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Robert Downey Jr in Black and White

Choosing to shoot parts of Oppenheimer with IMAX cameras was nothing new for director Christopher Nolan. He’d done it before with The Dark KnightDunkirk, and Tenet, among others. What was unique about Oppenheimer was shooting with black and white IMAX cameras. This was a creative decision taken to distinguish various plot strands, with the black and white scenes providing a more objective frame of reference as opposed to Oppenheimer’s subjective frame of reference reflected in the colour scenes.


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But much has already been made of Oppenheimer’s use of black and white film. We’re focusing instead on a sort of “adjacent” subject: Robert Downey Jr in black and white. The renowned actor plays Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer, appearing in many of the black and white scenes; but this is not the first time the actor has appeared in a film that employs this technique. As a celebration of his magnificent performance in the film, we’re looking back at Robert Downey Jr’s other black and white appearances.

Chaplin (1992)
Okay, so this film is not actually in black and white but given that RDJ plays one of the most, if not the most, famous black and white film stars and filmmakers, Charlie Chaplin, we had to include it. Chaplin was renowned for his physical performances but also his on-screen pathos and eventually his rousing dialogue. From the physical movement to the emotionally moving, Downey becomes every aspect of Chaplin. It’s an incredible performance that nabbed RDJ his first Oscar nomination. Could there be a Best Supporting Actor nomination in the stars for Oppenheimer? RDJ has already received a Golden Globe nomination for the role, so it looks like the stars are aligning.

good night, and good luck. (2005)
The pervasive paranoia of the McCarthy era is evident in Oppenheimer through its treatment of the man and its presentation of his security hearing, orchestrated in large part by Strauss. In good night, and good luck. McCarthyism is dealt with even more directly as it deals with the issue from the media’s perspective as they strive to expose Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. RDJ plays another real-life character, journalist Joe Wershba, quite the counterpart to Strauss. For the role of Senator Joseph McCarthy, instead of casting an actor, writers and producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney (who also directs) chose to use archival footage. Since this was in black and white, they decided the rest of the film should be black and white too, to avoid the archival footage standing out and looking archaic. Instead, you get an authentic look, while also (much like in Oppenheimer) lending the film a kind of objectivity. It was a good call, because the film went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, something we hope to see happen for cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s excellent work in Oppenheimer.

Sr (2022)
This very personal documentary, shot in black and white, reflects on the career of RDJ’s father, Robert Downey Sr, as well as the relationship between the two. Interspersed with footage from his father’s films, Robert Downey Jr’s charm and Robert Downey Sr’s dry candour drive the story. RDJ leads the deconstructed storytelling in a way that lets us into the process of making the documentary while also telling a story that is alternately funny, sad, and moving … you could almost call it, Chaplinesque.

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