In “Hugo Pool,” one of the five films featuring Robert Downey Jr. scheduled to premiere in the coming months, the boyish actor plays a film director who has committed murder.
“Why aren’t you in jail?” Downey’s character is asked at one point.
“I was for a little while, but now I’m out on bail,” he responds. “Thank God it’s Los Angeles.”
Lately, that line could have been Downey’s motto. In and out of courtrooms since a drug conviction last year, Downey had nevertheless avoided extended jail time. And the 32-year-old actor had never been more in demand, working with top directors including Robert Altman, Mike Figgis and Neil Jordan.
But real-life Los Angeles proved far tougher than the celluloid version this week when a judge ordered the one-time Academy Award nominee to serve six months in jail for violating his probation. In Hollywood, where actors’ vulnerabilities are often accepted as fuel for their creativity, there was sympathy for Downey.
But some also wondered: Why did no one step in earlier?
“The judge isn’t talking about [Downey’s] career. The judge is talking about his life,” said one Hollywood insider who has followed Downey’s case closely. “At the end of the day, maybe the judge is the only one [in Hollywood] who’s concerned about his life.”
The way Hollywood helped Downey in recent months was to give him what most actors yearn for: high-profile work. And while the acting jobs--in Altman’s “The Gingerbread Man,” Figgis’ “One Night Stand,” Jordan’s “In Dreams,” James Toback’s “Two Girls and a Guy” and Stuart Baird’s “U.S. Marshals"--certainly kept the pressure on the star, sources said they also kept him drug-free.
“When he’s working, he’s tested every five minutes. When he’s working, he’s clean,” said one source. “It’s when he’s not working that there’s trouble.”
By all accounts, Downey was professional and hard-working on the set.
“Robert was great on the set, and is a wonderful talent, extraordinary really,” said Jordan, whose 12th film, “In Dreams” starring Annette Bening and Downey, wrapped Dec. 3 in Rosarita Beach, Mexico. A spokesman for Downey said the actor had made no acting commitments in the next six months.
Director Figgis told The Times in a recent interview that he chose Downey to appear in “One Night Stand” because he admired his work.
“I also felt he needs to be involved with depth and he needs to push himself as an actor,” Figgis said. “Part of his problems maybe come from the fact of his own frustrations, artistic or whatever.” Figgis added that New Line Cinema, which released the film, “backed me to give him a chance.”
Downey was jailed Monday for violating terms of his probation for a 1996 drug conviction. His probation was revoked Oct. 17 after his drug counselor determined the actor was using drugs again.
Before being led off to jail at a court hearing in Malibu Monday, Downey reflected on his predicament in which he could face jail if he slipped up again. “I have no excuses,” he told the judge. “I find myself defenseless.”
The timing of Downey’s jail sentence, which could be reduced for good behavior, creates an unusual situation for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though “One Night Stand” did not garner great reviews, Downey’s performance did, raising the possibility that he could be nominated for an Oscar while behind bars.
The academy has faced such dilemmas in the past, although not often.
In 1981, Roman Polanski was nominated for best director for “Tess” while he was living in exile in France, unable to return to America because he had been convicted of a sex offense with a minor in L.A.
Back in 1945, Barry Fitzgerald, who was nominated for best actor for “Going My Way” and won best supporting actor in that same movie, was found not guilty in the manslaughter death of an elderly woman whom he had hit with his car on Hollywood Boulevard, according to the book “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards.” Fitzgerald was acquitted a month before the nominations were disclosed.
In Downey’s case, the judge ordered him incarcerated for six months, although the actor could be out sooner on good behavior. In the meantime, New Line said it will include Downey in its Oscar marketing campaign for “One Night Stand.”
“We haven’t taken out ads yet for any of our films,” a New Line spokesman said, “but he is definitely among those we will be pushing.”
In a recent Playboy interview, Downey discussed the ease with which he could do drugs and also get back to the set of “Home for the Holidays,” a 1995 film that was directed by actress Jodie Foster.
“I could go from watching Spectravision in a hotel room to being back there in about 45 minutes with drugs and I could say that for any major city.”
Downey said Foster didn’t let him off the hook just because he was doing good takes.
“God bless Jodie Foster,” Downey said. " . . . She said, ‘Listen, I’m not worried about you on this film. You’re not losing it or nodding out, and you’re giving a great performance. I’m worried about you thinking you can get away with doing this on another film.’ ”
Joan Hyler, a veteran talent manager who has known Downey for years, said the public perception that Hollywood coddles its troubled stars is not always accurate.
“I think there is no way Hollywood is lenient,” Hyler said. “We are in an age now where the scrutiny [of celebrities] is much more specific and severe than it has been in the past . . . and it does have an effect. . . . There is a lot of scrutiny going on these days when there are major studios and lots of money at stake. Nobody wants to be on a far location with an $85-million movie and run into problems.”
Hyler noted that among actors, Downey is recognized as a special talent to be treasured. “The kind of gift he has is unusual and this kind of talent isn’t replicated,” she said. “These actors, like Downey or Anthony Hopkins in ‘Amistad,’ cannot be cloned. That is why there is sympathy rather than sadness.”
Freelance writer Kristine McKenna contributed to this story.