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Robert Downey, Jr.’s Top 10 Performances

on October 06, 2014, 12:00am
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Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress. 

Robert Downey, Jr. is one of those rare marquee movie stars with a character actor’s range. Leading man looks? Check. Earned box office clout? Check. But if there’s one thing that Downey can be counted on above all else, it’s the element of surprise.

Looking back, Downey’s career reads like a Richter scale: rising in the 1980s as a Brat Packer (Weird Science, Less Than Zero); falling in the 1990s with a string of flops; flat-lining for a couple of years; and then, against seemingly insurmountable odds, soaring to the A-list. Much of his best work throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, including his Oscar-nominated turn in Chaplin, bore the sting of commercial failure, while his biggest financial hit in the span of those decades was the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School.

Downey was arrested on numerous drug-related charges between 1996 and 2001, spent nearly a year in prison, and got clean in 2003. His reemergence in the mid-aughts as a talent, down but not out, sober and arguably better than ever, was nothing short of inspirational: a Ro-Downey-ssance, if you will. And although suiting up as Iron Man may have registered as Downey’s most visible “comeback” moment, he had already been laying the groundwork with powerhouse performances in a run of smaller, superb films — 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Good Night and Good Luck, 2006’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and 2007’s Zodiac — that sure don’t feel like foreplay.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, with Downey reprising his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Iron Man Tony Stark , opens tonight. Whether the film will be a personal hit or miss for one of Hollywood’s most triumphant underdogs remains to be seen, but until then, Roy Ivy and I are here to tide you over with a list of some of Downey’s finest performances to date.

Did we sleep on your favorite? Let us know in the comments section. While we may disagree on which roles belong in the Top 10, or in what order, we can assure you, with all of our film-nerdy hearts, that RDJ has never failed to charm the pants off of us.

— Leah Pickett
Staff Writer

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10. Tommy Larson

Home for the Holidays (1995)

home for the holidays ver1 Robert Downey, Jr.s Top 10 Performances

“It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal,” Downey told a courtroom judge in 1999, at the height, or should I say nadir, of his drug addiction. While playing weirdo brother Tommy Larson in the Jodie Foster-directed drama Home for the Holidays, Downey was purportedly high on set — as high as he most likely was for many of his mid-to-late ‘90s performances. But to not include Tommy Larson on a list of Downey’s best roles would be a grave oversight, as Tommy is by far the most interesting person in this film. Perhaps it’s because the character touches so close to the place Downey appeared to be in at the time — the erratic behavior, the loopy observations and pointed jabs, the hurt only scarcely discernible behind the twinkling eyes — and the line Downey gave to the judge, the first time I heard it, struck me as exactly something Tommy would say. Whatever his personal business, Downey locked it down to play this complicated, multi-dimensional character, while also breathing in some of his own neuroses. And the result is, in a word, remarkable. –Leah Pickett

Choice Downey Moment:

Every second he is on screen, but especially his introduction: “Spin, Mommy!”

–Leah Pickett

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09. Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

sherlock holmes a game of shadows 20111 Robert Downey, Jr.s Top 10 Performances

The reason that Game of Shadows is a better film than its predecessor, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, comes down to one pivotal point: Downey’s performance, particularly with regards to his repartee with the other actors. Sure, he was great in the first installment, with his quick-witted, cavalier reboot of the iconic detective pairing nicely with Jude Law’s more nebbish Dr. Watson. However, his face-off with Jared Harris’ Professor Moriarty in the sequel really upped the ante, giving Downey the chance to show off his dramatic as well as comedic chops. Game of Shadows‘ Sherlock is a bit darker, certainly more disturbed by this film’s choice of adversary, and maybe not so cocksure after all. In short, he’s more interesting the second time around, and when the plot thickens, a lot more inventive, too.

Choice Downey Moment:

Sherlock Holmes: Conclusion: inevitable. Unless…

[Holmes blows ashes from his pipe into Moriarty’s face, grabs him, and topples them both over the balcony, down the falls]

–Leah Pickett

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08. Thomas Reilly

Heart and Souls (1993)

heart and souls Robert Downey, Jr.s Top 10 Performances

In this deliberately sugary and oft-forgotten comedy, Downey plays the charming Thomas Reilly. But he also gets to play Charles Grodin, Kyra Sedgwick, Alfre Woodard, and the charmless Tom Sizemore (who I blame for the drugs). Oh, and he dances, sings, and literally goes out on the ledge in a scene that suggests he wanted to play Harold Lloyd instead of Chaplin. Fresh off that biopic win and still holding a raging hard-on for physical comedy, Downey goes all out as a guy shadowed by the souls of four dead people since infancy. Why they’re stuck to him, we dunno, but like most movie ghosts, they all have to resolve something before they can take the big bus to heaven. Plus, they can leap into his body to accomplish those goals, and that’s where Downey shines in a performance akin to Steve Martin in All of Me. One minute he’s Downey, the next he’s a sassy Woodard, a swishy Sedgwick, a guido-letch Tom Sizemore, or a Grodiny Grodin. And while possessed by Grodin, Downey delivers a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that shows off his unsung pipes.

