Flockhart and Downey: Fox
Ken Tucker
December 06, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Robert Downey Jr.’s talent is a gift to ”Ally McBeal”

I think it’s telling that when Robert Downey Jr.’s name came up last week in conversations I had, it was usually not in reference to his arrest for drug possession. More often, it was about the remarkable work Downey has been doing on ”Ally McBeal,” which continued on Monday night’s episode. So many people mentioned to me how heartbreakingly lovely Downey’s softly sung version of Joni Mitchell’s ”River” was on Nov. 27’s Christmas themed episode.

I watched an advance tape of that episode some weeks earlier, to write a review of the series and, at the time, Downey’s performance pulled me out of the show I watching. Time froze; I felt goose bumps and got a little choked up. Mitchell’s song begins with the tinkling of the opening chords of ”Jingle Bells” on the piano before drifting into its own melody, one of the most elegant, straightforward, and beautiful she has ever written, from her 1971 masterpiece ”Blue.” It became, in Downey’s performance, a metaphor for his desire to elude his self professed addiction: ”I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Where Mitchell intended her words as a yearning to break free of a bad love affair and, perhaps, of show business — ”I’m gonna make a lotta money/ Then I’m gonna quit this crazy scene” — Downey’s rendition could be heard as a confession of confusion, of doubt about his purpose in life, of a restless fear.

”I’m so hard to handle/ I’m selfish and I’m sad” — anyone who looked into Downey’s face in the widely published police mug shot that captured his gaunt handsomeness better than any glamour puss publicity shot ever will, knew that he must have identified intensely with Mitchell’s couplet.

Downey’s ”Ally” portrayal of lawyer Larry Paul is one of the high points of current television. He takes the romantic byplay David E. Kelly has written for Larry and Calista Flockhart’s Ally and runs with it. Acting opposite Downey, Flockhart abandons most of the fidgety mannerisms that have contributed to the show’s recent unbearableness. They lock eyes and pitch woo with all the élan of a top notch couple in a great screwball comedy. On one level, Downey’s performance is a demonstration of the difference between film and TV actors. Though trained on the stage, Flockhart has picked up the common TV habit of playing the lines, not the character; Downey has, as his very name suggests, brought her back to earth on a soft, thick — downy — cushion.

I presume I’ll get some responses to this piece saying I shouldn’t be so sympathetic to a law breaking substance abuser. As Downey himself reportedly told the police, ”I’m not a movie star. I’m just a guy with a drug problem.” And there’s the cheap irony that, as he was singing ”River” on TV, he was about to be sent, as they used to say in gangster movies, up the river.

But that’s the thing about being in the presence of a moment of art — something I’m convinced Downey’s singing of ”River” was. It transcends the proper, socially recommended response, and leaves you grateful for whatever combination of talent and vulnerability that led to that moment.

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