Monday, March 8, 2010

Robert Downey, Jr.'s "The Last Party" (1993)

The above photograph of Robert Downey, Jr. was taken during the 1992 Republican National Convention, between August 17 and 20, 1992, at the Astro Hall Arena (part of the Astrodome complex) in Houston, Texas. Downey and his cameraman were filming what would become the 1993 social and political documentary, "The Last Party" (which is, apparently, unavailable on DVD, but you can find both clips of the film, as well as the entire film itself, on the YouTubes, if you're diligent.). Directed by Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, and written by Downey, Donovan Leitch, Levin, and Josh Richman, the film - an attempt to bring together politics, pop culture, and the personality of Downey - is now mostly forgotten.

Watching the film all these years later, and knowing what was in store for Downey in the years to come, the film is more of a cultural relic than a meaningful documentary about the political culture of 1992. Downey seemed more interesting in being the center of attention than accurately depicting the political landscape of the time. Of course, we know now, and we probably suspected then, that Downey, despite his talents, was not the most mature individual. He would later spiral downward into a pit of self indulgence from which he would later, finally emerge after nearly a decade of attempting to do so. (In fact, in one portion of the film, Downey comments rather frankly on his struggle with drugs, which modern viewers now know would halt his career for some time just a few years after this 1993 film was released.). However, in 2010, perhaps the young Downey can be forgiven for his political ignorance and his haphazard attempt to report on politics in 1992. Maybe we should just enjoy the film for what it is?

Well, that's not exactly what they did upon the film's arrival in theatres. In 1993, reviewing the documentary at the time of its initial release, Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote:

More than an interviewer, Mr. Downey has the impossible task of being the emotional and spiritual grounding wire for the film, which Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin have directed in the style of an jeans commercial on MTV. The film is so jumpy that no one, including Mr. Downey, gets to say much of anything. Adopting a cheery, guy-next-door attitude, he offers autobiographical tidbits about his parents' divorce, his sexual problems with women and his enrollment in a 12-step program, which are supposed to be emblematic of the "Less Than Zero" generation.

Crisscrossing the country with Mr. Downey is the furthest thing from being on the road with Charles Kuralt or Tom Brokaw, since Mr. Downey prefers the role of clown to pundit. Early in the film, he announces he has two sides to his personality, "the good boy" and "the goat boy." The goat boy is shown, stripped to his underwear splashing around in a public fountain. The goat boy prefaces a group interview with some young Wall Street traders who chant "greed is good" with a string of glib obscenities about how he loathes them.

The Wall Street colloquy is one of the more pungent fragments in "The Last Party," which opens today at the Village East. Far too much of the time, the film dashes around trying to cover as many political bases as possible. Mr. Downey attends marches and demonstrations involving feminists and gay-rights advocates, but the visits are so brief that the issues are barely addressed. Whether the people facing the camera are poor, angry blacks or rich Young Republicans, everybody tries to cram as much rhetoric as possible into their 15 seconds of celluloid. The collective voices add up to a cocktail party din in which no one is heard distinctly.

It did not, apparently, fare well at the box office. But then again, what documentaries do, especially then? (Michael Moore's big budget pseudo-docs were still years off in the future).

Back in late 2007, this site located a few of the interviewees featured in the film. Few of them were pleased with their depiction in the final product, and many were not interested in commenting on the film so many years later. Fred Bartlett, Jr., who was featured in the film as a young Republican at the 1992 Republican National Convention, was kind enough to answer a few questions by email regarding the nature of the experience. He and his friends were interviewed as a group by Downey, who discovered that a large group of College Republicans would be assembled at a ranch in Houston during the convention.

Bartlett's 2007 interview with this site is as follows:

