Robert Downey Jr. Will Probably, Finally Win An Oscar This Weekend And That’s Great

By most accounts, Robert Downey Jr. is the odds-on favorite this weekend to win his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor – something that, unless there’s a huge upset, will most likely happen. He’s been nominated twice before: a Best Actor nomination for Chaplin* (having no real chance in a stacked year, up against Denzel Washington for Malcolm X, Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven, and winner Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman) and a Supporting Actor nomination for playing Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder (again having no real chance against posthumous winner Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight.)

(*Speaking of Chaplin, I had somehow never seen it and decided I should probably watch it before writing this piece. I had always avoided it because I had a good idea what it would be like. Here’s the thing about a lot of movies: they are never quite what you think they are going to be. Except Chaplin. It’s exactly what you think it’s going to be. It’s a movie genetically engineered in an early 1990s lab to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination, which it failed to do. Though, Downey is really good.)

Downey is one of those actors where it just kind of feels like he’s won one before, even though he most certainly hasn’t. Maybe it’s the inevitability of it all? Maybe it’s the whole Marvel thing? (We’ll get to that.) But there doesn’t seem to be the usual excitement surrounding one of the best actors of our time finally winning his first Oscar. In fact, it’s strangely the opposite. At least in my social media feeds I see a lot of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Gosling pulled an upset?” I mean, sure, who doesn’t like Ryan Gosling? But Downey has been at this for, somehow, over 40 years now with the ups and the well-documented downs. To put it bluntly: the guy is due.

I rewatched Oppenheimer before I wrote this – a movie I think is well made, but also didn’t like as much as most people seem to like it – trying to really pay attention to what made Downey click so well in this movie. The thing is, I’ve rewatched a lot of Robert Downey Jr. movies recently. Everything from Less Than Zero (he’s truly fantastic), to The Pick-up Artist, to Chances Are, to Only You.* Downey is an actor who has a true baseline for how he approaches almost every scene and it’s served him well over the years and it’s a large reason why he’s so good as Tony Stark. In Oppenheimer, Downey seems to eschew all of that and do the opposite. There are literally scenes where you can tell he’s about to let the Downey charm/smarm fly, but still manages to stop himself. It’s like he’s pulling a George Costanza here and going against every natural impulse he has as an actor – but the difference here is Downey’s natural impulses have made him one of the most successful and wealthy actors in the world. It takes a lot of willpower to tell yourself, “Why don’t we not do that this time?”

(*A quick aside here about Chances Are and Only You, two movies starring Robert Downey Jr. with its title taken from hit pop songs from the 1950s. The plot of Chances Are (oh goodness this plot), Downey plays the reincarnated husband of Cybil Shepherd who is dating their daughter (yep). After a bump on the head, he realizes who he is and is now reunited with the love of his life. In Only You, Marisa Tomei plays a woman who was told by a psychic that her soul mate is a man named Damon Bradley. While vacationing in Europe, she meets a man played by Downey who says his name is Damon Bradley. My point here: these two movies should switch titles.)

The other thing I noticed rewatching Oppenheimer … the character of Lewis Strauss kind of sucks. I mean this as a compliment to Downey, because why on Earth should we care at all about this character one way or another, even as a villain? Here’s a movie about the making of the atomic bomb, but the entire third act is focused on Lewis Strauss’s failed confirmation hearing for Commerce Secretary and Strauss’s role in J. Robert Oppenheimer losing his security clearance, something he didn’t really even need at the time. The only reason we care is because of Downey. With almost any other actor, we’d be sitting there thinking, Wait, what’s this about again? But Downey is so enigmatic and interesting as Strauss, it’s captivating despite itself. Downey holds that whole third act together by sheer willpower. (With an assist from Alden Ehrenreich, who should have gotten more attention for his part here.)

Oh, right, the Marvel part. I do wonder if “being the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe” for over a decade made it a little less, for lack of a better term, “exciting” for the rooting interests that Downey will most likely win an Oscar. “Oh this guy who has everything? Welp, he’s getting more.” I’ll admit, I have mixed feelings about his role in Marvel, too. On the one hand, well, he’s terrific as Tony Stark. Every MCU movie he appeared in just has something the others don’t. And we can tell today that the current iteration of the MCU feels pretty lost without him. And, in 2008, Downey was an actor who was on the comeback with both Zodiac and Tropic Thunder, but Iron Man was the ultimate breakthrough that cemented his legacy. Also, it made him very rich. These are all good things.

But, selfishly, it was kind of annoying the kind of performances that we saw in Zodiac went away until … well, now. Basically 15 full years. Between the first Iron Man being released (so this doesn’t include his other two already filmed 2008 movies) and Oppenheimer, Downey starred in a grand total of five movies that were not as Tony Stark: Two Sherlock Holmes movies (in retrospect, it’s kind of wild a successful sort-of franchise was made out of Sherlock Holmes), the Todd Phillips comedy, Due Date, The Judge, and Doolittle – which, as also executive producer, seemed like Downey’s attempt at a new franchise. Even though that movie somehow grossed a quarter of a billion dollars, it’s currently sitting at 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and most definitely it will not be a new franchise.

However, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Doolittle had been a huge success. (What a weird sentence.) Was that the kick Downey needed to give this performance? For him to remember, Oh, yeah, I’m not just a movie star, I’m one hell of an actor. In reality, nothing is ever that simple and binary, but that’s the way I’ve decided it all went down … Tony Stark had to die and Dr. John Dolittle had to be almost universally hated so Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss could win Downey his first Oscar. Honestly, we should be celebrating all of this. (Especially those last two things.)

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