Robert Downey Jr. in December 1992, just before the release of the movie… (Los Angeles Times )
A truly calm Robert Downey Jr. is a rare and spooky sight to behold, but on a recent Venice Beach morning, there he was with a faraway expression and a cup of warm tea waiting by his folded hands. "So," he said with deadpan eyes, "you want to talk about the past."
The past is a tricky subject for Downey — he is reluctant to glorify his fire-breathing days (especially the stops in prison, rehab and Hollywood's career penalty box), but they are a huge part of his mojo at this point, and they add the decadent wink to his most resonant sort of role: the wickedly smart guy who dances on life's ledges.
On Friday, Downey will receive the 25th American Cinematheque Award, which honors the 46-year-old for a lifetime's contribution to cinema. The prize will be presented at a Beverly Hills gala crowded with famous friends and Hollywood executives. That sort of fete was unthinkable a decade ago when he was dealing with handcuffs, tabloid reports and unreturned phone calls.
Now, though, the guy whose body of work once seemed to be surrounded in chalk outline has become a true franchise player for Disney's Marvel Studios ("The Avengers" next summer and "Iron Man 3" in 2013) and Warner Bros. ("Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" in December).
"There are these moments where everything goes right, and it's that magic that you talk about," Downey said. "The main thing is maintaining some sort of dignity and interest between those moments. But those are the moments that keep me coming back. Are they predictable? Somewhat. But are they consistent? There are so many factors."
Downey grew up in front of a camera. At age 5 he played a character called Puppy in a trippy film called "Pound" that was directed by his filmmaking father and required the youngster to deliver a line about pubic hair (yes, you can find it on YouTube). By the early 1980s he was on Hollywood's radar — barely — but showing flashes of the audacity and charisma that would be a hallmark.
The magic has been more consistent in recent years as the cleareyed Downey has traded his chemical romance for martial arts and a marriage of true collaboration with producer Susan Downey, who shares the Venice offices with her husband and the employees of their busy production company, Team Downey. It was there that Downey took this walk down celluloid memory lane, sitting down with a reporter and a stack of Blu-rays and DVDs of his films and, at certain points, literally laughed until he cried as he skipped through chapters of his on-screen life.
"Weird Science" and "Tuff Turf" (1985): Writer-director John Hughes made films that were a rite of passage for audiences and young Hollywood talent. "I had been in California for three months working on a movie called 'Tuff Turf' with Jimmy Spader and I got an audition. At that time, walking into a production office on the Universal lot and seeing Anthony Michael Hall was like bumping into Spencer Tracy at the commissary in the 1940s. He takes an interest in me and that led to 'Saturday Night Live' with him vouching for me and it led to 'Johnny Be Good.' It was big for me. My memories of it are being in Skokie, Ill., in a huge mall and dressed in cutting-edge Melrose, Maxfield fashion. Any weird stuff we did while partying the night before would be the thing that John Hughes would say, 'That thing you did that didn't make any sense? Do that.'"
"Less Than Zero" (1987) The disaffected youth of affluent Los Angeles get high and get low. Downey plays Julian, who is in deep to a drug dealer played by Spader. "In some ways it was the most honest work I've ever done even though I was nowhere near the level of depravity of these characters. The director, Marek Kanievska, ran screaming from Hollywood after the movie came out. We were making a midlevel, sensationalist, timely Bret Easton Ellis interpretation for Fox, but you would have thought he and I were on a Stanislavsky journey together. I had done some comedies, but I didn't know if I knew what I was doing or not until this one movie and one scene in it: There's a scene on the tennis court where Julian goes to his father [to ask for help] and the theme, for me, was 'Will a father and son ever connect before one of them dies?' We did it twice, I wasn't thinking about the movie or the crew. I was just thinking about that idea, and it came through. And I didn't forget the words I was supposed to say."