Senior Trip

Andrew Hultkrans on Robert Downey Sr.

Robert Downey Sr., Babo 73, 1964, black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 56 minutes. Stanley Studsbury and Chester Kitty-Litter (Taylor Meade and James Antonio).

THERE’S SOMETHING UNCANNY about seeing—on film—the parents of a screen actor of your own era: watching a Kirk Douglas or Lloyd Bridges movie, say, if you came of age in the 1970s and ’80s with Michael and Jeff. Not only do you immediately start cataloguing similarities in appearance and mannerisms (odd in itself, as both parent and child are playing characters), but you feel compelled to make extracinematic judgments about the real-life individuals; how, even as an old man, Michael seems callow, baby-faced, and reptilian next to the craggy, eagle-like intensity of his father, who wouldn’t look out of place on Mount Rushmore; why Jeff, clearly the better actor, also comes across as a far more interesting person than Lloyd (or, for that matter, brother Beau).

Few living Hollywood actors carry as heavy an extracinematic load as Robert Downey Jr. Blessed with a surfeit of talent, he was until a decade ago as infamous for his monstrous drug addiction and attendant bad behavior as he was famous for his work. In recent years, having cleaned himself up after doing hard time, he’s become the blockbuster star of the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes franchises, but these characters, entertaining as they are, sell him short. If you only know Downey Jr. from these movies, I suggest as correctives Zodiac (2007); A Scanner Darkly (2006); Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005); Chaplin (1992), for which he was nominated for an Oscar in the title role; and even Less Than Zero (1987), the Brat Pack apotheosis that first got him noticed.

The “Jr.” is not an aristocratic pretense but an acknowledgment that he isn’t the only artist in the family. His father, Robert Downey Sr. (né Elias), was the clown prince of ’60s New York underground cinema, and his mother, Elsie Downey (née Ford), who often starred in Downey père’s early films, was a manic actress-singer-comedienne of protean range. As the new Criterion Collection box set collecting five of Sr.’s films from 1964 through 1975 makes clear, Jr. got his rebellious spirit (and introduction to drugs) from his father, but he owes his nervy, peripatetic thespian energy to his mother.

By the time he started making movies at age twenty-five in 1961, the New York City–bred Downey Sr. (hereafter referred to as “Downey”) had already been a Golden Gloves boxer, a semipro baseball player, a frequently court-martialed soldier, an actor, and a way off-Broadway playwright. He was not a film buff in his youth and only took up the camera as a way to express his writing. Downey was partially inspired in this regard by artist-filmmaker and Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas, who had written, “Anyone can make a film.”

Arty only by cultural context, Downey’s bawdy, satirical scripts were irreverent in ways that only seemed possible in mid-’60s America; the 1950s overhang of excessive, repressive propriety gave artistic jesters of the time a superabundance of fish-in-barrel targets. Newcomers will recognize a sensibility strongly reminiscent of the Terry Southern of Dr. Strangelove (1964) and the Thomas Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49 (1966): silly, patently artificial character names (Chester Kittylitter, Chief Fricassee); adolescent antiauthoritarianism; Mad magazine puns (a man painting a white line in an alley is asked what he’s doing; “Gotta draw the line somewhere,” he replies); and instinctive conviction that war, big business, and Goldwater-style conservatism were all of a piece.

Robert Downey Sr., Putney Swope, 1969, black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 85 minutes. Putney Swope and Mr. Token (Arnold Johnson and George Morgan).

The jaded-from-birth attitude of Downey’s earlier films, particularly Chafed Elbows (1966) and No More Excuses (1968), also recalls the young Frank Zappa of the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money (1968)—mercilessly lampooning a new countercultural movement while being inescapably of that same movement. No precinct of the underground was safe from Downey’s impious skewering: Someone mentions a “seven-hour film of a man sitting on a park bench, smoking” called Smoke (a clear Warhol jibe). “I’m looking for any actor who radiates emptiness, despair, and futility,” says one character; “Today’s surrealism is tomorrow’s soap opera,” says another. There’s a “protest music” single (A-side: “Hey, Hey, Hey”/B-side: “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”); a director named Leo Realism, “listed in the Yellow Pages under ‘Truth’ ”; a reference to “Jesus Mekas”; and a man complaining, “I need this like I need underground movies.”

The films collected in the Criterion box are primarily black-and-white, with notable color interludes in two of them. As one might guess, the camera is often handheld. Babo 73 (1964) is a Strangelovian Cold War farce, centered on future Warhol persona Taylor Mead as an ineffective, milquetoast president of the “United Status,” perpetually led astray by his two advisers; one is left-wing, the other right-wing, but both are Beckettian buffoons. For Chafed Elbows, about the rake’s progress of a hapless young man in an incestuous relationship with his mother, Downey often resorted to series of stills, developed at his local drugstore and edited together to create flipbook-like scenes (imagine Chris Marker’s La Jetée directed by Judd Apatow).

No More Excuses, the rarest of the lot, is a puckish mash-up of several unrelated projects: his first (unreleased) short, Balls Bluff (1961); footage from a documentary segment on the Upper East Side singles-bar scene Downey was hired to shoot for ABC News; an activist bluenose from the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, lecturing viewers about clothing their pets to promote decency and give them self-respect in front of their owners; and an original sex sequence depicting a rape that becomes consensual and ends with a live chimpanzee joining the fun (very John Waters). A loose, at times jarring montage, “in some grim and paranoid way, the movie often makes hilarious sense,” as Vincent Canby wrote at the time.

Downey is best known for 1969’s Putney Swope, a savage satire of Madison Avenue’s advertising culture that leans on every racial nerve without fear. The titular Swope, the sole black executive at a prominent ad agency, accidentally is voted to be CEO after the sudden death of the firm’s founder. Armed with a black militant conscience, he fires all existing white staff but one “token”; renames the agency Truth and Soul, Inc.; refuses to take accounts for cigarettes, alcohol, and war toys; and populates the staff with Black Power activists (including the inimitable Antonio Fargas—Huggy Bear himself—in a sheik’s kaffiyeh. “Who’re you, Lawrence of Nigeria?” Swope asks him).

Voiced over by Downey because the actor couldn’t remember his lines, Arnold Johnson’s gruff, deadpan portrayal of Swope, the righteous reformer who ultimately sells out, is rendered mildly cartoonish by the director’s Oscar the Grouch growl. The movie is black-and-white, save for the ads the agency creates, which have to be seen to be believed, particularly the zit cream spot featuring an interracial teen romance (probably the only time you’ll hear “You gave me a dry hump” in song). While still low budget, Swope was a step up for Downey—in length, film stock, and cast—and it got him broader countercultural attention on the heels of the breakout success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). Swope was a clear influence on the black militant subplot of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976) and still holds up today.

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975), also known as Moment to Moment, is, oddly, the artiest of the five, a feature-length, plotless hodgepodge, shot and edited sporadically for years and largely featuring Elsie in a wide variety of roles. Seymour Cassel and other downtown luminaries of the time flit in and out of the film. It’s difficult to derive even a vague theme or meaning out of it, other than as an unstructured tribute to the live-wire perfomativity of Elsie Downey. Two Tons is somewhat melancholy, despite sequences of pure slapstick, and you can see a lot of Jr. in it, literally as a little boy on camera and in his mother’s face and performance.

So, not exactly Iron Man 3, but something that will likely never be made again. Hats off to Criterion for completing the Downey family album for present and future generations.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. is now available from the Criterion Collection.