In only two short years, late night right wing talk show host Morton Downey Jr. changed the face of politically charged, trashy television forever. As chronicled in the fascinating and fast paced documentary Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, the chain smoking, foul mouthed, sexist, confrontational, habitual liar had a meteoric rise and depressingly low key fall between 1987 and 1989, but his status as a pop culture icon gave rise to the Glen Becks, Jerry Springers, Bill O’Reillys, and even the Steven Colberts of the world.
For those in Canada who might only have a passing knowledge of the Morton Downey Jr. phenomenon all you really need to know is that his shows – emanating from the inauspicious studios of New York area TV superstation WWOR in Secaucus, New Jersey – combined the button pushing politics of Limbaugh or Beck with the theatricality and spontaneity of Springer. That’s not to say he was exactly like Limbaugh or Beck. Those two are choir boys and pictures of restraint in comparison. Downey would bring people with opposing viewpoints on his show (including Ron Paul, Alan Dershowitz, vegans, punk rockers, Al Sharpton, and Lloyd Kaufman, the last of which got injured getting tossed out of the show) to eviscerate them so badly that it looked like he was spitting on his guests, actively blowing his ever present cigarette smoke in their face, and ask them purposefully leading questions that don’t contain a trace of fact or nuance in hopes the guest would get so pissed off the would try to take a swing at him. Then again, for his first year anyway, his shows were actually topical instead of the geek shows someone who was an actual politician like Springer trafficked in. Amassing a legion of fans and largely younger republican crowds (who comprised a studio audience/hive mind so large and formidable they were collectively known as The Beast), Downey was tailor made for the selfish, Reagan-centric rock star mentality of the 80s, but it was also the only time period when such a man could have ever been successful.
Directors Daniel A. Miller, Seth Kramer, and Jeremy Newberger have crafted a slick and equally bombastic film capable of containing and contextualizing such a larger than life personality. It balances the nostalgia of looking back on a kitschy relic and how it informed our current cultural climate. There’s a necessary downplaying of Downey’s political significance because there’s no way he could ever be taken seriously on that level, but as an entertainer, provocateur, and an astoundingly damaged man he’s magnetic to watch like rubberneckers to a car crash. The filmmaking team do a better than average job at not only looking at the man with the big teeth and an even bigger mouth, but at the allure of over the top anger and conflct.
As a man Downey was always the frustrated artist with severe daddy issues that seemed angry he couldn’t achieve the dreams he always desired. He was unapologetically hateful towards women on his show and had a predilection for prostitutes, but his own daughter (from one of his three marriages) said he was only ever “on” for the cameras. Even guests acknowledge that, for the most part. Mort’s hostility was part of the act, but his tragic downfall comes from the kind of misguided and inherently bizarre thinking that comes from someone finally giving into his own hype.
A must watch for anyone interested in how the late night news cycle and cult of personality works, Évocateur might not have the same cultural cache in Canada as it would in the States, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant to today’s current cultural landscape that shows pundits on both sides of the equation using a lot of Downey’s tactics today from Colbert’s crowd hyping every show to whatever the hell it is Beck thinks he does every week.