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
10. Tommy Larson
Home for the Holidays (1995)
“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!”
09. Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
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]
08. Thomas Reilly
Heart and Souls (1993)
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.
07. Terry Crabtree
Wonder Boys (2000)
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]