Robert Downey Sr. was unlike another other filmmaker. Considering who you talk to, he was either one of the worst or one of the most provocative. To paraphrase Calivin Coolidge, the business of filmmaking is business. But Downey didn’t care about business. He thumbed his nose toward conventions and even was afraid too much success might hurt him.
Most people nowadays only now him as the father of Robert Downey Jr. And the fact that RDJ, as he is sometimes called, went on to become one of the biggest movie stars of all time working for Disney, of all companies as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, seems to counter everything the elder Downey was about. RDJ made $15 million for a supporting role in Spider-Man: Homecoming. He made much more overall through the 11 years and 10 movies (if you include his end credits cameo in The Incredible Hulk).
That’s not bad for an actor whose first movie Pound has him playing a puppy asking anotheractor pretended to be a dog if he had any hair on his balls. The relationship between father and son is one that only exists because Downey was such asn unconventional parent. Some would consider it abuse and neglect in today’s terms. As an experimental filmmaker, RDJ grew up around his parents. His mother, Elise, was also an actress. This is what makes scenes of Sr. so strange as we see the elder Downey, his body frail and slowed by Parkinson’s Disease, walking around a Long Island estate with his grandchildren. I was reminded of how awkward it seemed watching the documentary Inside Deep Throat in which all the senior citizens who made the landmark X-rated movie seemed more suited around a bridge card table than talking about the movie.
But this isn’t the same documentary with the talking heads and people giving soundbites of admiration. Actor Alan Arkin and TV producer/writer Norman Lear appear sporadically, but their usage is very restricted. Downey passed away on July 7, 2021 at 85. This documentary was released on Netflix last fall. Downey probably knew his days were coming to an end and decided along with filmmaker Chris Smith and RDJ to reflect on his life and films.
The documentary can’t side-step RDJ’s long history of substance abuse beginning in the mid-1980s and then almost ruining his life in the 1990s and early 2000s. Downey let his son smoke cannabis when he was still in elementary school. But RDJ says his crib was often in editing rooms as he was exposed to cigarette and cannabis smoke as well as the odor of booze. RDJ says his father spent two years editing a movie but he knew what was happening as Downey was doing drugs with his colleagues. This lifestyle, you can tell, weighed on Downey as he got older. He recalls talking his son to see arthouse movies and other flicks that were restricted to anyone under 18. Yet, Downey never thought any different about it, even getting into arguments with theater owners.
One of Downey’s first movies, Chafed Elbows, is about a young man who marries his own mother. One of his most popular movies, Putney Swope, is a satire of Madison Avenue. The movie is notable for scenes shot in black and white while fake commercials are filmed in color. One of the most memorable ads is for “Face Off” a facial skin cream that is supposed to treat acne which has the young couple (a white woman and black man) singing a goofy song.
Mainstream work would come calling with the atrociously bad Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy. In archived footage, Downey discusses how bad it is and all the problems he had with Warner Brothers. The attempt was to cash in on National Lampoon’s Animal House. However, William M. Gaines, publisher of Mad, was so upset he spent $30,000 to remove all references for TV and cable viewings. Rob Leibman who had a major role in the movie went uncredited because he hated it.
And Downey himself really didn’t care about the intimidations of the studio that said he needed to play ball or else. He spent the rest of the 1980s appearing in TV and movies periodically, including the 1985 gritty crime thriller To Live and Die in L.A. and directing a few episodes of The Twilight Zone revival in the mid-1980s. But his behavior only seemed to bring him a new legion of fans, including filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson who cast Downey in Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
RDJ says Anderson is the son that Downey never had. Anyone who has seen Anderson’s early works knows the influence. That is why makes Sr. different. It doesn’t feel like a documentary but more like a fly on the wall moment. There are scenes in which RDJ is asking his father questions that Downey doesn’t want to answer.
His 1997 movie, Hugo Pool, was not the best but he wrote the movie with his second wife, Laura, who died in 1994 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In Hugo Pool, Patrick Dempsey plays a character afflicted with ALS. RDJ talks with Downey how he made the movie to cope with the loss of Laura, the same way Charles Chaplin made The Kid to deal with the death of his firstborn infant son. But anyone who’s seen the biopic, Chaplin, with RDJ in the titular can speculate it was more about Chaplin’s own childhood.
Scenes in Sr. go on longer than they would’ve in other documentaries. Smith, who made the documentary, Fyre, about the 2017 festival fiasco, and the documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, is more concerned with showing what other documentary filmmakers would easily cut because they don’t fit the formula. A lot of people may not like the documentary but it might just encourage people to seek out the movies Downey made.
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