Film Review: Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

A true-life horror story featuring a lead more monstrous than any mere vampire or werewolf.

In the 1980s, what with Ronald Reagan in the White House signaling a general, depressing shift to the political right, this country was suddenly rife with buffoons gone rampant, from Donald Trump to Al Sharpton to the mercifully brief reign of Andrew Dice Clay. And of these human caricatures, there was none so over-the-top as Morton Downey, Jr., who for a couple of years was something of a national nightmare with a talk show that often seemed more of a boiling-over lynch mob.

Ubiquitous cigarette dangling from his lower lip which partially framed disturbingly large and white dentures in a mouth which was, more often than not, spewing wacked-out, ultra-conservative vitriol at his hapless, more liberal guests, Downey was cheerleader to an audience comprised largely of young, white, blue-collar men in his demographically perfectly located studio in Secaucus, New Jersey. “Get off my stage! You’re a disgrace!” he would scream at feminists, homeless advocates and the transgendered with the frighteningly loud, testosterone-fueled chanting of his pugnaciously American flag-waving crowd as a chorus.

Évocateur, by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, makes a case for Downey being the precursor to such future loud-mouthed right-wing delights as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, as well as the Tea Party itself, and is, as one contemporary observes of Downey’s show, “like a car accident you can’t look away from.” The show also paved the way for the kind of shock and reality TV now pervading our channels. Born the privileged but emotionally bereft son of famed Irish tenor Morton Downey, Sr., and the troubled Barbara Bennett, sister to movie stars Joan and Constance, who committed suicide, Downey had serious daddy issues, although he harbored lifelong singer ambitions himself. He began as a liberal supporter of family friends, the Kennedys, but, like Reagan himself, shifted politically in what can only be termed career interests more than any real, deeply felt human impulse.

The film is diverting all right, with such a compelling horror show at its center, but the filmmakers get carried away in the interests of further, highly unnecessary sensationalism, larding the movie with splashily grotesque animated sequences like a particularly salacious one depicting Downey’s visit to a Catholic girls’ high school. The highly entertaining, often hilarious and sometimes rueful interviews they’ve culled from his co-workers, former fans (who seem to have calmed down considerably, a number of whom are ironically now history teachers) and contemporary commentators, from Gloria Allred and Pat Buchanan to a wry Chris Elliott (who reads some of Downey’s excruciating doggerel poetry) are more than sufficient to tell this sorry tale.

And ever sorrier it became, with Downey’s opportunistic coverage of the notorious Tawana Brawley “rape” case (which brought Al Sharpton to national attention—thanks a bunch!) and his ultimate undoing, a similarly staged attack on himself in an airport toilet by so-called Nazi skinheads. And then, as meteorically sudden as his rise was, it all disappeared, with his show cancelled in 1989 and Downey living another decade or so before unsurprisingly succumbing to lung cancer.

“Whew!” you can say, “thank God that’s over!” But is it? Really?