Robert Downey, Jr. Superstar

It suddenly occurred to me today – after my wife and I were forced to head back to the theater twice in the same weekend to catch Sherlock Holmes — that Robert Downey, Jr. has suddenly become the hottest actor on the planet. That’s right, Robert Downey, Jr., who six years back had to drop out the Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda because the costs to insure him were too high after several well-publicized arrests and a trip to the drug rehab clinic.

But Robert Downey, Jr seems able to do no wrong these days at the box office. As I found when I couldn’t get into his flick on Saturday, he has his third mega-hit on his hands with Sherlock Holmes, which opened second this weekend to Avatar but still clocked a steep $65.4 million.

The flick is certain to pass $100 million, which would give the 45-year old Downey roles in three $100 million performances in the last two years – his breakout starring role as Tony Stark in Iron Man, which grossed $318 million in the US and $585 million worldwide, and the comedy Tropic Thunder, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for his hilarious turn as an Australian method actor who undergoes surgery to play an African-American. (Oh, and the film also grossed more than $110 million in the U.S.)

So, why is Robert Downey, Jr. so hot? Well, the camera clearly loves him these days. He mugs, smirks and plays the smart aleck with such style that he can pull of the role of a snarky corporate exec in Iron Man or the equally smarmy Sherlock Holmes. But chalk one up for Hollywood. For once they’ve got it right, casting a bad boy gone straight in the role of – well – a bad boy who has more or less gone straight.

So, surround Downey’s bad boy acting with enough pyrotechnics —- Iron Man taking out Arab terrorists with his pulse beams or Sherlock Holmes escaping a fiery warehouse – and you’ve got a special effects-fueled superstar. It’s worked before: Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible series, or Christian Bale in the Batman movies. Add in that Downey comes cheap these days – he got a “mere” $6 million for starring in Iron Man – and he’s the kind of superstar Hollywood loves these days as well.

Now, will he stay cheap? Uh, no. The crowd with whom I saw Sherlock Holmes roared when the trailer for Iron Man 2 came on the screen before the main attraction. And Downey was at his smirking best on screen when he faced down a congressional inquiry in his role as the defiant Tony Stark. The crowd ate him up. And they’ll do the same this May, when Iron Man 2 opens.

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