Choice Downey Moment:

The boardroom scene, when the souls first take over Downey’s body and sabotage his business meeting, illuminates Downey’s dexterity, as he flails across tables trying to rid his body of Sizemore and Sedgwick, unveils his feminine side, and comes onto his boss. Plus the farewell scene between Downey and Sedgwick. It’s heavy on the strings, but played with such unadulterated sincerity that it might tug at your ducts if your guard is down.

–Roy Ivy

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07. Terry Crabtree

Wonder Boys (2000)

wonder boys Robert Downey, Jr.s Top 10 Performances

Wonder Boys is an underrated film, and Terry Crabtree is an underrated Downey performance. Think about it: anyone could have played this role — a side character, the gregarious editor to novelist professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), who exists mainly to link Tripp to a student (Tobey Maguire) with whom Terry is infatuated — and that actor probably would have come across as too bawdy, unlikable, or worst of all, forgettable. Luckily, we have Downey to give the part some nuance, and as per usual, he does not disappoint. Rather than turning Terry into another stereotype, the “predatory gay,” Downey infuses him with such a vibrant personality and sharp-as-a-tack wit that even when engaging in behaviors that are decidedly untoward, it’s hard not to like the guy, or at the very least be impressed by him. Terry knows what he wants and goes for it, and Downey’s approach is the same way, effortlessly energizing the scenes in which he appears and generously elevating the actors who play across from him.

Choice Downey Moment:

Terry: [Looking at James Leer’s book] The Love Parade … I’ve got a feeling about this, Tripp. I feel this kid in my bones.

Grady Tripp: Only in your bones?

Terry: [Bedroom eyes]

–Leah Pickett

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06. Paul Avery

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (2007)

He enters so calmly, chewing — but not chomping — his gum, just curious to meet the new kid at the cartoonist desk. He’s got swagger, but he’s not a dick. We never see a word he’s written, but we can tell he writes a helluva story. And in the role of slightly pious reporter Paul Avery, it doesn’t seem like a stretch for Downey to play a hard-drinking, ever-smoking wiseass reporter. He’s comfortable in his rockin’ ascot, and we’re comfortable with Paul, too.  But when he starts descending into the shared obsession of that cartoonist-turned-codebreaker, we get really uncomfortable along with him. And when the Zodiac targets Paul, we’re in the same paranoid boat. Throughout the film, Downey just degrades before our eyes. We see a sharp stick get stuck in the quicksand of the case he couldn’t crack. A man trying to drug his way out of terror (the guy’s got coked-out paranoid down pat). A guy who just can’t drink himself to sleep anymore.

Choice Downey Moment:

Paul: [Slouching, graying, and broken beyond repair in the dusk of his houseboat] “Do you know more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed? He offed a few citizens, wrote a few letters, then faded into footnote … Not that I haven’t been sitting here idly, waiting for you to drop by and reinvigorate my sense of purpose.”

Plus, the part where he testily tastes Gyllenhaal’s girly Aqua Velva drink/quick-cut to a table now full of empty Aqua Velva glasses.

–Roy Ivy

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05.Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin (1992)

 Robert Downey, Jr.s Top 10 Performances

Before The Artist nabbed Best Picture and Best Actor for Jean Dujardin at the 2011 Academy Awards, Chaplin was one of the first and only films to effectively channel the silent era in “talkie” times, and Downey’s revelatory performance was its anchor. In theory, fleshing out one of the world’s greatest movie stars and forefathers of physical comedy is a massive undertaking, but Downey makes it look easy, even though this role is radically dissimilar to any other he has played before or since. Downey nails the English accent and the physicality of Chaplin, but even better than that, he captures the man behind the legend, giving humanity to a brilliant artist whom audiences had hitherto known only as “The Tramp” or through other famous caricatures. He also plays Chaplin from youth to old age — no easy feat — with consistency and believability throughout. Critics were divided on the film itself, but Downey’s performance garnered near universal acclaim, and rightly so. Too bad that his Best Actor nod for Chaplin, which lost to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, remains his sole Oscar nomination to date.

Choice Downey Moment:

All of the acrobatic pratfalls, particularly the routine he does for Mack Sennett. RDJ did all of the stunts himself.

