Robert Downey Jr.: Irony Man

Who knew when Michael Douglas (center) played the shaggy academic in Wonder Boys that he was flanked by the future Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., left) and future Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire, right)?

Like his character Tony Stark in Iron Man and Iron Man 2 (read my review here), Robert Downey Jr. is a modern Phoenix risen from the ashes. Who could have guessed that the hound-eyed actor who served hard time for drug-related convictions in 2001 and was thus uninsurable would within a decade become Hollywood's most bankable actor? Today he stands astride two franchises, Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. No one could be happier than Flickgrrl, who thinks Downey is one of those actors, like Johnny Depp and Judy Davis and Jeffrey Wright, who commands the screen even when the movie around him is piffle. To formless mainstream movies, Downey brings edge and depth. Among contemporary actors, he's peerless in being able to suggest the lightness and darkness of his character's personalities, and has another kind of lightness -- as in weightlessness -- when it comes to delivering jazzy, improvisational commentaries on his character's inner thoughts that often contradict his external actions. Call him Irony Man.

Flickgrrl first saw the mercurial actor when he was a puppy (literally and figuratively) in Pound (1970), a film by his father, vanguard filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr. But she didn't really notice him until the shambling Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School (1986), where Downey held his own against the most shamelessly funny  mugger since W.C. Fields. Then came the actor's tragic and transcendent role as an overprivileged junkie in Less Than Zero (1987), which hit viewers smack in the solar plexus. (Downey has referred to his role in that movie as "the ghost of Christmas future.")

A tipsheet to Downey's essential performances (many of which are in inconsequential movies): Start with Less than Zero then catch Soapdish (1991), where he's slippery fun as a soap opera producer lusting after even slipperier Cathy Moriarty. He summons the spirit and soul of the silent comedian in Chaplin (1992), a movie that should be better than it is. In Restoration (1995), he is both a debauched Lothario and a dutiful doctor who tends patients during London's  Plague years. One of his best performances is as the showboating journalist trying to solve a serial-killer mystery in Zodiac (2007). Another is as the showboating Australian actor Kirk Lazarus in blackface in Tropic Thunder (2008).

Agree? Disagree? Your favorite Downey performances? Why?