June 19, 2013

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (2013)

SUMMER, 1988. I’m 19, working at a crappy factory job. And since I’m underage, my nightlife is practically nil.

But then, while channel surfing one night, I come across a talk show. Well, it’s technically a talk show; it has an audience, guests, and a host. But the audience is near riotous, the guests look shell-shocked, and the host – with a loosened tie, wide eyes, and ever-present cigarette – is shouting self-righteous rhetoric at them when he’s not telling them to shut up. Or, in his oft-repeated catchphrase, to “Zip it!”

I had never seen anything like it in my life. And I was hooked for the rest of the summer.

Before there was Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, or even Glenn Beck, there was Morton Downey, Jr. For two years in the late 1980s, The Morton Downey Jr. Show drew in viewers looking for a fight. And with every episode, they got one, if not several. Downey was provocative, incendiary, controversial, confrontational, and often downright rude – and his audience loved it, frequently jumping to their feet in roars of applause.

Through archive footage, animated segments, and interviews with former colleagues, guests, and audience members, Evocateur tells how Downey skyrocketed to fame (some say infamy) and crashed just as fast. Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger, all recovering Downey fans, do a good job balancing footage of Downey’s show with interviews and home videos. The middle meanders a bit and struggles to keep things compelling when not talking about Downey’s show, but things pick up with the discussion of frequent guest Reverend Al Sharpton – who, like Downey, knew the value of controversy and schemed with the host to keep things fiery and memorable.

While claiming to be a voice for the common man, Downey was actually a child of Hollywood (his dad was a famous Irish tenor, his mom an actress/dancer) and he was a family friend of the Kennedys. And like many pop culture personalities who put on an act, the misogyny of Downey’s TV persona bled over into his personal life (colleagues talk of physical confrontations with female guests and his own wife), and he soon became an egotist spiraling out of control: affairs, bouts of rage, rock star extravagance, climbing debt, and perhaps worst of all, believing his own hype.

Evocateur ends with the two events of Downey’s professional and personal demise: his infamous hoax when he (incorrectly) spray-painted a swastika on his face and claimed he was attacked by skinheads, and his death from lung cancer at 67. (The footage of a gaunt, hoarse, and humbled Downey in the final stages of his life is especially hard to watch.)

Evocateur effectively states the case that, for better or worse, Morton Downey, Jr. was the prototype of today’s television – the precursor to the fight-centric circus of raucous talk shows and reality TV. He deliberately provoked his guests. He knew the power of manipulation. He discussed topics on an emotional level, not an intellectual one. He attacked his guests with a ferocity never before seen on a talk show – creating an awkward, dangerous atmosphere that, nearly 25 years later, still permeates the television landscape today.
Is it suitable for your kids?
Evocateur is rated R for “language and some nudity.”
Language: Frequent use of four-letter words.
Violence: There are verbal and physical confrontations in clips from Downey’s show.
Nudity: A couple of Downey’s guests get topless.
Smoking: Nearly every frame of Downey has him smoking. He dies from lung cancer.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I highly doubt she’ll like Morton Downey Jr. or his behavior on his talk show, but Evocateur is a compelling documentary no matter what you think of its topic. This could be one worth sharing with her…provided the kids are asleep or out of the house.

"Betsy Ross: Real American or Talentless Tramp?
That's next on The Morton Downey Jr. Show!!!"

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie
* Directors: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger
* Screenwriter: Daniel A. Miller
* Stars: Morton Downey Jr., Herman Cain, Pat Buchanan, Chris Elliott, Gloria Allred, Sally Jesse Raphael, Alan Dershowitz, Curtis Sliwa, Richard Bey
* MPAA Rating: R

Rent Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie from Netflix >>


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