Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Shooting from the Hip

Even among the rule-flouting filmmakers who emerged from the New York underground scene of the late 1950s and 1960s, Robert Downey Sr. was singularly irreverent. Like such varied contemporaries of his as Robert Frank, Shirley Clarke, Bruce Conner, Andy Warhol, and John Cassavetes, Downey was using film to freestyle and bop, seeking to upend a form that had been in thrall to a powerful studio system concerned above all with churning out profitable, inoffensive products with the widest possible appeal. These artists all drew an audience craving something completely different, one that huddled together at off-the-beaten-path venues like the Charles Theatre on Avenue B or in film societies like programmer and writer Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, where they certainly got the shocks they were after. But Downey also wanted to make ’em laugh. Though he has always denied having any sort of unifying artistic philosophy, his brand of in-your-face satire unmistakably came from a political consciousness—these are the works of an angry young man cynical about any form of leadership or conformity and not interested in adhering to any set parameters, social or aesthetic. Downey’s most daring, spontaneous period would span more than a decade, from his frenetic, slapstick 1964 debut feature Babo 73 to 1975’s one hundred percent story-free Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight. Along the way, he fearlessly dodged every propriety.

The New York–born Downey arrived on the burgeoning downtown cinema scene not as a film buff but as a curious outsider, a youth who had already clocked an impressive amount of life experience. By the early fifties, he had been a prep-school athlete and a Golden Gloves boxer, played semiprofessional baseball, joined the army using a fake birth certificate, and been court-martialed three times. Gravitating to the bustling cultural center that was Greenwich Village in 1956, at the age of twenty, Downey found himself drawn to the theater, studying acting and becoming an off-off-Broadway playwright. Not generally a fan of movies, he was nevertheless inspired by the writing of filmmaker and Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas, who opened Downey’s mind to the DIY possibilities of cinema.

His initial stab at moviemaking, 1961’s Balls Bluff (later edited into the more expansive No More Excuses, 1968) is a twenty-four-minute vignette about a Civil War soldier who is unexpectedly transported to contemporary Central Park. It was first shown at the Charles, which held monthly open screenings with a simple programming code: if you brought a print of a film, they would show it. Other filmmakers who got their start at these remarkably popular events—attended by audiences that were often loud, interactive, and/or high as a kite—included Paul Morrissey, Brian De Palma, and future Oscar-winning cinematographer Nestor Almendros.

At one of these screenings, Downey saw Ron Rice’s 1960 film The Flower Thief (“The beatnik film par excellence,” according to J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s book Midnight Movies), which starred Taylor Mead, a stockbroker turned Beat poet and performer extraordinaire (he would eventually become a featured player of Andy Warhol’s). Captivated by Mead’s sincere and eccentric persona, Downey tailored a role to his oddball talents, casting him as the president of the “United Status” in his first long-form film, the bonkers, all-purpose political satire Babo 73. Mead’s President Sandy Studsbury, whose qualifications include having majored in hotel management at Millard Fillmore University, presides over an administration of ne’er-do-wells like Chester Kitty-Litter (Studsbury’s “left-hand man”), Lawrence Silver-Sky (“The fascist gun in the West”), and Phillipe Green (who “majored in self-flagellation at the University of Hard Knocks”). They conduct important Cabinet meetings from folding chairs on a deserted beach, kill the prime minister of Luxembourg, discuss ways to combat contraceptives produced by “the Red Siamese,” try to forge a disarmament agreement with Albania, and make inspiring declarations like “Every man has a right to be a bigot!” Though much of Babo 73 takes place in a ragged nowheresville—on that beach, along desolate highways, in and around a crumbling Victorian house with a caved-in roof, known as the White House—Downey and his intrepid crew also shot all over Washington, D.C., capturing Mead and his cronies scrambling around on the Capitol steps and in front of the real White House. (Luckily, Downey has said, President Kennedy was in Europe, so security was loose.) At one point, Downey even filmed Mead insinuating himself into a real-life military parade.

Though it had timeliness on its side—it was shot in the summer of 1963 and released in the midst of 1964’s presidential campaign—Babo 73 didn’t connect with most critics. It found at least two defenders, however: Brendan Gill, who gave the film an enthusiastic review in the New Yorker, and Mekas, who praised it in the Voice. And Mekas’s appreciation for Downey’s take-no-prisoners exuberance grew only more vocal with the 1966 film Chafed Elbows, which the critic called “as good as anything done in the nouvelle vague.” (In between, in 1965, Downey had directed, from someone else’s script, the darkly comic Sweet Smell of Sex, all prints of which have been lost.)

