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Robert Downey Jr. Plays Dual Role  in <i>The Singing Detective</i> - 2003-10-25

Robert Downey Jr. plays a dual role in a psychological drama with comedy and musical numbers written by the late English playwright Dennis Potter. In this week's Hollywood Highlights, Alan Silverman has a look at "The Singing Detective."

Novelist Dan Dark has an active imagination trapped in a body paralyzed by disease. From his hospital bed, in a haze of painkillers, his flights of fancy take him into the world of his fictional character: 'a gumshoe who warbles' The Singing Detective.

Often the excursions into the surreal take Dark to bright pop music. In his imagination, the nurses and doctors transform into a lavish rendition of Mr. Sandman or he himself lip-syncs to other 1950s hits, all of them specified in the script that Dennis Potter wrote while he himself was confined to a hospital bed, his mind clouded by heavy doses of painkillers.

Star Robert Downey Jr. has had his own widely publicized bouts with drug use and altered realities; but he says the film is not art imitating life, at least not his life.

"I think it parallels Dennis Potter's life," he explained. "My story would be a little different. I think it parallels something that seems mythological, but is true: you can make miraculous recoveries from seeming hopeless situations if you put your mind to it and you have enough support. I think it's about the process of maturing."

In the fantasy sequences, Downey (as Dan Dark) is a suave cabaret singer and Bogart-like private eye; but in the reality of the hospital, he is frozen all but his face immobilized by a painful skin condition. Even though it was elaborate makeup, Downey notes that acting without the use of his body was a challenge. "It drove me nuts," he said. "In looking at it, time and time again to critique myself, I should have done less."

"It was not easy," says Keith Gordon, who directed The Singing Detective. "He had to spend hours every day having that stuff put on, which is not the way to start your day: sitting still in a chair for three or four hours with people gluing things onto you."

According to Keith Gordon, the physical restriction of the makeup actually helped Downey get in touch with the character and its creator. "One of the things I said to him way before we started was 'it's going to be uncomfortable. It's going to be miserable,'" he said. "I told him 'I've looked at a lot of your films and you use your body so much. It's something very important to you and you're not going to be able to do that either; you're going to be stuck in this bed. So you're going to be cranky and unhappy.' I said you can either use that to get cranky with the crew or you can get into the soul of Dennis Potter and this guy, who had to live with that his whole life, and use that to fuel the anger. Robert is really smart. All you have to do is say those kind of things once and he gets it. I think from there on he used that physical discomfort to feed the character."

Rather than use their own voices, Dark and the other characters expertly lip-sync to the pop music hits. It's the technique writer Potter used in the original BBC television mini-series of The Singing Detective 20 years ago and director Gordon points out that it was important to the film script as well.

"Potter was obsessed with the idea that pop culture we grow up with sort of invades our brain and affects how we see the world, whether it's cheap mystery novels or AM radio," he said. "Without being conscious of it, we become the mouthpiece for the culture we grow up in."

Robert Downey Jr. says all the cast members 'stayed on the page' they did not improvise or otherwise alter the script. "Someone with a lot of time on his hands crafted this script. He wrote this in and out of his own hospitalization," he said. "In the script that was sent around you see these grease marks from the medication on his fingers saying 'sorry about the grease marks' when he was making notes on the film. This is literally a scribe at the end of his incarnation, furiously getting his masterpiece out."

The Singing Detective also features Robin Wright Penn, Katie Holmes, Jeremy Northam, Adrien Brody and Mel Gibson, who also is the film's producer.