Why Do Some of Us Love to Watch an Actor’s Entire Filmography?
Featuring examples from my current journey with Robert Downey Jr.
Have you ever watched everything an actor or director has done, then asked yourself why you went through all of that? If the answer is no, that’s okay. You’re like most of the general public. But for people like me, watching entire filmographies is a must—there’s an intense satisfaction to knowing you’ve done the thing and made it through a whole history. You also acquire unimpeachable knowledge about said subject. Making it through a filmography means traveling a long, uneven road, and it takes a lot of time, but once you’ve arrived at your destination, no one can take away the things you learned along the way.
Gaining insight into an actor or director’s history is a significant factor in my filmography adventures, because then I have the knowledge to discuss them without worrying that I’m saying something inaccurate about their careers. I can talk about Christopher Nolan’s movies with ease because I’ve seen almost every last one. Harrison Ford’s career isn’t something you want to fight me on and so on and so forth.
On Twitter, writer Beth Weeks posed a question about the “fanperson habit'” of obsessing over an actor and it brought up a lot of feelings for me. Not only because I do watch the entire filmography when I become focused on an actor or director (or at least all the filmography I can get my hands on), but also because pondering the question surfaced emotions from when I was younger.
has anyone written (academically, creatively, however) about the fanperson habit of obsessing over an actor and dragging oneself through their entire filmography? i’ve seen viral tweets/text posts about it, but have never read an article or essay on it
— beth weeks (@ek_weeks) May 24, 2020
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to watch as many movies as possible for the actor I love; it’s an early compulsion. Meaning I’ve seen some bad movies. Some really bad movies. The first two people I really remember doing this for was Christian Bale when I was 14 and Robert Downey Jr. when I was 12. I’ll get to Downey later, but with Christian Bale, I watched Batman Begins and then went down a rabbit hole of watching everything and anything Bale had been in—an up and down journey that spans from Newsies to American Psycho and beyond. Why? Because I wanted to see what kind of movies he made and I wanted more Christian Bale content in my life. And I wanted that irrefutable background of information.
Some of the emotions that arose when considering the filmography question came with the word “obsession.” This is because my mother used to make fun of me and call the actors I love “my obsessions,” and suggest that I should just move on from them. Here’s the thing: I don’t move on, I never really do, and I don’t expect to. I always come back to them at some point or another, and I’m always glad to have the knowledge of their work I gained from my spree through their film and TV histories. I do find other actors who I enjoy and begin watching their work, adding to my filmography collection.
I’ve gone through the filmography of Harrison Ford for a podcast, Chris Pine for the same reason, and now I’m working on Robert Downey Jr.’s for my own benefit. There’s something about finishing a filmography that feels complete and satisfying to me. Looking at the motivation behind it, I feel fully informed thereafter when talking about my favorites, like I’ve gained a well-rounded insight into their working history. As a woman who loves media and works to parse it, it’s also important to have knowledge at hand, as I find I’m often challenged by people who expect I wouldn’t have “put in the time” or don’t know the full scope of a filmographic span.
And watching an entire filmography becomes something of a game to me once I start. I want to see how much I get through before it breaks me. Because the thing is, inevitably, there’s that mix of bad with the good when it comes to watching entire filmographies. The actor or director you love has had some duds and misfires in their career. That doesn’t mean those movies or TV shows aren’t worth watching, however. They show us multi-faceted sides of their performances, and ask us to consider why that role may have been taken, where they were in their life. They enable us to better trace their career evolution.
Let’s zoom in on my current journey with Robert Downey Jr. to showcase how this works. This hasn’t been a quick viewing by any stretch of the imagination, as Downey has a long and storied relationship with Hollywood. I grew up watching Ally McBeal on TV with my mother so for me, his character Larry Paul was one of the first times I remember seeing RDJ in something, and I fell in love then and there. To this day, I start Christmas with Downey’s version of “River” by Joni Mitchell, which he performed on the show.
But I was young when that first interest bloomed, and in no position to watch an entire filmography. I hadn’t yet learned an important lesson, and a critical one to keep in mind if you think you’re ready to take on an adventure like this: you have to work your way through the bad movies to in order to uncover the gems you never knew you needed in your life. That’s just the way of things.
