Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie
Runs Fri., June 28–Wed., July 3 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 90 minutes.
Today it’s easy to hate on Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity, but how many remember Morton Downey Jr.? The spiteful, short-lived cable phenomenon of the late ’80s also sprang from talk radio, and this tribute film posits him as their progenitor. Downey, the son of a now-forgotten singer, is a ludicrous Reagan-era footnote to the Tea Party boiling of today, but he ought to be an object of legitimate study. Unfortunately, this is a fan doc whose multiple directors (Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger) haven’t got the brains to place Downey in any sort of context.
A failure as a ’50s crooner, a preppie pal of the Kennedys, Downey leapt into cable syndication by emulating ’60s TV host Joe Pyne (an even more obscure figure of the rabid right, unexplained here). If you lived in New York during the ’80s, as I did, Downey registered as a kind of WWF raconteur—he’d say anything for shock value, spit in the face of any guest (Ron Paul, Lyndon LaRouche, and Alan Dershowitz included), but never with any more conviction than a circus geek. Put the chicken in his mouth, and he would bite. He performed for a price, and there’s a kind of Brechtian pathos here that might be better explored in opera buffa or cabaret.
Chris Elliott made Downey a figure of fun on the Letterman show, but the parody was too mild. Here was an Irish Catholic who sneered at the steerage that followed his once-despised ancestors to the New World. He scoffed at gays, blacks, women, liberals, Muslims, and Jews. At the end of his life (1932–2001), he repented of smoking, but nothing more. And what of those he’d defamed and reviled? A good Catholic admits guilt—the absence of which, for Downey and Evocateur’s filmmakers, I can not absolve.