was appearing in his father's films by the time he was five, though the often surreal plotlines must have confused him -- he was once asked to play a sick puppy.

The precocious boy then moved to London for a time, where he studied ballet, and when his parents divorced in 1978, he decamped to Hollywood with his father.

Tinseltown would later become his spiritual home, but the teenage Downey didn't fancy the place at all and moved back to New York in 1982 to pursue a serious acting career.

Instead, after several years living off "pizza and cranberry sauce" and getting involved in so-called 'living art' performances in SoHo, Downey joined the cast of the weekly TV comedy institution, Saturday Night Live (SNL) in 1985.

That, too, proved a misstep, and the 20-year-old would be fired from the show within the year, but SNL helped get him noticed by the likes of film-maker John Hughes, who cast him as a bully in his 1985 teen hit, Weird Science. Though never a bona fide member of Hughes' so-called Brat Pack, Downey did star opposite Molly Ringwald in The Pick-Up Artist in 1987, though the film was considered something of a flop.

His first real breakthrough came later that same year in the film adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis' novel Less Than Zero. His performance as a drug-addicted rich kid whose life spirals out of control was widely praised, but what the critics didn't know was that Downey had plenty of real experience to base it on.

Having been introduced to various narcotics at a young age, Downey's drug use would cause him severe problems later on. Meantime, as he entered the 1990s, his career was on the rise, and in 1992 he beat off stiff opposition to land the lead role in Richard Attenborough's lavish biopic, Chaplin.

Downey Jr's performance as the legendary comic and film-maker was a revelation, and earned him a Best Actor nomination at the 65th Academy Awards: he would have won, too, if Al Pacino hadn't swung the sentimental vote with his rather fruity portrayal of a blind soldier in Scent of a Woman.

All the same, Robert Downey's commanding turn in Chaplin made him a hot property overnight, and Hollywood was at his feet. At least in theory it was, but as the 1990s wore on, a combination of bad film choices and an increasingly chaotic lifestyle saw his career drift inexorably towards the rocks.

He had a nice turn as a mild-mannered sadist in Robert Altman's 1993 ensemble drama Short Cuts, and was memorable in another small role as an outrageous Australian TV host in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers a year later. But he failed to find a role of the stature of Chaplin, and in 1996 he began what would become a desperate five-year battle with drug addiction.

In April of that year, Downey was apprehended by the LAPD speeding down Sunset Boulevard in possession of cocaine, heroin and a .357 Magnum pistol. A month later, while on parole, he wandered into a neighbour's house while under the influence and fell asleep in a bed he thought was his own.

This time he got three years' probation, and after repeatedly missing drug tests he ended up spending almost a year in jail in 1999. In 2000, after being released from a treatment facility on bail, Robert Downey was given a golden opportunity to resurrect his badly damaged career when he was offered a big role in the hit TV show Ally McBeal.

As Larry Paul, Calista Flockhart's love interest, Downey wowed the critics with both his acting and singing, but just as things were taking off again, Downey got fired from the show after being found wandering barefoot through Culver City while high on cocaine.

Surely, critics thought, this was it -- he had finally succeeded in permanently sabotaging his acting career. His rehabilitation over the past seven years or so has been gradual but miraculous. He's been helped at times by friends like Mel Gibson, who paid Downey's sky-high insurance bond so he could star in the 2003 film The Singing Detective.

But Downey has done most of the work himself, staying clean and taking character parts in films like George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck (2005) and David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) that painstakingly established a reputation for dependable excellence. All of this ultimately led to the unthinkable -- a studio backing him to star in a big budget action picture, Iron Man.

This time around, Downey was ready to grasp his opportunity, and he hasn't looked back since.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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