Chafed Elbows, made for $25,000, is a stream-of-consciousness comedy constructed mostly out of 35 mm still photographs developed at Downey’s neighborhood drugstore. Right from its giddily transgressive opening gag—in which we meet Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan), lying in bed in an unmistakably sexual morning-after tableau with a woman who turns out to be his mother (Elsie Downey, the director’s wife, who takes on every female role in the film with relish and chameleonlike brilliance)—it’s clear we’re in dangerous territory. Soon enough, our hapless Greenwich Village Candide, in the midst of his “annual November breakdown,” finds out he’s pregnant, gives birth to $1,890 in cash from his hip via cesarean section, stars in a low-budget movie, shoots a cop, and meets all kinds of urban oddballs, including the unrepentant sock sniffer Baby Jane Shrimpton and the pretentious wannabe director Leo Realism. Here, Downey uses obscene farce not simply to shock but also to skewer the idea of the American dream with perverse glee (the film’s “happy ending” involves Walter going on welfare and marrying Mom). Distinguished by its authentic downtown vibe and sketch-comic openness, Chafed Elbows was a cult hit, running for more than six months in Manhattan, at one point in a double feature at the Bleecker Street Cinema with Kenneth Anger’s pivotal avant-garde short Scorpio Rising (1964). This time, Downey’s film received strong notices even from daily newspapers, in New York, Los Angeles, and beyond.

The success of Chafed Elbows made it easier for Downey to get funding for his next film, No More Excuses, a hectic 16 mm mash-up satirizing the “new morality” of the time. Codirected with Downey’s sometime editor Robert Soukis, it was originally conceived as a showcase for footage left over from a five-minute ABC news segment Downey had been hired to shoot about the singles-bar scene on New York’s Upper East Side (including the original T.G.I. Friday’s). In these segments, the offscreen director asks various partiers, in clubs and on the street, their thoughts about the “so-called sexual revolution.” Woven in with these are the adventures of a time-traveling Civil War soldier who ends up in contemporary Manhattan (the footage taken from Balls Bluff); comic sketches about Charles Guiteau’s repeated bumbling attempts to assassinate President James Garfield; the bloviations of Alan Abel, director of the fictional and ludicrous Society for Indecency to Naked Animals; and the sexual escapades of a man and a woman—and a chimp. No More Excuses doesn’t concern itself with making any pronouncements about the permissiveness of the era. And Downey leaves it up to the viewer to connect the film’s disparate elements—
or rather, to decide whether there are connections to be made at all (“In some grim and paranoid way, the movie often makes hilarious sense,” wrote the New York Times’ Vincent Canby).

What undoubtedly does unite the film’s many stories—and all of Downey’s films—is the director’s lack of inhibition. This is, after all, a man who, dressed as No More Excuses’ Union Army private Stuart Thompson, jumped onto the field at Yankee Stadium during a game, an incident that, as shown in the film, made the papers. In the article, Downey is dubbed a “weirdo.” As his next film would prove, this weirdo had no intention of going straight.

Movin’ on Up

One benefit of Robert Downey Sr.’s quick ascent to cult status in the midsixties, in addition to the means it afforded him to keep making movies, was the steady paid work it brought. Not long after Chafed Elbows had hit it relatively big in hip Greenwich Village, he was hired by a production company that specialized in television commercials. Downey had free rein to create experimental, irreverent ads—though many of them would never air. A spot he made for Preparation H, for instance, features a beautiful young Chinese woman holding up a tube of the ointment, sultrily beckoning the camera to come closer, and saying, “No matter what your ethnic affliction, use Preparation H and kiss your hemorrhoids good-bye” (the commercial was rejected by Downey’s bosses but appears in No More Excuses).

Downey’s Putney Swope (1969) was directly inspired by his experiences in advertising—specifically, as he has often said, by his realization that a black colleague of his was making considerably less money than he was for doing the same work. It’s a freewheeling sociopolitical satire about a Madison Avenue advertising agency thrown into upheaval after its white chairman dies of a stroke midmeeting and is replaced on the spot by the agency’s music director and token black board member, the titular Swope (Arnold Johnson). Swope is elected because nine board members vote for him, figuring no one else will. Putney Swope remains Downey’s most popular effort, a cult classic that has gone from midnight-movie sensation to rental standby.

The film features both scattershot, see-what-sticks humor (bits of repeated dialogue like “How many syllables, Mario?” have entered the pop-culture lexicon) and truly audacious satire. Released at the height of the Black Power movement, Putney Swope is in many ways a radical fantasy. But it’s not as black and white as it may at first appear: power corrupts, the film suggests, with no regard for race. Swope, who fires almost all of the agency’s employees when he assumes control, keeping just one token white around, begins by taking the high road, refusing to create ads for war toys, cigarettes, and alcohol. But he gradually grows despotic, coming to rule the company, which he renames Truth and Soul, Inc., with an iron fist. If Swope’s initial integrity makes him an exhilarating hero, it’s his slow transformation into a sellout that makes him sadly, though hilariously, recognizable. He remains both enigmatic and sympathetic all the way to the film’s fiery, anarchic conclusion.

