As its annual fundraiser this year, the Cinefamily has organized a series of events under the banner "Truth and Soul, Inc.: The films of Robert Downey, Sr. (A Prince)" as a tribute to the irreverent counterculture filmmaker. The program begins Friday night with a first-time on-stage conversation between two very different movie figures — Downey Sr. and his son Robert Downey Jr.
"I've always talked about Robert Downey Sr., and I've made it no secret that I just … idolize him," said director Paul Thomas Anderson, noting that the tone of his own new "Inherent Vice" takes cues from Downey Sr. "He just never seemed to give a … And quite simply, that is really cool."
Anderson, a longtime friend of the senior Downey, added how even in Downey's more impressionistic or experimental films, he was never alienating audiences, rather always inviting them in.
"He was always making you laugh, and that was really his concern," said Anderson. "That's the beauty of those things. Or to make a film that feels as political as 'Putney Swope' but really have it be a flat-out comedy. And that's everybody's dream, isn't it? To be able to operate at that level."
Anderson will appear Saturday night. Sunday will feature a screening of 1969's "Putney Swope" at the Theatre at Ace Hotel downtown with a Q&A between Downey Sr. and Louis C.K. (All other screenings are at Cinefamily on Fairfax.)
Monday night will include an appearance by Alan Arkin as well as screenings of the 2005 documentary "Rittenhouse Square," which Downey Sr. recently called the favorite of his films, as well as 1968's "No More Excuses."
Friday night will include "Chafed Elbows" and "Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight," starring Elsie Downey, Robert Jr.'s mother and Robert Sr.'s first wife, who died this year.
"Putney Swope" — name-checked by Jane Fonda on "The Tonight Show" and in a Beastie Boys lyric — remains Downey Sr.'s best-known film and for good reason. It's a wild satire of race, advertising, media and the meaning of selling out that still stings. In the story, the lone black board member of an advertising agency becomes the company's new head when everyone who votes for him assumes no one else would. He then remakes the agency under the name "Truth and Soul" into a multicultural hot pot of incendiary politics and radical ideas.
In a recent phone call from his home in New York, Downey Sr. recalled the film's genesis came when he was working for a company that produced commercials. When a black co-worker asked why he made less money than Downey for the same job, their superior responded, "If I gave you a raise, I'd have to give him a raise and we'd be right back where we started." (The line is also in the film.) Downey, 79, also recalled how after first screening the finished film for its distributor, the response was "I don't get it, but I like it."
Richard Schickel, then film critic for Life magazine, declared "'Putney Swope' is a kind of 'Laugh-In' for adults" while also referring to it alongside "Alice's Restaurant," "Faces," "Easy Rider" and "Medium Cool" as a sign of "the arrival of the New American Movie."
Downey was already an established figure on the burgeoning underground film scene of the time. His earlier films "Chafed Elbows" and "No More Excuses" had been relative art house hits.
In one outrageous moment in "No More Excuses," a blend of fictional and documentary footage that examines the singles scene, Downey jumped onto the field at Yankee Stadium dressed as a Civil War soldier during a baseball game and was duly escorted off by police.
Robert Downey Jr. explained that he and his father have not previously made such a joint appearance in part because Downey Sr. travels only by train.
Downey Jr. promised that on Saturday night he will screen "with neither of these directors' permission" a few minutes of footage culled from hours shot by Anderson while on a train trip with Downey Sr. As for his overall role throughout the weekend, the star of "Iron Man" and "Sherlock Holmes" said, "I'm really kind of a glorified usher."
It is not lost on either father or son that there is something amusing in the connection between a subversive figure who has kept the mainstream at arm's length and an offspring with tremendous popular and commercial success.
"I just think it's a typical generational irony," said Downey Jr.
Yet Downey Jr. also said that even in his most commercial efforts, there is a genuine influence from his father in that he is always looking for something more that can be added to a scene to give it an extra spark.
"You're not just trying to fit the storytelling on the screen, you're trying to do something a little bit different," he said. "Dad definitely always had a vision for what he was doing, but he was always seeking those weird little forays into other things, which ended up being what people remember from the movie."
'Truth And Soul, Inc.: The Films of Robert Downey, Sr. (A Prince)'
The Cinefamily, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles
What: "Chafed Elbows" and "Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight"
Robert Downey Sr. and Robert Downey Jr. in conversation
When: 8 p.m. Friday
What: "Greaser's Palace" and "Pound"
Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Downey Sr. in person
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
What: "Putney Swope"
Louis C.K. and Robert Downey Sr. in person
Where: The Theatre at Ace Hotel, downtown L.A.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
What: "No More Excuses" and "Rittenhouse Square"
Alan Arkin and Robert Downey Sr. in person
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday