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Robert Downey Jr. not just Tony Stark

Credit: ROBERT MUHLBOCK

Fanshawe professor Erin MacDonald published her new book last month on the performances of actor Robert Downey Jr.


Francis Siebert | Interrobang | News | November 3rd, 2014



When Fanshawe College professor Erin MacDonald was looking for a book to read about actor Robert Downey Jr., she couldn’t find any.

“Being a fan and an academic, I was looking for things to read about his performances, and I wasn’t finding any,” the professor at Fanshawe’s School of Language and Liberal Studies said. “I thought, ‘There should really be a book about this man’s performances. He’s such a great actor, and he’s [got] such unique stories. He’s got such a great survival story.’”

Last month, MacDonald did just that: She published Robert Downey Jr. from Brat to Icon: Essays on the Film Career, a collection of essays covering the actor’s performance in more than 25 of his films.

MacDonald grew up in Manitoba, where she liked writing short stories and poems as kid. She later moved to Thunder Bay and pursued a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Lakehead University and then moved to southwestern Ontario for her master’s and doctorate’s at the University of Waterloo. She’s been teaching at Fanshawe since 2005.

MacDonald first became interested in Downey when he played a drug addict in the 1987 film Less Than Zero.

“His performance in that was just incredibly moving,” she said. “The film itself, overall, wasn’t a great-quality film, but he really stood out for his performance.”

It was Downey’s raw emotions and his ability to connect with audiences in a down-to-earth way that caught her attention. She says he still does that in his performances.

“I’ve always followed his films,” she said. “Any time a film came out and he was in, I would see it just because he was in it.”

She says not all of Downey’s films were great and neither were all of his performances, but that there was just something unique about his performances.

“He likes to use an improvisational style, and he likes to combine roles with his own personality,” she says.

For Robert Downey Jr. from Brat to Icon, MacDonald wrote the introduction, a biography, a chronology and a filmography.

She’s also edited all of the essays and wrote three: one on his performance in Chaplin and a two-part essay on his performances of LGBT characters – including his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. While Sherlock Holmes is not an openly homosexual character, she says there were references in the two films that might suggest some sort of love affair between Holmes and his sidekick, John Watson.

“I think she’s done a brilliant job with this book,” said Stefanie Ketley, a professor at Fanshawe’s School of Language and Liberal Studies who helped edit MacDonald’s essays. “She has bridged ever so well the traditional gap between academic work that’s heavy in style and created a work that is appealing to a much broader audience and yet is still very well documented.”

MacDonald says her goal was to make a book about Downey’s performances that was informative and entertaining.

“And also to contribute to the idea that he’s not just Tony Stark,” she said. “He’s got a fantastic career of really good films behind him and some amazing performances that young people today don’t even know about.”
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