As “Oppenheimer” begins its expected steamroll” of many of the biggest categories at the 96th Academy Awards, Robert Downey Jr. has added yet another storybook ending to one of the greatest comebacks in modern Hollywood history. Downey has won the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in “Oppenheimer,” beating out stiff competition including Robert De Niro for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things,” Sterling K. Brown in “American Fiction,” and his Barbenheimer counterpart Ryan Gosling for “Barbie.”

This marks Downey’s first Oscar win on his third nomination. He earned rave reviews in 1992 for playing Charlie Chaplin in Richard Attenborough’s “Chaplin,” which saw him portraying the silent film icon from his impoverished youth to his later years as a global superstar. That performance earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. 16 years later he received his second Academy Award nomination from a performance at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum when he starred in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder.” His supporting turn as Kirk Lazarus, a method actor so committed to his performance that he insisted on wearing blackface, earned rave reviews for its satirical outlandishness and prompted the Academy to give a rare acknowledgement for a purely comedic performance when it nominated him for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.

While Downey has long been regarded as one of his generation’s most skilled actors, his career has been stymied by his battles with addiction. After being arrested on multiple drug-related charges in the late 1990s and attending rehab, Downey briefly found himself unable to work on films when it became impossible for productions to receive insurance when he was part of a cast. He slowly clawed his way back up into Hollywood’s good graces through acclaimed performances in films like Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” before receiving a life changing role in Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” in 2008.

That film, which served as the first entry in the series-turned-industry-juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, permanently altered the trajectory of Hollywood in the 21st century. Downey’s charisma and star power in the role of Tony Stark helped turn Marvel into Hollywood’s biggest property and superhero movies into the town’s biggest export. He reprised the role in nine additional films, concluding his run with 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.”

Aside from the 2020 flop “Doolittle,” “Oppenheimer” is Downey’s first role since ending his Marvel story and was widely seen as his first attempt to flex his dramatic acting chops since exiting the franchise.

While Downey’s performance in “Oppenheimer” was almost universally acclaimed from the start, the actor has devoted most of his energy on the award season campaign trail to hyping up his co-stars and collaborators. After receiving the Maltin Modern Master Award at the 2024 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the actor spent his acceptance speech lauding Cillian Murphy for carrying the film with his leading performance

“It’s been very seldom in my career that I’ve realized that I was born to play a supporting role in favor of somebody else rightfully having the spotlight,” Downey said before heaping praise on Murphy. “I’ve always known him and always respected him and loved his work and all of my peers know he’s great, but he had yet to have a vehicle where he could fully demonstrate the breadth of his capacity and I’ve never seen anything like it. And it is an honor to be way under him on the call sheet for ‘Oppenheimer.’”

In the same speech, Downey also singled out Nolan as a voice that helped him push himself as an actor and reach his full potential. While Downey has never been one to dismiss his superhero output as artistically insignificant, he explained that he knew that working on a Christopher Nolan movie would require a higher level of artistic rigor than the projects he had become used to.

“I’m not saying I’d gotten at all lazy, but it was more like rolling off a log for the last 10 years or so,” he said of his Marvel endeavors. “I wouldn’t say I was mortified, but Cillian has only seen me on this last film where if I’m not prepared within an inch of my life, I will probably evaporate… You don’t roll off logs around Chris Nolan.” 

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