There’s been plenty of talk about Tropic Thunder this week, but so far all the talk has been over the wrong things. The shocking thing about Tropic Thunder isn’t that it has disability groups in an uproar, but that no one seems to care that one of the movie’s leads is a Hollywood actor wearing the modern day equivalent of blackface. Don’t get me wrong, I’m elated that the normally quick to cry racism public has been adult enough to approach this logically, but at the same time I’m somewhat disappointed that there hasn’t been more discussion of Robert Downey Jr.’s incredible performance as confused method actor Kirk Lazarus.
Lazarus is, in essence, a parody of Robert Downey Jr. himself. He’s an incredibly talented Hollywood actor and a man with a troubled past. He’s also mentally unstable and when he’s involved in a project he becomes so committed to his role that he often forgets who he really is. He’s Robert Downey Jr. times a thousand, RDJ if he’d taken his acting completely over the edge. In Tropic Thunder Lazarus really goes too far, undergoing a surgery which artificially dyes his skin in order to play a black man.
Though RDJ walks around on screen made up as a black man, there’s nothing racist about it, and that’s due in no small part to his incredible performance. Downey is in effect, playing two different characters here, one stacked on top of the other. On the surface, at least in his own mind, he’s actually a black army Sergeant. Below that, buried somewhere, hidden maybe even from himself, he’s Kirk Lazarus, a confused and well-meaning Australian actor who seems to have forgotten who he really is. It’s because Lazarus means well in what he’s doing, and because the character himself so completely buys into what he’s doing that there’s nothing racist at all about his performance. Blackface is such a heinous thing because of the disgusting way it was used to demean and degrade African Americans. Downey uses it here instead, to mock the way Hollywood often uses and misuses racial stereotypes.
Downey’s performance is shockingly complex, especially for a parody comedy. But there’s no parody in his performance. He commits as fully to his duality as the fictional character he’s playing commits to the fictional character he’s playing on top of that. Confusing? Just imagine playing him. Downey though, is almost unrecognizable behind Lazarus’s augmented pigmentation and frustrated expression. The result is something almost wise, for the way in which Lazarus figures out who and what he really is. Downey immerses himself in the part, so much so that even when Kirk Lazarus takes off his mask to reveal his true self, there’s still no sign of RDJ anywhere in the character. Tropic Thunder is all the more funny and effective for how seriously Robert approaches Lazarus. It’s an inspired performance unlike anything else you’ve seen anywhere, let alone in a big-budget, Hollywood comedy.
Somehow, in the process of parodying his own profession Robert Downey Jr. has turned in one of the most scene stealing performances of the year. If Johnny Depp can win acclaim for stumbling around like a drunken pirate, then why not awards for Robert Downey Jr. as a dude playing the dude disguised as another dude? The Academy usually ignores comedies, but it’s time they made an exception. Nominate RDJ for an Oscar.
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