This is a story about my engagement with the life and work of Robert Downey Jr.
It starts with a series of roles I saw him play in movies in the last couple of years. A Scanner Darkly (hilarious motor mouth double-crosser), Zodiac (drunken reporter sliding into the trash bin of life, delivers my favorite line of the movie to Jake Gyllenhaal: “You’re doing that thing, the thing we discussed, the thing I don’t like, starts with an ‘L’ ” (i.e. looming). I remember quoting it for Art Sousa one day at work and him looking bemused), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (hapless petty thief drawn into a crime investigation in Hollywood; lots of back and forth funny banter with Val Kilmer, who plays a homosexual private detective nicknamed “Gay Perry”), then the biggie, Iron Man (I have a lot of misgivings about this movie. It is really violent and disturbing, the Afghanistan characters are simplistic to the point of stereotype, and the final battle between Iron Monger and Iron Man is a lame coda to the film. But… every moment Robert Downey Jr. is on the screen is redeemed for me by his light touch, line readings that are perfectly natural and funny and surprising in a genre that tends to sour brooding and leaden delivery. He’s not being ironic, either. It’s obvious he’s enjoying himself, that he loves the material). Tropic Thunder sort of an after thought. There is apparently a whole series of movies he’s done that focus on his powers of mimicry (Chaplin, Heart and Souls), and this is another in that vein. He is completely unrecognizable here, even apart from the “pigmentation procedure” (i.e. blackface), he speaks in a deeper voice than normal and enunciates in a bizarre faux-ghetto vocabulary and rhythm. The effect is striking, but not particularly worthy in itself. The one exception is the scene in which he pretends to be a Chinese rice farmer, speaking Chinese with a ghetto accent that even to me, almost completely ignorant of Chinese, sounds absurd and hilarious. The fact that the child drug lord he is talking to briefly seems to believe he really is Chinese proves to me that the “movie within a movie” is actually three levels down, that there is a movie within a movie within a movie. At the very least, his character has three levels. (“I’m the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude!”) Talk about metafiction!Then there’s his life as a recovering addict. A few months ago I read an Entertainment Weekly interview with him, Ben Stiller and Jack Black. There was a question to all three of them about humiliating themselves in movies. Stiller and Black both said they don’t particularly enjoy it, but it is often warranted to get laughs. Downey said he likes it just by itself, and that he’s humiliated himself so much worse in his real life that it hardly registers when he’s doing it for work. A couple months later, he is chosen as EW’s “Entertainer of the Year” and appears on the cover of the magazine. The article inside mentions his consumption of Chinese herbs; the description of his pill popping comes across to me as compulsive, like a substitute for his old cocaine habit. The night after reading the article, I have a dream about him telling me, like he is delivering hard news, that he has started taking Remeron (an antidepressant I took for less than a week because it totally fucked me up and turned me into a zombie). I am upset and worried about him. In waking life, I read more about his personal history. Some details stick with me. He did various drugs (heroin, cocaine, alcohol in abundance) for at least 15 years and kept being checked in to rehab centers and arrested for possession. Some of the humiliating episodes he alluded to in EW include wandering in to the neighbors’ house and falling asleep in one of their beds, then being arrested; showing up late and addled to a meeting with a movie director with “a loaded shotgun in his car that he couldn’t explain”; being found wandering down a Los Angeles street barefoot while high on cocaine. During one of his criminal trials, he describes his experience of drugs as “like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth, with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.” Eventually he is thrown into prison for an entire year. Details aren’t clear (he doesn’t talk much about these experiences in interviews, and cancelled plans to write a memoir a couple of years ago), but he says that more than once he “woke up in a pool of [his] own blood” in jail. After being released, he is arrested a couple more times, and is kicked off the TV show Ally McBeal, even though his acting has gotten rave reviews and increased ratings for the show. His wife, Debra Falconer, leaves him, taking their son. The work situation is pretty dire. When he can get roles, a portion of his pay is often held back until shooting is complete because producers don’t trust him. He calls this period the “bottom” in terms of addiction. Then one day in 2003, while eating a cheeseburger at Burger King, he has an epiphany and decides that he’s done with the drugs and the drinking. Since then, he has slowly climbed out of the hole, playing well-reviewed supporting roles in a number of films on his way to leading roles in movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man. He has remarried to a woman, Susan Levin, he met while working on Gothika, and patched up relations with his ex-wife to the extent that he can now spend a lot of time with his son. In interviews, he doesn’t seem too sure that he won’t relapse; his comments are vague and confusing on this point. Maybe that’s just realism in someone who has fallen off the wagon so many times. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be consistently sober. (His parents were both countercultural types who initiated him into drug use before he was 10 years old.) But, five years on, he seems to be getting the hang of it. And the press loves him. It’s hard to resist the appeal of a redemption story, especially when the individual in question is funny, smart, and an undeniably great actor. Oh, and nice to look at, too. In November, he is #1 in Salon.com’s “Sexiest Man Living” feature (just ahead of Barack Obama).
