The life and career of Robert Downey Jr. is more of a roller coaster than any movie he’s ever made. His well-documented legal and addiction troubles nearly derailed an acting career that was skyrocketing complete with an Oscar nomination, a season on SNL and being the lead alongside superstars like Mel Gibson all by the time he was 27. His decent into a life of addiction and prison time almost became more well known than any movie he had ever made. There are four movies that are the most pivotal movies in his life and career all for very different reasons. I’m going to break them down in chronological order and why they are so important in the life and career of Robert Downey Jr.
Before I lay out the list, there are a few films I should mention first that were also important films for Downey but not as game changing. The film Air America was one of the first where he was truly a marquee star. It was a buddy comedy with Mel Gibson who was hitting his peak of fame. The second film was Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas. This movie was one of the first where everyone thought he was really starting to turn the corner. His performance was highly praised, but he was still a few years away from sobriety and the fact that he wasn’t sober overshadowed his performance. Third and fourth came back to back with Tropic Thunder which earned him his second Academy Award nomination and he was the all the talk of the awards that night despite the fact that he didn’t come home with a statue. He was now famously 5 years sober and clearly at the top of his acting talents and showing how truly great he really was. The fourth was Sherlock Holmes which earned him the golden globe and provided the opportunity for his peers to celebrate him and his new life and serious commitment to his career. It was an emotional yet very deserved moment.
1. Less Than Zero (1987)
Less Than Zero was the first time he was billed with Jr. attached to his name and the beginning of some of the legendary party stories for RDJ. He has been quoted as saying this was the first time his drug and alcohol use spilled over into the production and not just during his downtime. Director Marek Kanievska told him and his costar Andrew McCarthy (who battled his own addiction problems) to go out and party to get into character. This direction probably wasn’t the reason his abuses took such a foothold but more than likely they sped things up. The film was panned by critics and even the author of the source material book of the same name. It has since gained more appreciation in the 30 years since its release, but its foreshadowing can’t be ignored.
2. Chaplin (1992)
RDJ blew the doors off his portrayal of the legendary screen icon and gave Downey his first Oscar nomination, and it was well earned. Despite all his faults, he was able to completely transform himself. It would also turn out to be one of the last films for a long time that wouldn’t be plagued by his own demons. Most critics and fans looked at Chaplin as the movie that showed what RDJ could have been.
3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
2003 is the year Downey got sober and finally stayed sober for which he credits his current wife and her support for him. Downey came to realize he couldn’t go anywhere other than prison or the grave and he has famously said that he is allergic to drugs and alcohol, he always breaks out into handcuffs. It would still be 2 years before he would make an impact and headline a major motion picture and prove to people he was more committed to his career than to ruining it. The buddy picture that was written and directed by the writer of the massive hit Lethal Weapon had RDJ star alongside Val Kilmer and proved to be a highly underrated movie and showed Downey’s comedic brilliance.
4. Iron Man (2008)
The superhero resurgence and current domination can be traced to one film, Iron Man. The juggernaut of Marvel Comics becoming kings of the box office is where it is because RDJ WAS Tony Stark. Every embodiment of that character is deep inside him, and he OWNED it. He had been sober for 5 years and was still busting his butt to prove to be people his commitment to acting. He became the biggest star in the world with this movie and solidified himself as 100 percent back in the game. It is wonderful to know that there is a whole generation of movie fans that will only know him at this point in his career. It is forever in his film contracts that he has to provide insurance for the films in the case he was ever to relapse, and his salary is held until the film is complete. He will always have to fight his demons and in a sense will always be paying for his past but thankfully all movie fans he convinced us all that he is back.