May 12 2010

The Comeback Kings

Iron Man 2 hit theaters just last Friday to favorable commercial and critical success.  In the film, Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke play enemies due to a generation-old betrayal, with one family being disgraced, and the other having acted disgracefully.                                                                        

Perhaps it was by mere coincidence that these individuals were cast as men who have, in one way or another, fallen from grace and must fight their way back to the top.  There aren’t many people like Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr., who are as famous for their self-destruction as they are for their immense talent.

Though both have their own distinct styles and poisons, Rourke and Downey were both Hollywood’s shining stars, both ruined their personal and professional lives, and are currently in the midst of a comeback, returning to the level of fame and respect once promised to them many years ago.

Mickey Rourke was thought by many to be the Robert De Niro of the Eighties, known for his good looks, classic New York charm and his method approach to acting.  Gaining a considerable amount of attention in a small role as an arsonist in Body Heat, Rourke was put on the fast track to Hollywood stardom.  Rourke, on the other hand, had different plans.

Turning down high profile roles in Beverly Hills Cop and Highlander, Rourke chose smaller, character driven films, such as Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Angel Heart.  Although these films met with varying degrees of commercial success, Rourke received success critically as well as from within the business.  Even in his less-than-stellar films, like Francesco or Year of the Dragon, Rourke proved he could rise above a weak script and deliver a great performance.

Rourke’s aversion to success and professional expectations was no accident.  It seemed as though Rourke refused to play ball with Hollywood and deliberately did things that were deemed “not star worthy” by the powers that be.  Furthermore, Rourke proved to be difficult on set, depending on whom you asked.  Whereas he got along great with people he liked or respected, those Rourke found less than ideal bore the brunt of his irresponsibility, resistance to direction, and his general attitude problem.

Eventually Rourke’s reputation granted him a number of high-powered enemies, and the roles started to disappear.  Not only that, but Rourke’s behavior got even more unpredictable, as he started making choices seemingly made to purposefully sabotage his career.  For one, Rourke signed on to be in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, a B-movie that now enjoys some cult success, but at the time was a critical and commercial bomb.  Also, it was a film Rourke did only for the money, something he would have never done a few years earlier.

The most bizarre of his choices was, at the age of 39, to return to his childhood passion: boxing.  Aside from the obvious conflict concerning his age this move proved to be the final few nails in Rourke’s coffin.  Although he proved to be one hell of a boxer (he won six out of his eight fights), Rourke never got his title fight.  Instead, he received frequent blows to the face, destroying his good looks.

While Rourke was in the middle of his rise and fall from Hollywood stardom, Robert Downey Jr. was just getting started in show business.  Having achieved a little screen time in Weird Science and SNL (for one year), Downey scored a breakout role in 1987’s Less Than Zero with Andrew McCarthy, playing a young, drug-addicted preppy whose life is quickly circling the drain.  Needless to say, the role held more significance than anyone at the time realized.

Like Rourke, Downey favored versatility over marquee power and played a variety of characters in smaller films.  From a romantic lead opposite Marisa Tomei in Only You to an Australian exploitative journalist in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Downey managed to be as charming as he was willing to challenge himself, and people loved it.

Downey’s biggest break came in 1992 with Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, with Downey playing the title role.  Critics and moviegoers alike were blown away at how Downey transformed into Charlie Chaplin, mimicking every one of the silent actor’s mannerisms perfectly.  Downey’s performance earned him an Oscar nod in 1992, facing stiff competition with Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X and Stephen Rea in The Crying Game.  The award ended up going to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.

Despite his success, Downey’s severe drug problem was becoming more and more noticeable, both with studio execs and the general public.  Producers considered him to be too risky to hire, and he was always on the front page for his various arrests and exploits whilst under the influence of any and all drugs the young star could get his hands on.

Taken into custody a number of times, Downey was once arrested for the possession of heroin, cocaine and an unloaded firearm while speeding through Sunset Boulevard.  In another more bizarre, yet infinitely humorous one, Downey was arrested for breaking and entering.  It appeared that a high-out-of-his mind Downey broke into what he thought was his own home, and was discovered by the rightful homeowners to be sleeping in one of their beds.

After becoming famous less for acting and more for his wild antics, Downey appeared to redeem himself when he landed a role in Ally McBeal, which earned him an Emmy nod for “best supporting actor.”  Unfortunately, Downey’s continued drug abuse led him to be written off of the show.

“It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth, my finger’s on the trigger,” Downey told a judge in 1996, “and I like the taste of gunmetal.”

Rourke was dismissed as a trainwrecked has-been, barely getting by with the help of small roles from friends and constant therapy.  After years of being on Hollywood’s shit list, Rourke starred in Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City as a massive, pug-ugly street brawler.  The film was a modest success, but critics universally praised Rourke’s performance, saying he was the most heartfelt, human character in the gritty neo-noir film.  Soon after, Rourke received nominations from the Golden Globes and the Oscars, and scored a win at the BAFTAs for his role as over-the-hill wrestler Randy “The Ram” Johnson in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

In 2003 Downey had managed to kick his drug habit, and slowly started his journey back into the good graces of the film industry.  Since most major studios were unwilling to hire him, Downey starred in a number of small films, some of which were good (A Scanner Darkly, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and others that were terrible (The Shaggy Dog, Gothika).

In 2008, Downey charmed his way into the good graces of Hollywood and the general public with his role as Tony Stark in Iron Man.  People fell in love with the actor’s smarmy wit and likeable arrogance, and as a result,  Downey was officially back on top.  Determined to prove himself as more than a one-off comeback performer, Downey earned an Oscar nod for his performance in Tropic Thunder as Australian method actor-in-blackface Kirk Lazarus.  In 2010, he won a Golden Globe for Sherlock Holmes, in which he played the titular detective himself.

In this era of celebrity over substance, tabloid over talent, those who grace the covers of entertainment magazines and snag segments on E! are no strangers to notoriety.  However, your Lohans, your Kardashians, your Hiltons, they tend to reap sympathy (and profits) for their bad behavior, claiming to be victims of flash-bulb circumstances.  Rourke and Downey, no strangers to consequences, are amongst of the few to admit to their own faults and take responsibility for their own lives for their own benefit.  Today, both Downey and Rourke are the public’s two favorite underdogs, not to mention Hollywood’s most solid, dependable actors.  Good film or bad, small part or leading role, both of these men prove themselves to be the best at what they do, and deserve every bit of praise, fame and recognition they can get.

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