POSTED May 1 2013

What makes Robert Downey Jr. a distinctive actor?

Portrait of Iron Man as irony man

Portrait of Iron Man as irony man

Popular actors, like popular movies, simultaneously broadcast very clear mixed messages. Johnny Depp minces and swaggers at the same time. Leonardo DiCaprio radiates a cloud of doom pierced by a ray of hope that he will be redeemed by love. And Robert Downey Jr. — particularly in his franchise roles as Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes — is, to paraphrase a line from Iron Man 3  — a piping hot mass of contradictions.

As Iron Man and the brainiac of Baker Street, Downey boasts a man’s intellectual assurance and a boy’s emotional insecurity. He acts decisively, second-guessing himself with agigated, angsty commentary on the action. Downey is the multiplex’s most vivid example of the mind/body split: Neither his limbs nor the world can keep up with that racing mind.

Much as I enjoy him in Iron Man (and Iron Man 3 might just be the most entertaining of the bunch),  I wish he had material that would let him drill deeper dramatically (or comedically). Chaplin was on cable recently, and while it’s a mess structurally, Downey has such a singular ability to transform emotional darkness into physical lightness that his performance goes deep. Likewise his turns in Less than Zero, Zodiac and Tropic Thunder.

To you, what makes Downey such a distinctive actor? Your favorite performance?



  1. Quora says:

    What makes Robert Downey Jr. such a distinctive actor?…

    Is part of his appeal that he suggests his limbs and mouth can never keep pace with his racing mind?

  2. Gary says:

    He’s fearless. I love him in LESS THAN ZERO, but also WONDER BOYS. He’s fantastic in TWO GIRLS AND A GUY, too, but not my favorite film of his.

  3. I do like him in Less Than Zero. As for ingenuous, I also liked him in Back To School. Chaplin was kind of nauseating and really showed Downey’s limitations, i.e., he’s no Charlie Chaplin, is he?. The Iron Man films are enjoyable, but are they really worth your critical attention? In some ways their disposability provides the perfect venue for filing away (permanently, please) disposable Gwyneth Paltrow. I think Downey is often a distinctive actor, but he’s also an annoying, pompous, self-conscious and showy actor. His annoying qualities might make for good blog disquisition and discussion.

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  5. Marc says:

    This is awesome – super-interesting.

  6. Lou says:

    I like Robert Downey Jr.. Looking forward to seeing Iron Man 3.

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