Downey dubbed Johnson’s entire performance with his own voice, which he’s said he felt forced to do because the actor could not remember his lines. Whatever the reason, the result adds to the crackpot, cartoonish sensibility that pervades the film—Downey’s gravelly growl sounds vaguely Muppet-like. Other contributions to the general surreality are the color commercials that punctuate the black-and-white main narrative, including a nudity-filled plug for a swinging airline, a foul-mouthed cereal spot, and a parodic, blissed-out musical ad for acne cream featuring Ronald Dyson and Shelley Plimpton, both at the time letting it all hang out as original cast members of Hair.

Putney Swope was an attention grabber for sure, and broke box-office records at the Upper East Side’s Cinema II, playing well to black and white viewers alike. Downey’s next two theatrical features were higher-profile efforts, made for United Artists, though they didn’t match the success of Putney Swope. Pound (1970), a prison comedy based on one of Downey’s own plays, boasts a cast of eighteen actors playing dogs that have an hour to be adopted before they’ll be put to sleep (the studio would have preferred that the film be animated); Greaser’s Palace (1972) is a sacrilegious comic western about a zoot-suited messiah. In 1973, theater and television producer Joseph Papp approached Downey about directing an adaptation of David Rabe’s play Sticks and Bones, about a wounded American POW coming home from Vietnam, for CBS. The film generated controversy before it even aired: the network canceled its original scheduled broadcast (the war, still going on, hadn’t often been dramatized at that point and was considered chancy material), and this sparked an outcry from some returning soldiers. It was ultimately shown late at night, without advertisers. Despite the conflict, Downey was invigorated by his experience with Papp, calling the producer “the funniest, most daring person I’d ever met.” Downey then proposed to Papp an idea for his most radical film yet, one he claimed would have no beginning, middle, or end.

The result, titled Moment to Moment when it was first shown in 1975 but later changed by the filmmaker to the tongue twister Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, kept alive the subversive, anything-goes spirit of Downey’s sixties output. Funded by Papp, along with Downey’s pals Hal Ashby, Norman Lear, and Jack Nicholson, and a slew of other brave souls, the film was shot in bits and pieces over the course of more than two years. Made up of a variety of vignettes—featuring a baseball game played on horseback, fisticuffs among senior citizens, and all sorts of miscreants and eccentrics wrapping their mouths around nonsense dialogue with infectious delight—it is remarkably formless, a shape-shifting, collagelike head trip that hinges on almost constant disruption. Every time viewers feel like they may have grasped a thread, it’s snipped, and the film moves on to something else; it’s like a thing with a mind of its own—and maybe in the throes of a seizure. The only through lines are the willful brazenness of its maker; the soundtrack by Jack Nitzsche, David Sanborn, and Arica; and the dynamic presence of the astonishingly versatile Elsie Downey. As in Chafed Elbows, she plays every female role, though there’s an even wider range here, from an Afro-wigged jive dancer to a sultry gunslinger to a cocaine addict. Downey says today that he sees the film, ultimately, as a tribute to her considerable talents.

This crazy quilt of a movie, which Downey proudly says is his son’s favorite of his, was first shown at a midnight screening at the 1975 Telluride Film Festival. A general release wasn’t in the cards, though, so Downey has had the liberty to tinker with Two Tons over the intervening years. The version presented here is a newly streamlined edit (cut down some twenty minutes from the original) and jettisons Downey’s opening voice-over. It’s the one that Downey feels is closest to his initial avant-garde vision. As to why he saw the need to further edit Two Tons so many years later, Downey says simply, “Nothing is ever done.” It’s a fitting quote for a film never envisioned with an ending.

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight has a visceral effect similar to that of Downey’s defining films of the sixties, from Babo 73 to Putney Swope. They are all beholden to no one and nothing, both products and diagnoses of a schizophrenic culture. Downey, who still directs the odd odd film, says he is taken aback by the strange power and cult status of these early works. When Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation chose a handful of them to restore and preserve in 2008, Downey claims, he was more surprised than anyone; he maintains that they were simply larks, made on the run. Yet these daring films speak eloquently to a time when movie artists were gleefully tearing through the social fabric. Watching his defining works today, even Downey admits that “the films are almost about something.”

Special thanks to Robert Downey Sr. for his participation in this project.

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