1. How would you describe your political beliefs in 1992? How would you compare them to those of 2007?
In 1992, I would classify myself as a conservative Republican. Who followed the party line and was supportive of the political process. I was ready to fight the ideological war against the liberals who appeared very intolerant of all beliefs that did not support their agenda or point of view. Today in 2007, my views have changed and some would say that I am very different. While I still am a registered Republican, I really have a hard time supporting the party and what they are doing. Today, I really feel that the politicians are clueless when it comes to what people are going through on a daily basis. DC is like "Fantasy Island" and the politicians are like the guest getting off of the plane, they are there to have their fantasy fulfilled and they get that. I would classify myself as a fiscally conservative libertarian, I do not want the government in anyone’s life at all. If I approve of them getting into your life, then that says that they should be able to get into mine.
2. If your political beliefs have changed, or have been confirmed, what in the last 15 years would you identify as the reason for that change or confirmation?
I would say that the two biggest factors that have changed my political views are my marriage [and] my job. I am an administrator at a community college, and we have an open enrollment policy because we believe that education should be open to everyone willing to work and achieve. For many, politicians and politics continue to push that dream out of reach. My marriage has change my views because I no longer think of myself, I have kids, I am saving for college, I am paying a mortgage, and I have to live within a budget.
3. From the documentary, it appears that you were in Houston for the 1992 Republican National Convention. What brought you to Houston? Were you a delegate, or were you attending on behalf of a group? Do you have any fond memories of that August of 1992?
I was a student at the time, I was volunteering on the Bush Campaign Team and my friend Bill Spadea was the national youth director for Bush/Quayle ’92. He put this whole program together to get thousands of college students there for the president. I drove down with several other students. I have some memories of that whole episode, I remember having a really good time, details will not be discussed.
4. What do you remember about the interview with Robert Downey, Jr.? In the film, the viewer sees a number of young politically involved individuals being interviewed at what appears to be a ranch party. Do you remember where you were? What was the group's reaction to Downey, Jr.?
Interview, that is a nice way to describe it. It was more like a sound bite. His people contacted the CRNC, College Republican National Committee, and wanted to do a piece about young people, we had arranged for him to attend the cookout at the Double H ranch and though that it would be a good place for them to get some footage. A lot of it was staged and I only got in the final cut because he started asking about pro-choice republicans and the crowd went crazy shouting him down and one girl spoke up at this republican picnic and said she was a pro-choice party member. I yelled something over her interview and Downey pulled my in front of the camera because of it. The group liked Downey, they thought it was cool that they were in Houston, and there was this star wanting to get their opinion.
5. When did you find out that you had appeared in the film, and have you ever been curious about it?
I found out about the film maybe two [or] three years later. My friends kept saying that they have seen me on Showtime or HBO, where the film appeared. The first time they told me I thought that they were pulling my leg. I have never been curious about the film. If a copy landed on my desk, I guess I would view it.

Bartlett also helpfully directed our attention to this September 1992 piece from The New Republic, which recounts a College Republican road trip to the 1992 convention. The reporter was apparently present at the time Bartlett's scene was filmed and, in some detail, described the reactions of the assembled young conservatives to Downey and his documentary film-making:

At the back of the ranch, the leaders of the College Republicans gather in a small tent to participate in the taping of a documentary on American politics. The event turns out to be an unwitting documentary on the implosion of Reagan-Bush Republicanism. Not that the producers of the show had anything so sophisticated in mind. The event is hosted by Robert Downey Jr., an actor famous for portraying alienated yuppie drug dealers. When he arrives at the ranch he is instantly surrounded by a peristaltic mass of adoring College Republicans. Now he sits on one side of a long picnic table facing the two sign painters from Arkansas, one of the Virginia beauties, and Charismatic Leader Bill Spadea. Looking over them on higher benches, like hundreds of Mannerist angels, are row upon row of perfectly worshipful young Republicans.

"We believe in the values of the family," Spadea is saying. "But Congress has continually fought these values ..." The crowd starts to chant: "Bill For President! Bill For President!." Bill is clearly enjoying this proximity to celebrity.

Downey asks if "the so-called cultural elite" are to blame for the decline in Spadea's family values. "Well," says Spadia, gamely, "a lot of what they say on TV has no value base.... And the American people are sick of it."

Another great cheer goes up, and Downey fidgets. If George Bush has so many values, he asks, how come he's been involved with drug peddlers in covert operations?

"That's just hearsay. You're talking basically a lot of media people ... a lot of hearsay."

. . .

In the end the noise was too much. The film crew just gave up. The lights went off and the camera people together with Robert Downey Jr. moved to find a more peaceful place to ply their trade. As I made my own way to the exit, I couldn't help but notice a young couple off near some bushes, working hard to undermine College Republican morality.
The article has lots more about the encounter, including a detailed account of the pro-choice Republican female stepping forward and being challenged by Mr. Bartlett:
"Are there any pro-choice Republicans in the audience?" [Downey] asks.


But it's too late. A woman grabs the microphone, provoking a full-scale panic.

"The true conservative view is economic not religious ...," she begins.


