I was only eight years old when Morton Downey Jr. was at the height of his popularity (roughly 1988-1989). It would be at least another five years before I got into Downey’s protégés like Richard Bey and Jerry Springer. I wouldn’t even know who Downey was until roughly college.
As a figure of sensation and self-promotion, Downey is fascinating. His abrasive style is fun to watch and yet frightening at the same time. It’s a rampage of chain-smoking rage and absolute narcissism, fueled by a rowdy pack of rabid New Jersey meatheads in the audience. He was the unironic ancestor of Stephen Colbert in some ways, a pre-Papa Bear built off the stylings of Joe Pyle and Wally George and promoted with the savvy of MTV’s heyday.
Downey was a much more complicated man than his TV persona let on. That’s what Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie sets out to show, with varying degrees of success.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the limited theatrical release of the film.]
Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie
Directors: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger
Release Date: June 7, 2013 (limited)
Sometimes when a person gets famous for a shtick, it’s assumed that there’s no difference between real life and the act. I mentioned Colbert, whose fake conservative character on TV has fooled a number of people. With Downey, it’s as if he fooled himself. His show was like Glenn Beck on steroids — all the intellectual nuance of a 17-year-old boy fueled by all the nicotine in a carton of cowboy killers. If I’m not mistaken, there are a few shots and short interviews from Beck’s Restoring Honor rally included in the film.
And yet Downey was once an ardent Ted Kennedy supporter and a friend of the Kennedy family. Downey was also a crooner, though his voice wasn’t as sweet as his old man’s. There’s a clip of Dean Martin evaluating “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” one of Downey’s 50s releases. Martin essentially says it’s not bad, but it’s not that good either. Downey was a poet as well — not an especially good one, decent at best, but he was a poet nonetheless.
In his prime, he was a sexually voracious conqueror, all snarl and sneer and teeth, occasionally making threats of ass-kickings and lung-ripping-outings. Years later, dying of cancer, he looked frightened. His face had that sagging quality of a person who rarely smiles. He wouldn’t shout, and he was an anti-smoking advocate. (He once proudly proclaimed to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day.) It could have been the fame and publicity that drove him to odd extremes. Downey contained multitudes
To paint its portrait of Downey, Évocateur relies on interviews with many close figures and fans and lots of archival footage of the Morton Downey Jr. Show. If you haven’t seen the show before, it’s worth looking up and watching. Even if you find the level of discourse repulsive, it’s one of the more entertaining repulsive things out there. It’s all shouting matches, with Downey belittling and bullying anyone he disagrees with. One show gets so heated that even Ron Paul starts shouting angrily in defense of libertarianism and in support of drug legalization.
There are also animated segments incorporated into the film, which reminded me a bit of the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story. One of these animated sequences recreates a Downey appearance as if it were Triumph of the Will by way of The Wall. It’s effective for what it is, but I wonder why the animation didn’t emulate the herky jerky, totally 80s intro to the Morton Downey Jr. Show. There’s a look to it that’s distinctly linked to Downey and his program.
If Évocateur was only about the show, it would have been a much more successful film. I say that because while the show is interesting in itself (especially if you consider its potential influence on the nature of public discourse and media coverage), the film sets out to reveal the man, and it doesn’t reveal quite enough. We hear about infidelities and ego, about his poetry and pop songs, and we even get to learn more about the infamous San Francisco airport incident that marked Downey’s eventual fall from fame. Downey claimed to have been beaten up by skinheads in the bathroom — skinheads who weren’t particularly good at drawing swastikas.
But once the show’s over and Downey retreats from the public eye, we get very little. A few media appearances, a PSA, some funeral footage. This could have been just as interesting to focus on as the show itself or the resentment that Downey had for his famous father. The lives of famous people when they’re no longer famous is fascinating territory, and it goes unexplored in Évocateur. But it’s not like Downey was totally silent between 1990 and his death in 2001. There were various attempts at comebacks on TV and the radio, and legal battles with Howard Stern, and bankruptcy. That all either goes unmentioned or unexplored for reasons unknown.
The sparseness of this material may have to do with the lack of participation from Lori, Downey’s fourth wife. Her non-involvement may have shielded some of his private life from view, especially in his waning years. The filmmakers also tried to get Al Sharpton for the film but had no luck, possibly because the Tawana Brawley case plays a major role at one point in the film. We have to settle for Pat Buchanan instead.
By the end, Évocateur is an incomplete rendering of a complicated man, but a pretty good portrait of a man as a cultural phenomenon. It’s a sketch of a life. Like Downey’s poetry and music, it’s not that good, but it’s not that bad either; like its subject, it excels mostly at acts of sensation but can only sustain its interest for so long.