While I do not have plans to ever watch Johnny Be Good (a film from 1988 starring Anthony Michael Hall and Downey) again, I probably would have never watched something like Soapdish or Heart and Souls if I hadn’t been making my way through the entirety of it for that sense of satisfaction at the end, and now I can’t imagine being without those movies. Here are the results from my Downey adventure—the films and the categories I found that they fit in. Please buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Due Date: The Good
Due Date is the movie that I love to bring up to counterpoint director Todd Phillips’ own comments on comedy. When all the controversy surrounding Joker was going around, I just kept thinking about how the man who directed a movie so off-base also directed one of my favorite comedies and now, after having just rewatched it, I think it also is a perfect example of the comedic timing Downey exudes. Often we think of him as the man with the quips, and that was evident long before he ever took on Tony Stark. But he does make for an excellent straight man in these comedies, and Due Date is here to show you that.
Following the trip from hell that Peter Highman (Downey) must take, he’s faced with obstacles all placed in front of him because Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) means well but does a lot of dumb things in the process. All Highman wants is to get home for the birth of his first child. While this may seem like a limited concept for a film, it is truly one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.
Zodiac: The Incredible
The internet knows my feelings on Zodiac, a movie that is nearly perfect in every way, and a huge portion of that is due to Downey’s performance as Paul Avery. Why Zodiac is perfect comes from a whole slew of reasons, but one at the forefront is that this movie came out in March of 2007, a year and two months before Downey’s supposed “comeback” with Iron Man. So while looking at his filmography, it’s interesting to note that this movie, in my eyes, was the turning point of his career. Yes, Iron Man changed how many viewed him, but it was Zodiac that really drove home the fact that he is an astonishing actor.
Zodiac is the dark and twisted telling of the Zodiac Killer who terrified the San Francisco area and the David Fincher film explores those directly involved in the investigation. Playing journalist Paul Avery, Downey shines alongside Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and more as they try to unpack the still-unsolved murders.
Soapdish: The Great
Movies you discover on your filmography journey can grab you for personal reasons and end up surprising you. For me, it was Soapdish. I remember owning this movie throughout most of my childhood and we just never watched it. It just existed in our movie cabinet. But seeing it as an adult and getting to witness both Robert Downey Jr. and Carrie Fisher starring together in a film about soap operas was an ideal experience. I fell in love and this became one of my favorite movies. Again, I might never have watched it otherwise, so a movie that’s now important in my life emerged from the need to be a filmographic completist.
David Seton Barnes (RDJ) is trying to have sex with one of the stars of the soap opera he writes for so, so instead of trying to date her normally, he agrees to basically kill off a character so they can have sex together. It’s a mess, I love it, and Carrie Fisher and Robert Downey Jr. are friends in it, thus cementing it as a movie for me.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Favorite
Once a favorite, always a favorite, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the movie that really cemented my feelings about RDJ. It’s the equivalent of I, Tonya for Sebastian Stan and Air Force One for Harrison Ford for me. At nearly 14 years old, I rolled up to a movie theater with my parents and came out with stars in my eyes for the, then, 40-year-old Robert Downey Jr, and no one should be surprised I’m the way I am today.
Harry Lockhart is our “narrator” and takes us on a twisty, funny journey where “young” Harry is played by Downey’s own son, Indio, and Lockhart ends up becoming an actor on accident when he ended up running into an audition to hide from the cops. Learning that he was only being used to get Colin Farrell to drop his asking price, Lockhart gets lost in helping his childhood sweetheart, Harmony, figure out the death of her sister.
The Pick-Up Artist: The Perfect Nonsense
Why The Pick-Up Artist is labeled as the “perfect nonsense” is because there are movies when traipsing through filmographies that barely make sense but you love them nonetheless. That’s me with this movie. I had to buy it off Amazon from a Chinese manufacturer because no one is streaming it. It’s a truly baffling film and one that I could probably watch for the rest of my life. Hence the title of perfect nonsense.
Jack Jericho is a master of seduction (sort of) and picks his next target: Randy Jensen (Molly Ringwald). When Randy’s father falls into trouble, Jack helps her win back his money and the two go on a journey together while continually not speaking to each other.
Dolittle: The Film?
Again we return to the main problem with watching filmographies the way I do—you have to watch everything. Including movies like Dolittle which, I will say, I liked more than most people (the film bombed) but also I liked it because I thought Downey was at peak hotness as John Dolittle. I have no shame, I’m a Scorpio. Scorpios, for whatever reason, love Downey. (See also his Scorpio wife: Susan Downey, my hero.) But … with the good comes the bad and thus means watching Dolittle.
