I recently watched the film A Guide to Recognising Your Saints, Dito Montiel’s autobiographical tale of his tough upbringing in New York during the 80’s. In the final scene, the main character’s older self (played by Robert Downey Jr) visits his estranged friend in prison. The friend is played by Eric Roberts who, with barely two or three minutes screen time, makes such an indelible mark that he almost steals the whole film. I don't think I've ever been as completely captivated before by someone on screen for such a small amount of time.
My first exposure to Roberts was 1985’s prison escape drama Runaway Train with Jon Voight. He received an Oscar nomination for this role and as I remember, he very good as the younger, impressionable escapee alongside Angelina’s dad on the train. Later on, I remember seeing his face plastered across a number of dodgy looking straight-to-video B-movies at my local video shop, in fact, I may have even hired a few (this was before the cineaste in me kicked in). He even popped up as The Master in the one-off, poorly conceived BBC re-boot of Doctor Who in the mid 90’s. At the beginning of that decade his work was rapidly being eclipsed by that of his younger sister Julia. Not good.
When I checked out his body of work on IMDB, a patterned emerged. Some of his co-stars from his years in the wilderness displayed a similar career path, Gary Busey being one such example. Like Roberts, Busey made quite an impression in early roles like The Buddy Holly Story and Big Wednesday only to find himself adrift in low-budget crap throughout the nineties to present day (Point Break being the exception, of course). These guys managed to burn their bridges with Hollywood (both personally and professionally) mainly via the obligatory drugs and scandal route. It’s a shame because the two of them had such a unique screen presence, coupled with the grit and authenticity, that is completely absent from the ‘talent’ that Hollywood produces nowadays. These guys were the real deal, there was no artifice.
This brings me to Mickey Rourke, another similarly gifted actor with a ‘troubled’ past and Robert’s co-star in ‘The Pope of Greenwich Village’ (a film I have since placed on my Lovefilm list). In a recent acceptance speech at an awards show (his 28th this year I believe) Rourke paid tribute to his old friend, proclaiming that “Eric Roberts is probably the best actor I ever worked with”. I really hope someone in Hollywood was listening and is now in the process of fashioning a comeback project for Roberts. Although he appeared in The Dark Knight last year he had the hard task of competing against a large ensemble cast of more interesting characters, within a limited time on screen.
Busey has enjoyed somewhat of a mini-resurgence of late, thanks to his crazy, self-aware (or were they?) performances in TV’s Entourage (Roberts coincidently appeared in one episode recently). These cameos, although fun and certainly entertaining to those familiar with the two actors and their past bodies of work, are nothing more than gimmick casting really. It was a good move for Christopher Nolan to cast Roberts in his movie as he's obviously aware of his talent, but what is needed now is for someone to do what Aronofsky did with Rourke in The Wrestler and put him centre-stage. I look forward to the day this happens and then watching Roberts up there, receiving an award with the same humility and grace Rourke has (kind of) been displaying.