Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (film review)
Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (2013) Magnolia Films
1 hr. 31 mins.
Starring: Morton Downey Jr., Gloria Allred, Pat Buchanan, Keli Downey Cornwall, Richard Bey, Sally Jessy Raphael, Alan Dershowitz, Bob Pittman, Chris Elliott, Peter Goldsmith, Lloyd Schoonmaker, Curtis Sliwa, Steven Pagones
Directed by: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger
MPAA Rating: R
Critic’s rating: *** stars (out of 4 stars)
Nowadays, at least according from the perspective of the older teenagers to the thirty-something demographics, rabble-rousing television is as excitingly toxic as it is commonplace. In the age of sensationalistic talk shows such as the long-running The Jerry Springer Show to the emergence of media conservative talking heads in the form of the Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck that enjoy rock star status in today’s political climate, it feels like an eternity since the era of the 80’s when youngsters and young adults alike embraced the outrageousness of one Morton Downey Jr.-the chain-smoking, bug-eyed and boisterous talkative titan of the airwaves whose attention-getting on-air antics rose to cult-like proportions in the Reagan years.
In the revealing and entertainingly roguish documentary Evocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie, co-directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger (devout Downey diehard fans) take a nostalgic look at the one-time ubiquitous conservative loudmouth Downey (who died of lung cancer in 2001) and the elaborate examination of his bombastic broadcasting career and complex personal life through notable sources that include his daughter Keli, close friends, work associates, former guests of his radical talk show and a handful of ex-teen male admirers recalling their memorable days in Downey’s rowdy studio audience (nicknamed “The Beast”).
Although largely forgotten by the masses in contemporary times, Downey was yesteryear’s show-boating architect some thirty years ago where his high-wire act of attacking liberalism, vehemently confronting guests he deemed unfavorable and undesirable and exposing his blue-collar viewers to the “pablum-puking” tendencies that threatens to compromise America and its greatness as a nation. Clearly, Evocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie establishes the acid-tongued Downey as the original icon who is the uncredited throwback to the wild chest-pounding talk shows and domineering right-wing political pundits that enjoy their devoted following respectively. Downey was the master of overseeing the media circus he created thus paving the way for the heralded national exposure that would make him a household name until his declining star-power inevitably lost its glorified shine.
Importantly, we get some valued insight from producer and MTV co-founder Bob Pittman who was instrumental in the creation of The Morton Downey, Jr. Show that catapulted Downey to superstardom when the WWOR-based program premiered locally in Secaucus, New Jersey in 1987. Pittman’s vehicle for Downey was inspired by the need to replicate the feistiness of controversial 1960’s talk show host Joe Pyne.
Naturally, Downey’s unorthodox manner for shouting down guests to the delight of obnoxious chanting by the studio audience made the off-kilter talk show an immediate hit. The hot-tempered and verbal-assaulting Downey and the craziness of his off-kilter guests and rabid in-studio participants was the winning recipe for syndicating The Morton Downey, Jr. Show nationally in 1988. The sordid tales of Downey’s rising ego, tawdry sexual encounters with female groupies, unsolicited hero worship of the working man and other opportunistic leverage that came with the sudden fame and recognition all came to a screeching halt by 1989. The two-year thrill-ride that was the pop cultural sideshow known as The Morton Downey, Jr. Show finally ceased to exist.
The film offers a generous look at Downey’s father in Morton Sr.-a renowned Irish tenor who had polished presence in the movies. We learn that Downey’s mother was a dancer and that he is the nephew of actress Joan Bennett. Downey’s Hollywood connection and privilege is heightened by the fact that he grew up being a close family friend of the Kennedys and was once a devoted liberal Democrat to boot. And yes…Downey did have ambitions to pursue a singing career just like his old man. Heck, even celebrated crooner Dean Martin had recognized the potential the young Morton Jr. had inside of him.
The juicy revelation begins to unfold as we learn of the growing resentment that Downey had for his father (going so much as to be referred to as “Sean” to distinguish himself from Daddy Dearest). Did Downey’s father (who divorced his mother and whisked him away from her at a young age) have an everlasting effect on why any of his marriages or relationships with women seemed like an on-going chore? Was there any envy involved as to why Morton Jr. could never measure up to his papa Morton Sr. in the singing business? Why did Downey decide to abandon his Democratic dots in exchange for Republican stripes and cut ties with the famed Kennedy clan that were like family to him at one point?
Cleverly, Evocateur raises some rather intriguing questions about Morton Downey, Jr. as the film suggests a high-profiled huckster that believed his own press clippings. Downey embraced his over-the-top image as a nicotine-loving nutcase that loved and languished in the havoc that he played hyper ringmaster to with devilish impishness. Bogged down with lingering daddy issues, a flair for manufactured showmanship in front of the rolling cameras or the unanswered skepticism about his political switching from liberal leanings to conservative ideology (for the possibility of developing a distinctive niche of controversy to enhance his reputation perhaps?), Evocateur manages to allow us to cynically wink at the rawness of an edgy and unctuous personality with unfinished business.
Downey knew how to manipulate and orchestrate the madness that made him the unapologetic “Blue Collar King” of the so-called common man in the late 1980’s. From the 1988 news-making brawl at the Apollo Theater surrounding the alleged Tawana Brawley rape case to the 1989 hoax of the skinhead confrontation in an airport bathroom stall (as concocted by Downey with the reluctant assistance of one of his close buddies), it mystifies us on how disturbing and determined that Downey was to keep his relevance percolating at all costs necessary. Was Morton Downey, Jr. a calculating con artist or simply a creatively cunning innovator just giving the fickle masses what they wanted in outrage?
Downey may be a footnote to those who lived at that time and shared in his publicized rants and rowdiness but give him his due as his present-day successors owe him at bit for opening the door and stirring up the colorful patriotic pot of rhetoric, ribaldry and remembrance.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: