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Robert Downey Jr.: Even in a culture where redemption is rote, the actor’s arc is a remarkable figure. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Robert Downey Jr.: Even in a culture where redemption is rote, the actor’s arc is a remarkable figure. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

TIFF: Robert Downey Jr.’s 20-year journey from hot mess to one of Hollywood's hottest stars Add to ...

Set to own the red carpet at the opening of the world’s biggest film festival, festooning the occasion with his patent-worthy wryness and mournful Bambi eyes, is the actor once known as inmate P50522.

As TIFF bows again, with all its overtures of another Oscar season, its function as a great celebrity aquarium has never been as pronounced as it is this year, with Robert Downey Jr. front and centre. Unspooling: the world premiere of The Judge. Appearing in every scene: the man who once made Lindsay Lohan look like an amateur (really) but, more recently, mountaineered to the very top of Forbes magazine’s list of 2014’s most bankable stars. Even in a culture where redemption is rote, RDJ’s arc is a remarkable figure. And Toronto, in September, where the leading man has appeared four different times in the past 20 years, is as good a place as any to track a transformation from hot mess to éminence grise.

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“Remember the Sutton Place Hotel?” is the prologue to so many festival old-timers’ memories, especially of the scene-stealing that Downey did there precisely 20 years ago. Following a boo-boo by hotel staff, the then-29-year-old actor began punching a wall, and crawling around on his hands and knees. Only You (directed by Canada’s Norman Jewison) was the film that he’d come here to hawk – a title that also fit the geometry of his famous freak-out. The Sutton Place – a piazza for the Fest back in the day – is now gone. And so, too, it would seem, is the Downey Jr. who led with his demons.

“He was brilliant to work with … a young star in waiting,” is how his Natural Born Killers director, Oliver Stone, once described the former Brat Packer. By 1994, though, the year of the Sutton Place incident, the beginning of a slow collapse was on. The fame, well entrenched, had been cinched by his first Oscar nomination, for the biopic Chaplin, as well as a glossy romance with Sarah Jessica Parker (it’s true – Iron Man and Carrie Bradshaw lived with one another for five long years), but in other respects he was circling the drain. The next few years would be tortuous: he was busted one month in his car (.42 grams of heroin, 1.49 grams of cocaine, and a .357 magnum underneath the front passenger seat), and the next month he was the anti-hero of a scenario immediately dubbed the “Goldilocks” incident (while awaiting trial, Downey wandered into a neighbour’s Malibu house and passed out in the bed of a 11-year-old-boy – the subsequent 911 call would become one of the Internet’s first viral phenoms).

His further escapades would include escaping from rehab – dressed in a Hawaiian shirt – and melting down before our very eyes, care of Diane Sawyer. On ABC, Sawyer asked, “You a good liar?” To which Downey replied, “Yeah, you have to be.” Sawyer: “Great liar?” Downey: “Yeah.” Sawyer: “So, what is the lie everyone should watch out for that you’ll be telling if you’re using again?” Downey: “I’m fine.”

Put it this way: If someone had done a poll, asking who’d be at TIFF 2014 – Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman or RDJ – Downey would likely have finished last.

Flash-forward to Toronto in 2003, and then 2005, where, if he wasn’t exactly fine, he was trying. Trying to forge a comeback with his first film in three years – this following his Orange is the New Downey phase – the first occasion was marked by The Singing Detective, an adaptation of an old BBC miniseries. The notices? Pretty good, though most of the reviews spent an inordinate amount of time matching themes in the script with Downey’s personal travails. Another notable event to occur during the 2003 Fest was what ensued following the screening, when Downey’s attempt to steer clear of booze was hampered by a server who spilled a cocktail on his pants. When the contrite waiter came bearing some club soda to clean up the mess, Downey declined. “But I’ll drink it,” he said, taking the can.

Two years later, he was back with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, co-starring Val Kilmer. I remember seeing him around a lot during that particular TIFF, including one time at Amber in Yorkville, fidgeting with the hat he had on. That movie – a prankish neo-noir – also had its quorum of fans, but nothing about it portended the kind of comeback Downey was going to have. Yet his life since has been a one-man rebuke to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum about second acts – helped by the serendipity of casting (Iron Man 3 alone made more than $1.2-billion worldwide), the love of a good woman (his producer-wife, Susan Levin, is often credited with being a stabilizing force) and hard work.

“I stopped worrying about fixing things and just dealt with what was right in front of me,” is how the actor matter-of-fact Yoda’ed in a GQ interview. “The bouncing ball of the moment.”

This week, when he arrives in Toronto for his fourth and most lofty appearance at TIFF, one thing will be for sure: It’s the first time the opening-night marquee will feature a man who once worked five days a week scrubbing pans, in a penitentiary, making eight cents an hour. The Judge – which returns Downey to a character-driven role that hasn’t exactly been the forte of his Marvel character, or his lucrative Sherlock Holmes franchise – is at once a legal thriller and a movie about daddy issues, bridging the gulf between, oh, On Golden Pond and a classic Grisham yarn. Even in its more play-by-the-numbers moments, Downey – who’s never looked more handsome – elevates it beyond the script, to what an old-fashioned “star vehicle” used to look like.

In the process, he also reminds us why nobody does RDJ quite like RDJ.

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