Robert Downey, Jr.’s 10 Best Performances

Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress. This list has been republished in celebration of Downey Jr.’s birthday. 

Robert Downey, Jr. is one of those rare marquee movie stars with a character actor’s range. Leading man looks? Check. Earned box office clout? Check. But if there’s one thing that Downey can be counted on above all else, it’s the element of surprise.

Looking back, Downey’s career reads like a Richter scale: rising in the 1980s as a Brat Packer (Weird Science, Less Than Zero); falling in the 1990s with a string of flops; flat-lining for a couple of years; and then, against seemingly insurmountable odds, soaring to the A-list. Much of his best work throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, including his Oscar-nominated turn in Chaplin, bore the sting of commercial failure, while his biggest financial hit in the span of those decades was the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School.

Downey was arrested on numerous drug-related charges between 1996 and 2001, spent nearly a year in prison, and got clean in 2003. His reemergence in the mid-aughts as a talent, down but not out, sober and arguably better than ever, was nothing short of inspirational: a Ro-Downey-ssance, if you will. And although suiting up as Iron Man may have registered as Downey’s most visible “comeback” moment, he had already been laying the groundwork with powerhouse performances in a run of smaller, superb films — 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Good Night and Good Luck, 2006’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and 2007’s Zodiac — that sure don’t feel like foreplay.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, with Downey reprising his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Iron Man Tony Stark , opens tonight. Whether the film will be a personal hit or miss for one of Hollywood’s most triumphant underdogs remains to be seen, but until then, Roy Ivy and I are here to tide you over with a list of some of Downey’s finest performances to date.

Did we sleep on your favorite? Let us know in the comments section. While we may disagree on which roles belong in the Top 10, or in what order, we can assure you, with all of our film-nerdy hearts, that RDJ has never failed to charm the pants off of us.

Leah Pickett

10. Tommy Larson, Home for the Holidays (1995)

“It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal,” Downey told a courtroom judge in 1999, at the height, or should I say nadir, of his drug addiction. While playing weirdo brother Tommy Larson in the Jodie Foster-directed drama Home for the Holidays, Downey was purportedly high on set — as high as he most likely was for many of his mid-to-late ‘90s performances.

But to not include Tommy Larson on a list of Downey’s best roles would be a grave oversight, as Tommy is by far the most interesting person in this film. Perhaps it’s because the character touches so close to the place Downey appeared to be in at the time — the erratic behavior, the loopy observations and pointed jabs, the hurt only scarcely discernible behind the twinkling eyes — and the line Downey gave to the judge, the first time I heard it, struck me as exactly something Tommy would say. Whatever his personal business, Downey locked it down to play this complicated, multi-dimensional character, while also breathing in some of his own neuroses. And the result is, in a word, remarkable.

Choice Downey Moment: Every second he is on screen, but especially his introduction: “Spin, Mommy!”

— L.P.