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Why Robert Downey Jr.’s Performance in Less Than Zero Is Oscar-Worthy

Why Robert Downey Jr.'s Performance in Less Than Zero Is Oscar-Worthy


  • Downey’s role in
    Less Than Zero
    showcases the tragic reality of drug addiction and the downward spiral it causes.
  • Julian Wells embodies rock bottom in a chilling way, reflecting on Downey’s own struggles in the 1980s.
  • Downey’s personal and professional resurgence contrasts with the haunting legacy of Julian Wells in
    Less Than Zero

In the 1980s, Robert Downey Jr. became an unofficial member of Hollywood’s Brat Pack, beginning with Downey’s appearance in the 1985 John Hughes comedy film Weird Science alongside charter Brat Pack member Anthony Michael Hall, whom Downey later appeared with in the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live and the 1988 comedy film Johnny Be Good.

Downey’s first starring film role came alongside another core Brat Pack member, Molly Ringwald, in the 1987 romantic comedy-drama film The Pick-up Artist, which marked Ringwald’s first post-Hughes starring film vehicle after the 1986 teen romantic comedy-drama film Pretty in Pink. Pretty in Pink co-stars Andrew McCarthy and James Spader appear alongside Downey in the 1987 drama film Less Than Zero, which gave Downey his first dramatic starring role.

Regardless of Downey’s proximity to the Brat Pack, no other actor has embodied the decadent 1980s Brat Pack image more convincingly and tragically on-screen than Downey does in Less Than Zero, in which Downey plays Julian Wells, a drug-addicted young man whose life is completely devoured by the malignant influence of cocaine.

Downey’s harrowing, subtle, unflinching performance in Less Than Zero is especially telling given the glaring similarities that exist between Julian’s struggle with addiction and the well-documented battle that Downey waged with addiction before achieving sobriety in 2003.

Robert Downey Jr. Dominates Less Than Zero

Less Than Zero

Less Than Zero

Release Date
November 6, 1987

Marek Kanievska


In Less Than Zero, Robert Downey Jr. plays Julian Wells, a rich kid from Beverly Hills who, as the film opens, is celebrating high school graduation alongside best friend Clay, played by Andrew McCarthy, and Clay’s girlfriend, Blair, played by Jami Gertz, outside their posh Beverly Hills high school. While Blair and Clay plan to attend an Ivy League University together following high school graduation, Julian intends to start a record label, Tone Deaf Records, which was bequeathed to Julian by his father as a high school graduation present.

Within six months of this festive opening scene, Julian has lost everything to cocaine. Julian’s father has banished Julian, who has been in and out of rehab since high school graduation, from the family home. The record label went bust. Julian owes $50,000 to Rip, a former high school classmate turned slimy drug dealer. Broke and without prospects, Julian has been reduced to homelessness.


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During Christmas break, Blair, who became hooked on cocaine after deciding not to go to college with Clay in favor of pursuing a modeling career, calls Clay at college and asks him to return to California to help her try to save Julian. However, no one can save Julian, who has already adjusted his moral boundaries so severely downward that he will seemingly resort to anything for his next fix, including prostitution.

While it’s tempting to view Julian as being at least a partial representation of Downey’s own lifestyle in the 1980s, such a comparison suggests that Downey brought a level of glamorization and narcissism to this role. However, Downey’s performance, like the film as a whole, views Julian fully and mercilessly. Julian’s disintegration reflects the illusory, reductive nature of drug addiction and the inexorable truth that being a drug addict also means being a compulsive liar.

Julian Became Downey’s Most Personal Role

Robert Downey Jr. has said that amid the filming of Less Than Zero, the Julian Wells character was an exaggeration of who Downey was in the late 1980s. Over the next decade, Downey said that he eventually became an exaggeration of the character.

One of the most convincing and horrifying aspects of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is the various ways in which Julian embodies the concept of rock bottom. This is especially evident in a scene in which a disheveled Julian attempts to break into his father’s house for the purpose of stealing cash and possessions to support his drug habit.


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Before Julian can steal anything, Julian is confronted by his father, who tells Julian to leave. Moreover, Julian and his father are joined in this scene by Julian’s younger brother, whose angry reaction to Julian’s appearance reveals the damage that Julian’s drug addiction has done to his family.

While many viewers have interpreted Julian’s father’s reaction to Julian as being an example of tough love, Julian’s father’s behavior, like that of Julian’s friends, more accurately reflects a state of preemptive grief, as if Julian’s father has already begun grieving the death of Julian while Julian is, technically speaking, still alive. All that’s missing is a scene in which Julian attends his own funeral.

Downey’s Epic Comeback Magnifies Julian’s Tragic Downfall

After Robert Downey Jr. completed the filming of his scenes for the 1992 biographical comedy-drama film Chaplin, for which Downey’s titular performance brought Downey his first Academy Award nomination, Downey attempted to purge his decadent 1980s image by burying the clothes that he wore for the filming of Less Than Zero.

This gesture turned out to be symbolic for Downey, who, between 1996 and 2001, was arrested and incarcerated several times on charges related to drugs. Like Julian, Downey, during this period, went in and out of drug treatment programs and repeatedly relapsed. Moreover, Downey, who earned as much as $2 million per film throughout the 1990s, was homeless, nearly bankrupt, and virtually unemployable.

Just as Downey’s legacy has been redefined by Downey winning an Academy Award for his brilliant performance in Oppenheimer, the personal and professional resurgence that Downey has experienced over the past 20 years has enabled Downey to completely transform his public image, in which Julian now seems like a ghostly stranger from Downey’s past. Stream Less Than Zero on Starz

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