MOVIES: A tale of two actors


  There's an old showbiz adage about being nice to people on your way up — because you never know when you'll need them on your way down.
  I thought of that rueful axiom while pondering how some mighty big stars have fallen — and other talented performers are on their way back to even bigger stardom than ever.
Representing the former: Burt Reynolds, an old pro who's collecting a paycheck in the dim poker drama "Deal," which opened here Friday. These days, people like to ridicule Reynolds for his toupees and face-lifts — it's tough to decide which looks less realistic — but there was a time, in the '70s, when Reynolds was the biggest star around. A rascally charmer who lit up the small screen whenever he showed up on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," Reynolds could pose for a Cosmo centerfold or deliver a powerhouse performance in an Oscar-nominated drama like 1972's still-potent "Deliverance" with equal aplomb.
  Ah, but it was in comedy that Reynolds really shone. Catch 1974's "The Longest Yard," or 1979's "Starting Over," or 1977's "Semi-Tough," if you want to see Burt at his sly, wisecracking but heartfelt best.
  But Reynolds made another movie in 1977, a good-ol'-boy trifle called "Smokey and the Bandit" that wound up the No. 2 movie of the year, a galaxy or two behind a minor sci-fi romp called "Star Wars." And Reynolds just kept making "Smokey and the Bandit," or variations of same, for so long he all but destroyed his ability to play anything but a cartoon. (Except, of course, for his Oscar-nominated turn in 1997's "Boogie Nights," which unfortunately failed to do for him what "Pulp Fiction" did for John Travolta.)
  These days, it's sad to see Reynolds — and even sadder when some of us remember what he used to be.
  But it's wonderful to see Robert Downey Jr. back on track — and about to score his biggest hit ever in the upcoming "Iron Man," which opens Thursday night, May 1.
After so many screw-ups we've all lost count, the formerly down-and-out Downey delivers on the promise of stardom he's been threatening to live up to in the '80s ("The Pick-Up Artist," "Back to School"), the '90s ("Air America," "Soapdish," his Oscar-nominated turn as "Chaplin") and into the 21st century ("Ally McBeal," "Zodiac" and "Charlie Bartlett").
    This year, however, may be the year that Downey, at long last, turns it all around. His "Iron Man," Tony Stark, is the quippiest, zippiest comic-book hero in ages. In "Tropic Thunder," coming later this summer, he plays an egotistical actor so deep into his method he undergoes skin-altering treatments to more convincingly embody his character. And he co-stars with Jamie Foxx in the upcoming "The Soloist," about the unlikely friendship between an L.A. Times columnist and a homeless guy who turns out to be a Juilliard-trained violinist.
  After watching Downey crash and almost burn so many times, it's heartening to see him on the brink of an at-long-last breakthrough. (Even during his duress, great directors — from Robert Altman in "Short Cuts" and "The Gingerbread Man" to Curtis Hanson in "Wonder Boys" — never gave up on him.) Here's hoping the best is yet to come.
  As for Burt, here's hoping the worst is past. Or, at the very least, over.