By CAINE GARDNER
Every generation has an actor that defines the times. A presence that translates our lives and ideals, but most of all someone we can identify with. In the late 1980's and early 90's, Robert John Downey Jr. was that actor.
In 2008, Downey's beaming smile, full of confidence and contentment is a testament of will. Over a career and life that has experienced enormous ups and downs, Downey is back on top with two summer blockbusters (Iron Man and Tropic Thunder) and is receiving Oscar buzz for his performance as a columnist in The Soloist. A true Renaissance man who dabbles in movies, music and words, Downey has emerged from the dark recesses of drug addiction and taken control of his destiny.
Born in April of 1965 in New York, Downey was born to parents involved in arts and made his screen debut in his father's film Pound, where the five year old played a sick puppy. Downey continued to hone his skill as a teenager, attending Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center in New York.
After dropping out of school in 1982 to pursue his acting career, it wouldn't be 1985 until his career began to take off. Appearing in Tuff Tuff and Weird Science, he was well on his way to making a name for himself. In 1986 he continued to impress with his presence in Back to School but it was his next film that would ignite a tumultuous career and create an inferno that would also consume the man.
Less Than Zero was a turning point in Downey's career as well as his personal life. Downey played Julian Wells, a drug addled rich kid in an example of art imitating life. Years later he acknowledged his turn as Wells helped propel his own drug habit out of control.
Even with his life beginning to spin out of control, Downey continued to dazzle the powers that be and audiences alike. His venerable little boy demeanor won him multitudes of fans but it was his ability to immerse himself in his characters that won over people in Hollywood.
It was that immersion that paid off big for the 27-year-old actor in 1992 for his portrayal of silent movie legend Charlie Chaplin. Downey hired people to help him master the legend's mannerisms. In addition, he learned to play tennis and, more impressively, the violin. The hard work paid off as the Academy Awards came calling. He ultimately lost the Oscar to Al Pacino but Downey was on top of the world -- and when you're on top there only one way to go.
After a string of films that were speckled with lackluster performances, Downey became known more for his drug-fueled lifestyle than for his art. From 1996 to 2001, Downey's life continued to unravel and he found himself in and out of rehab multiple times, culminating in a one-year stint in California state prison.
In July of 2001, Downey, one month after receiving a mandatory drug sentence, appeared in Elton John's video for "I Want Love." The wandering Downey traverses through a mansion and the images of a specter yearning for acceptance is disturbing.
Downey's life was transformed when he met Susan Levin on the set of Gothika in 2003. He attributes her along with therapy, meditation, a twelve-step program and his love of martial arts for keeping him on the path of sobriety.
He also gained control over his career after notable performances in The Singing Detective, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Good Night, and Good Luck. For The Singing Detective, producer and former co-star Mel Gibson paid the insurance bond for Downey to be able to be in the film.
Fans that worry that Downey's current elevation to superstar status could trigger the actor the visit his old habits, have no cause for concern according to Iron Man director Jon Favreau.
"He's somebody who's had it, lost it and now has it again, and it's like a pit bull who's got his jaws on a chew toy," he said. "Nothing will take this away from him."
Essential Film: In one word -- Chaplin. Downey transcended his art and showed the depth of an artist. The success of the movie hinged on the actor becoming it's subject and Downey achieved that to perfection. His ability to make us laugh is incredible, but it's his ability to make us weep that is inspiring.