And his world view: he says he is no longer a liberal after his experience in prison. He doesn’t exactly say what he is instead. Conservative? Republican? I am disturbed at the thought. One of his best friends is Mel Gibson, he of The Passion of the Christ and the anti-Semitic comments after being arrested for DUI. Yet Downey describes himself as a “Jew-Bu”, a term I thought he made up until I read it in the NY Times (11/29/08, “A Link Based on Culture and, Now, Terrorism” about the sympathetic connection of Indians and Jews). It’s hard to imagine a Republican Jewish Buddhist. But then I realize that his political opinions are kind of beside the point; as a convicted felon, he can’t vote. Ouch.
Why does it matter, anyway? When I identify with someone strongly, there’s a desire to see a perfect reflection of myself, to paint my story completely onto the canvas of another person. Taking it too far is an illusion, though, a folly. It’s about what I need and want, not about the reality of another person’s life. This past year has been rough. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and thought patterns that have seemed at times impossible to break out of. Not addiction, technically (though my regular use of alcohol sometimes worries me), but similar in its hold over everyday life. I have often felt trapped and like I can’t climb out of the dreary trench I’m in, even though it’s crucial to my own well being to do so.
Earlier this week, I watched the final episode of The Wire, and burst into tears more than once afterward thinking about the character Bubs, who after years of addiction finally quits drugs for good. He’s tried multiple times before and always relapsed, so his sister (his one remaining family member) doesn’t trust him any more. She lets him sleep in her basement, but keeps the door to the upstairs locked so he can’t get in and steal her stuff to pay for drugs. This goes on for months and months while Bubs is working in a soup kitchen, meeting regularly with his sponsor in recovery, and just keeping on one day at a time, grimly holding temptation at bay. One of my favorite scenes from season 5 has no words, it’s just Bubs, alone in the soup kitchen, leaning over a sink and scrubbing a seemingly endless succession of pots and pans. It’s boring, nearly thankless work, but meaningful if you look at it in the right way. (A Buddhist saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”) At the end of the season, after his story has been featured in the paper, he is finally invited back into his sister’s house. The precious payoff for months of persistence and lonely struggle. But it’s not free sailing from here. The temptation will always be hanging.
I’ve wondered before how anyone manages to get over an addiction. It’s easy for people who have never heard the siren song of drugs to be dismissive of anyone who falls prey to it. I guess I believe that for some individuals there is a physical component, something that makes them more susceptible to addiction, but I’m not a big believer in the medical model of alcoholism, for example. I’ve seen too many times how people (including me) get entrained into habits of thought that can be nearly impossible to break out of. For most, these habits don’t involve drugs that make it difficult for them to sustain long term relationships or keep a job, but they can be destructive nonetheless. Anxiety and depression are not directly caused by circumstances; they result from the ingrained thought patterns and reactivity a person applies to the circumstances. These can’t just be wished away, although being aware of the patterns is a first big step to breaking out of them. The road to recovery can be really long and made longer by backtracking and repeated failures. The trick is to never give up. Too many people never even realize they have a problem, and just blindly continue living lives of quiet desperation. And a lot who realize they do have a problem never really get past it. Someone who knows their life is fucked up and manages to really change it in a fundamental way is a hero to me.
Thom Yorke of Radiohead once said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men… true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Stories (fictional or real life) about that process, that are honest about the difficulties, the often non-linear progression, the lack of glamor, have a lot of meaning for me right now. When that gritty reality is layered onto a series of artistic achievements that have moved and delighted me on their own, it’s even more resonant. So Robert Downey Jr has become a part of my personal story, one of the multitudes of possible mes, a cautionary and inspiring figure, my own Person of the Year.