Before there was a Robert Downey Jr., there was a Robert Downey Sr. — who was originally just Robert Downey. The elder Downey (born 1936) made some wild films, one of which, Putney Swope, drew high praise from the Voice in 1969. Filmmaker/critic Jonas Mekas gave the tale — about a token black board member taking control of a Madison Avenue advertising agency — a rave, stating, “I am quite certain that it’s the funniest, the most absurd, and probably the most intelligent film you’ll see in town this week and next week and the week after that.” Three weeks on top in the hothouse hurly-burly that was low-budget/experimental filmmaking in the Big Apple back then indeed said a lot for Downey’s creative verve.
A few years later Downey was given a cool million by a producer looking to capitalize on Putney‘s cult-hit success. But big-time money apparently didn’t scale up Downey’s absurdist sense of humor in the new film, Greaser’s Palace, with New York Times critic Vincent Canby opining that the movie’s million-dollar look “depresses me even more than its witlessness.”
A month later, a Voice reviewer basically agreed, noting that Greaser’s Palace was imbued with “a tedium that is surprising from Downey, who has been entertaining even when bad.”
That, however, didn’t stop Downey’s backers from making a major advertising buy in the Voice at the end of the year. Were they looking for Oscar buzz? Hoping to build word-of-mouth momentum through the Voice‘s audience of sophisticated filmgoers? Whatever the reason, someone bought six pages of ads — in two successive weeks — to spell out the director’s name. Not even his megastar son (who appeared in Greaser’s Palace as a young child who meets a bad end at God’s hand) ever got that sort of love from the studio (at least not in the pages of the Voice).
Below we give you the original Voice review of Greaser’s Palace, and then 12 pages of old-school ego-stroking ads — the kind that would rub off on your fingers.
Downey gets religion — & gets tedious
By Stuart Byron
September 14, 1972
Robert Downey’s comic genius has always been rooted in the idea that the satiric, if pushed far enough, becomes the absurd — but it is not until GREASER’S PALACE that he has given a religious underpinning to his style. Those bit players in Putney Swope and Pound obsessed with their Sisyphusian “shtiks,” determined to maintain their personae and desires despite an unresponsive world, turn out to have been unwitting Christian existentialists, if the new film is any evidence. I was happier with Downey before he supplied us with this information. What’s wrong with Greaser’s Palace is not, as at least one influential critic would have it, its million dollar budget, but its arch explicitness.
Maybe it’s because we were all so busy laughing that few if any wrote about Downey “seriously” before. But his people always were involved in “meaningless” existential struggle, passionately involved with themselves, their hilarious fixations emerging as prayers or at least affirmations: the Chinaman’s son in Putney exploding firecrackers one by one at the ad agency, the German dog in Pound continually professing unwanted love to the French poodle. They acted as if the only communication was between themselves and God; for all the relating with other people they might as well have been on a desert. although the films took place in New York. Yet this was a part of their brilliance: Downey’s desert, like Sartre’s hell, was “other people,” and this was an especially hard trick to pull off in the context of the Brueghel-like atmosphere of Putney. In Greaser’s Palace, the characters do their vaudeville turns on a real desert, and there, for one thing, lies the difference. The comedian should leave it to the critics to explain his jokes.
Into this desert — actually an isolated Southwestern town circa 1880, and its environs — comes an anachronistic bop singer, an unwitting Christ. There is also a “father” and a Holy Ghost and of course the Caesar/Greaser of the title, a constipated despot to whom the people render what is his. They render it incidentally, by standing in line and offering material tribute (money, food) — rather as if they lived in A.D. 35 Rome rather than 19th century America. This sort of thing — there are a couple of other examples — vitiates the allegorical aspect of the film, as one can hardly be convinced that we must continually relive the Passion unless it relates lo changing sociological reality.
But that’s a minor squabble. Far more important is that in getting “serious” Downey has also gotten ponderous. In his previous films, the absurdity of each character was countered continually by other characters: if they didn’t simply ignore something they responded with an absurdity of their own. In Greaser’s Palace only one absurdity per scene is allowed; the rest is blank stares. James Antonio, for example, tells marvelously raunchy stories as Greaser’s horny son Vernon, stories filled with brilliant Downeyisms such as “I snuggled up to her cunny,” stories delivered with perfect vulgar intonation. But laughter sticks in the throat because every time he tells one of these tales to the father, the old man simply looks at him expressionless for a minute and then walks on.
There’s a deliberation to this, of course: the vaudeville joke in a vacuum is the stylistic modus operandi of Greaser’s Palace. But for all the variety of the gags and routines, they are all subservient to one rather basic and simple idea — an idea that in itself remains unelaborated. The result is a tedium that is surprising from Downey who has been entertaining even when bad. One hopes this is no permanent matter, and that the explicit Greaser’s Palace is the “out of his system” picture it seems.
From the December 21, 1972, Voice:
And there was a repeat ad buy one week later. Here we present the pages from the bound Voice archive volumes to give you that old tabloid newspaper feeling.