And then comes the most startling voice in a three-state area; it booms with the authority of Yahweh speaking to Charlton Heston:


I turn. Downey turns. Everyone turns. And there stands Fred. He's not happy. Downey may not like the point of view, but he knows good television when he sees it. Out he comes, seizes Fred by the arm, and pulls him center stage. He wants a sound bite; Fred, of course, gives him something more closely resembling a full meal.


The crowd goes completely ape, and Fred wants to go on, but Downey, seeming ever so slightly possessive, has taken back his microphone. The crowd responds with another attack.

Interviewed by email in 2007 by this site, William Hamilton, who is featured briefly in the film as a UFO scholars, remembers the experience as follows:
Some producer (I do not remember which one as I have been interviewed on television programs) asked me if I wanted to do this as they needed a UFO expert. I just remember Robert telling us that he was going to go around the room and ask questions which he proceeded to do, but I did not expect some of his responses. I have seen the film and believe I have a VHS copy of it, but I first saw it at a Westwood theater. I am not too happy about my depiction and I would have clearly done it differently if I knew. I do not recall much about the political scene then, but I think we were entering an era of increasing doubt about our government which now has become widespread.
Leitch produced a sequel of sorts called Last Party 2000, released in 2003 and hosted by the much more restrained Philip Seymour Hoffman, who covered the 2000 election. Downey was not involved. Of late, though, Downey has become a bankable Hollywood action star.

One user has posted a series of clips from the film, including the following clips (which features, among other things, Downey's interview with a Houston rapper, Downey's views and interviews on greed and profit, Downey's description of his own troubles with drugs and treatment, Downey's description of his alter ego "Goat Boy," Downey's interview with an African American Republican at the Houston convention):


Anonymous said...

It's amazing how years can change a person. Apparently, Downey Jr. has seen the light and is now a conservative Republican. He was a guest at the Republican National Convention in 2008.

Michelle Voiles said...

I have always been a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. and think he is immensely talented. However, as a political being, he is a complete flaming idiot. It's obvious that he is a product of his wealthy, no boundaries (for him and his ilk) childhood. Wealthy with no boundaries is pretty much the essence of the entire Republican agenda. He's just another rich becoming-old white guy who wants to hold on to his money and "benevolently" impose his ridiculously uninformed opinions on to others. He is famous for his drug and legal issues and I believe I read his son has the same problems. It's no secret that he has had drug treatment/s and gone through many legal proceedings. If he were capable of stepping out of his cloak of ego for even a minute, he might ponder how these things would have turned out for him had he not been rich and famous. Rehab? Hard to find, ridiculously expensive, and if one has no insurance or private fortune, more often than not, simply not to be had. Then there's the legal stuff. Poor people can't just pick up a phone and call their topnotch lawyer. Contrary to what we see on TV with the whole Miranda thing, actually getting a lawyer through Legal Aid or elsewhere is nearly impossible. If one does get one as the law requires, odds are s/he will be an overworked, underpaid, and probably inexperienced one who may or may not be up to the job. Bottom line: If a poor kid--especially one of color--did the same stuff Downey did, he would most likely be in prison for a long, long time and this is pretty much the protocol embraced by the GOP. This is just ONE situation where Downey shows complete ignorance and/or total disregard for people who have not been as lucky and well-served as he. There are many more. I happen to have personal knowledge of Downey's behavior at the RNC in 1992. He was rude and condescending to the crew and made their already difficult jobs even more so. They were not supposed to be involved in the making of Downey's laughably awful documentary, but he and "his people" did not care. He took and used equipment he had no business using, did (potentially dangerous) things he had no business doing with that equipment, and spent hours rambling on--mostly about himself--while these poor, exhausted workers had no choice but to sit around and wait due to safety and insurance issues. Additionally, Downey's filming wrecked the convention load-in schedule and in order to make up for it, these workers had to work a 24+ hour shift with no significant respite. Being late for a TV show--especially one featuring the POTUS--is simply not an option. They were not paid beyond what they, as private contractors, had contracted for to do THEIR job and Downey never so much as uttered a thank you. He's a spoiled, elitest high school dropout with a lot of talent but no regard for those who have to put up with him or who are less fortunate than he. I recall the famous sound bite where he told the judge he liked the taste of gun barrel metal. Perhaps he had a shortage of essential metals in his body that impaired his brain function. One such important metal is iron. Oh, wait! He's Iron Man! He will probably be changing his party affiliation any day now once all that iron straightens out his thinking. (The Iron Man thing is so darn perfect I will be laughing all day.)