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Hollywood Flashback: American Cinematheque Honoree Robert Downey Jr. Makes His Mark in 'Less Than Zero'

20th Century Fox/The Kobal Collection

The actor was 22 when the Bret Easton Ellis book adaptation hit the big screen.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

When Less Than Zero opened in November 1987, The Hollywood Reporter called it a "lame adaptation" of Bret Easton Ellis' novel with a "bogus designer plot on top of it" and said "box-office prospects look dismal."

It would make a meager $12.4 million domestically but was the breakout film for Robert Downey Jr., then 22.

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Before making what has become a cult film of '80s teenage decadence, he'd done Saturday Night Live for a season and a handful of movies, including The Pick-up Artist with Molly Ringwald.

THR gushed that his cocaine-addicted Julian was "easily the best performance" in Zero, worthy of a supporting actor Oscar nomination "notwithstanding the fact that Academy voters are not the most nimble in lining up for youth movies." (Downey wasn't nominated but later got a lead actor nom for 1992's Chaplin.)

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He said of his performance in a 1997 interview, "That's probably the first time I created a character from scratch. And it was really emotional."

Producer Jon Avnet said recently that he knew Downey was perfect for Zero when he did a screen test with Kiefer Sutherland and Uma Thurman (they didn't end up in the film, but Brad Pitt did -- as a $38-a-day uncredited extra). "There's such a vulnerability to his performance," says Avnet. "You can see it in his eyes. And the more he tries to hide it, the more it's there."

Downey will be feted by American Cinematheque Friday.

Up next for the actor: Warner Bros.' Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, due Dec. 16.