Morton Downey Jr. became an overnight celebrity in the late 1980s thanks to his smug boorishness, right-wing politics and ability to whip an audience into a frenzied mob,
His nationally syndicated TV “talk show” – for want of a better term – became a lions vs. Christians crossed with theater of the absurd spectacle in which the loud-mouthed, chain-smoking host bullied an endless stream of guests whose politics he didn’t like, while his audience cheered and screamed for blood.
You think maybe Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and all those other ranting right-wing talkers owe Downey a debt of gratitude?
That’s certainly the conclusion you can take away from “Evocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie,” an alternately fascinating and repellant look at a short-lived phenomenon. And although the culture of incivility certainly didn’t begin with Downey, this film makes it plain that he played a role in advancing it.
Downey’s father was a famous singer in the early days of radio and sound movies, and – one of the film’s most astonishing revelations – a family friend of the Kennedys. Pictures of Downey the younger schmoozing with Ted, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy are rather mind-boggling and make one wonder if his later conversion to fire-breathing reaction was just total theater. If nothing else, it’s obvious that Junior was never as big a star as his dad; a minimally talented singer, he lucked into a New York talk radio show that morphed into a local TV hit and then went national.
His ascent was meteoric, with magazine covers, newspaper articles, big money, women and major controversy. The show was all heat and no light, even though it supposedly dealt with issues like capital punishment and feminism. What it really was about was Downey’s bullying, and his appeal to the lowest forms of political discourse.
But fame did Downey no favors. He developed a massive ego, began womanizing, berated his staff and eventually started putting his reputation – such as it was – in the service of the wrong people. Capitalizing on the furor over the notorious Tawana Brawley fake rape case, and helping elevate Al Sharpton to stardom, was a mistake. Even bigger was his claim, later discovered to be totally fake, that he was attacked by skinheads in an airport bathroom.
Eventually enough was enough – reduced to booking white supremacists and strippers because no one reputable would appear on the show, Downey’s program was cancelled after just two years on the air.
Was Downey for real? Or just engaging in right-wing performance art? “Evocateur” makes no claims – in-depth analysis is not the film’s strong suit – but it seems both came into play.
What is certain, however, is that Downey’s rapid ascent and quick flameout hastened a world in which screaming pundits and ersatz stars like the Kardashians have become all too common.