–Leah Pickett

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04. Julian

Less Than Zero (1987)

less than zero Robert Downey, Jr.s Top 10 Performances

When Downey went off the rails during his rail-snorting, passing-out-in-the-neighbors’-kid’s-bed bottom-out, it came as a surprise to nobody who’d seen his mesmerizing, fucking heartbreaking turn as Julian Wells in Less Than Zero. It’s like watching an alternative universe play out: the one where he doesn’t get clean and sober. And it’s devastating. He doesn’t just play an addict, he plays addiction incarnate, as a charming rich kid who loses everything as his out-of-control cocaine habit drags him to hell. We become Clay and Blaire, the only people still willing to care about this sweaty, paranoid lost cause. And when it seems that Julian might make it out of his hole of debts and addiction, we get pumped up with hope that we’ll see his sunken eyes shine again. But we have to settle for the real Downey — the one who made it out alive.

Choice Downey Moment:
The scene where Julian tries to kick the habit. An anguishing sequence of barf, sweat, and convulsions: the pinnacle of withdrawal scenes. You just wanna wipe his mealy mouth and hug his broken baby face.

–Roy Ivy

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03. Kirk Lazarus

Tropic Thunder (2008)

tropic thunderAlthough he’s yet to do a nude scene, Tropic Thunder makes it safe to assume that Robert Downey, Jr. has a gigantic pair of balls. As Oscar-baiting Aussie actor Kirk Lazarus, he shoves Stanislavski zealots over a cliff in the greatest nut-punch to method acting ever captured on film. To portray a black Vietnam soldier, the alabaster act-tor dons more than blackface. He goes full-blown blackbody with a surgical skin dye and a fresh head of kinky hair, and he even adopts an absurd jive-turkey accent. This is truly dangerous stuff. Who gets away with blackface? Nobody (as they damn well shouldn’t) in all of history, except for Robert Downey, Jr., who gets off scot-free (and got an Oscar nomination to boot!) by turning this otherwise offensive-as-all-get-out caricature into a napalming of all of Hollywood. He walks a very thin tightrope in this, but keeps his balance thanks to those big ol’ balls.

Choice Downey Moment:

[Yup, that scene.]

“Ask Sean Penn. 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full [R-word], went home empty-handed.”

–Roy Ivy

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02. Iron Man

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

iron man avengersDowney had to audition for Tony Stark in Iron Man, but thank God the studio came to their senses and cast him. Can you imagine anyone else matching Downey’s acerbic wit, confidence, and charisma in the role, or carrying a brand-new film franchise when so many others (Ryan Reynolds as The Green Lantern, Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet, Ben Affleck as Daredevil, Will Smith as Hancock, the list goes on) have attempted similar feats and failed? Downey was not an A-lister before Iron Man, but he became one afterwards. And in The Avengers, which went on to become the top-grossing film of 2012, he cemented his star status with aplomb; even in an epic movie crowded with other superheroes, most of the best lines come from Tony Stark: “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” He’s an asshole sometimes, sure, but that Downey can make him a lovable asshole worth cheering for is perhaps the greatest coup of all. Also, allow me to be a girl for a second. RDJ has the sarcastic, slightly selfish antihero angle down pat — although, make no mistake, he always does the right thing in the end — but it’s his surprisingly marvelous (pun intended) chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow as right-hand woman Pepper Potts that makes Tony’s signature snark that much sweeter.

Choice Downey Moment:

Too difficult to choose just one, but here’s one from The Avengers that made me (almost) squirt my drink out of my nose:

Thor: “You have no idea what you’re dealing with.”

Iron Man: “Uh, Shakespeare in the Park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?”

— Leah Pickett


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01. Harry Lockhart

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Basic CMYK

It’s his second coming. The resurrection of a leading man. The triumph of the comeback kid. The role that made studios think, “Hey, this guy should play Iron Man … or even Sherlock Holmes.” As Harry Lockhart, a small-time crook masquerading as an actor masquerading as a private detective, the rejuvenated Downey delivers the most mirthful and magnetic performance of his career in this relentlessly giddy and endlessly quotable goof on film noir. It’s like Downey’s a Gatling gun, and writer/director Shane Black is the guy in back feeding it ceaseless new rounds of crackerjack dialogue. It’s a match made in a quip-heavy heaven (except in that heaven, Downey and Val Kilmer do a hundred more buddy detective movies together), plus there are hints of future Tony Stark in Downey’s deft, droll, breakneck delivery. It’s 100 percent fun from tip to tail, and Downey owns the show, even when he’s off-screen serving as the king of unreliable narrators. But as Harry puts it, “I don’t see another goddamn narrator, so pipe down.”

Choice Downey Moment:

The whole damn movie. Who can choose between Harry’s accidental movie audition … peeing on a corpse … Russian roulette … “there’s something rotten in Denver” … “overwhelming sadness while having a Rodney” … every minute of it.

–Roy Ivy

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