John Dolittle has the ability to understand animals, but after the death of his wife, he becomes a recluse. But when the Queen needs his help, he must embark on a quest to find the one thing that will save her and he brings along his animals to help. There’s a fun gorilla with an anxiety problem voiced by Rami Malek.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe: The Legend
For Downey, you could argue that his career-making movie happened multiple times. If not with Chaplin, then with movies that got him recognition for a variety of different genres. But a franchise can make or break someone, and for Robert Downey Jr., the Marvel Cinematic Universe took what was left of his career and blew it up to the size of Ant-Man when he was stepping on Avengers in Civil War.
Tony Stark went from a “merchant of death” to the hero the world needed throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe until Avengers: Endgame ended it. We watched Tony’s growth as a character as well as Robert Downey Jr.’s seismic career shift and it was beautiful to see.
Only You: The Personal Preference
I’m an Italian from Pittsburgh who wishes she was Marisa Tomei, and who has a place in my heart for Robert Downey Jr., so Only You which features Tomei (an Italian) who lives in Pittsburgh going to Italy to fall in love where her love interest is RDJ … you get it right? It’s my personal life preference and sometimes, that plays out on camera. You’ll just vibe with one movie in particular and have no way of fully explaining yourself but guess what? You don’t have to, that’s what’s so fun about actually watching entire filmographies. It’s your journey.
Faith Corvatch (Tomei) is determined to find the love of her life, Damon Bradley, when she goes to Italy. The problem? She’s not sure who Damon Bradley is and when she does meet him, is he better than Peter Wright (Downey), who has been with her throughout this entire journey?
Heart and Souls: The Iconic
A movie that has a scene that sticks out so perfectly falls into this “iconic” category. For Heart and Souls, the scene in question is Robert Downey Jr. dancing down the street to “Walk Like A Man.” I can’t think about this without it being stuck in my head and, again, I wouldn’t have known it existed had I not fell into this rabbit hole.
Harrison (Charles Grodin), Penny (Alfre Woodard), Julia (Kyra Sedgwick) and Milo (Tom Sizemore) all died in 1959 on a bus crash at the same time that Thomas Reilly (Downey) is born, and throughout his life, they watch over him and talk to him. Soon they learn they have to use him to finish out their life goals and embark on a quest to help both Thomas and themselves.
Chef: The Perfect Choice
I know that I am a strange human. You’ve gotten this far into this piece, you should have realized that by now. But the movie Chef is so perfectly suited to me, it’s like someone met me and said “we got you.” But why it is the “perfect choice” is because it is a small cameo role that is weirdly perfect for the actor and is so ideal that you don’t care you watched an entire movie for one small scene. Chef is a beautiful movie anyway, but you get my point.
Chef is a movie that follows Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) on his journey to make food that speaks to him and not just what the owner of his restaurant (Dustin Hoffman) wants. When he decides to make a food truck, he gets help from his ex-wife’s ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.) and the cameo is outlandish, absurd, and perfect. Also, Chef is a perfect movie.
The Sherlock Holmes franchise: The Dream
While yes, no one in this world could play Tony Stark like Robert Downey Jr. did, that casting choice was almost a given. What wasn’t as simple of a choice? Downey as Sherlock Holmes. “The Dream” is a movie or franchise that seems completely against character and out of the realm of possibility that ends up working. Hence Sherlock Holmes. Both films are wonderfully fun, a great example of the character, and show that Downey is the kind of actor who can take on anything. These kinds of movies in filmographies can be surprising but are also just the movies you cling to when watching everything because they just work.
My own favorite franchise of Downey’s, the Sherlock Holmes movies brought to life the iconic character set in his correct time period and brought in famous canonical characters like Jude Law’s John Watson, Irene Adler, Moriarty, and more. While Sherlock Holmes 3 is said to be in the works, there still isn’t much news about it (and if you need someone to help with the script, I am here and available).
The Judge: The So Weird It’s Good
Listen, we all make choices. The Judge was certainly a choice. It starts with a simple storyline that keeps getting more and more complicated and it is truly so long, but also a movie I want everyone to see? Most actors I’ve taken this journey with have this kind of movie. The “What were you thinking” but also “I love it? Help me?” Chris Pine had People Like Us, Harrison Ford had the entire middle of his career that wasn’t Indiana Jones or Star Wars…it’s a weird time, but also time worth spending and these can sometimes even be the best parts of filmography viewings.
Hank Palmer isn’t close with his family but when his mother dies, he goes home for the funeral. What he didn’t expect was to stay longer and help defend his father against a murder charge. Through it all, he starts to fix his relationship with his dad (Robert Duvall) and learn how to be with his family once again.
Home for the Holidays: The Love
Filmographies come with a movie that means something to the viewer that they can’t really put into words. For me, that’s Home for the Holidays. I remember watching it and Wonder Boys (both starring Downey) and just loving them start to finish, and I couldn’t explain why. But to this day, I’ll watch them when I’m feeling down. Those movies are the beautiful gems that one discovers when going through filmographies that they may never have encountered otherwise, and that’s maybe why for me seeing absolutely everything is so important. You can find something that speaks to you that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
When Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) has to go home for the holidays, she’s worried about spending time with her family without the security of her brother Tommy (Downey) there to help her. When he shows up with his friend Leo (Dylan McDermott), Claudia’s trip suddenly gets more exciting.
Less Than Zero: The Emotional Journey
With a narrative that hits a bit differently in 2020, Less Than Zero has always been a movie that means a lot to me but is very hard to watch. When you know about an actor’s life, certain films come to mean something to you that maybe otherwise wouldn’t. For Downey, that movie that is incredibly difficult to watch if you know his history is Less Than Zero. Julian (Downey) struggles with drug addiction and in the film loses himself and his life due to it. Back when it was released, no one knew of Downey’s own struggles, so they thought he was just an incredible actor (he is but you get what I mean) and now, in retrospect, it’s interesting to look at Julian’s struggles and what Downey was going through himself back in 1987.
Growing up in Los Angeles is filled with fake people, drugs, and a world where parents don’t care about their children is our backdrop. That’s what happens for Clay (Andrew McCarthy), Blair (Jami Gertz), and Julian (Downey). While they’re all struggling through their emotional problems and their addictions, Julian is almost too far gone for any of them to help, and throughout the film, we learn about the lengths he’s gone and how much Clay will try to save him.
Johnny Be Good: The Oh-So Very Bad
I am so mad I had to watch this movie. I understand it was the ’80s, they did weird things, but this made no sense, I wasted my time, and Downey was barely in it. That’s a very common theme in filmography viewing. But you want to complete the set you just keep pushing through and thus you have movies like Johnny Be Good that you saw and that you remain mad about.
How does one explain Johnny Be Good? Johnny Walker (Anthony Michael Hall) is a great quarterback and a bunch of schools want him so they fight over him by giving him the weirdest gifts to come to their school. It backfires. That’s about it.
Tuff Turf: The Strange
I wish I could better parse Tuff Tuff, I really do. This movie is about kids in high school and parents give them wine, someone is getting married, James Spader has a spade tattoo that they just let him have despite him being IN HIGH SCHOOL and then someone shoots his dad? Kim Richards is also there and Robert Downey Jr. drums with no shirt on and glasses hanging around his neck like a bowtie. Every filmography has one (maybe not this weird) and you just sit there and wonder how you got here.
Downey plays Jimmy Parker, a high school student who becomes friends with Morgan (Spader) when he comes to town and helps him do whatever he needs to win over Frankie (Kim Richards). The plot of this movie is absolutely bonkers but there is a scene where Jimmy Parker’s band plays and, as I said before, he’s drumming shirtless for whatever reason and is a mess?
These are just a few examples. I could do this with every Downey movie, but also … I want you to watch them if you enjoy doing this, too.
While a deep-rooted interest in seeing more and more has long been a part of me, being up-to-date with knowledge is the biggest draw of the filmographic journey. I like watching entire filmographies because then when I am writing or talking about actors, I’m coming from an informed place. I can say that I think so-and-so has the best chance at bringing a character to life because I’ve watched their previous work. I know the arcs of their careers and can look into them and how they ended up where we see them today. Most people don’t care enough to do this. Some personality types may not have the patience or the inclination. But it’s something I really enjoy doing.
In my line of work, the knowledge derived is also highly useful. If I were to interview someone like Robert Downey Jr. and have the ability to pull a reference out to Firstborn, that’s not something he’s expecting, and you might get an honest, non-junket response.
Before I saw Weeks’ tweet, I hadn’t thought about why those of us who do this do what we do. But there’s clearly a bunch of us out there. So why do we ultimately take the good with the bad, and set ourselves up for hours of devoted time and energy? I think it’s for the feeling of completing something that means a lot to you, and feeling closer to the subject. It’s not for everyone and I recognize that, but it is something I love doing, and likely always have and always will.
(image: Marvel Entertainment/Warner Bros./20th Century Fox)
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