Before Glenn Beck, before Rush Limbaugh, before Sean Hannity, before Bill O’Reilly, there was Morton Downey Jr. Mort hit the TV airwaves in 1988 like a house on fire, and became an overnight sensation. He was brash, loud, obnoxious, and well to the right of Attila The Hun, politically speaking. He chain-smoked on air. He berated his guests. He stoked the fury of his studio audience into a lynch mob-like frenzy. And just as quickly as he arrived on the scene, he was gone, his shooting star going supernova and exploding right into his own face within the span of two short years.
So what happened? That’s the question the new documentary Evocateur : The Morton Downey Jr. Movie not only asks, but answers. Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger spend ninety minutes talking to friends, acquaintances, fans, and even enemies of the late Mr. Downey (he died of lung cancer in 2001) and piece together a pretty fascinating portrayal of a guy who had hungered for success his entire life (his father was a famous crooner and Junior tried to follow in his footsteps for a time) but was in no way, shape, or form ready for it when it finally hit well into his fifth decade on the planet. Simply put, he still had a lot of growing up to do.
Aided by some pretty clever animated segments that keep the proceedings snappy, the filmmakers trace their subject’s steps from his short-lived singing career to his time as bored suburban house-husband to his days as one of radio’s early “shock-jocks” to his gangbusters television debut as a modern reincarnation of the equally onerous Joe Pyne to his show’s becoming “ground zero” for the notorious Tawana Brawley (falsified) rape case (you get to see a lot of vintage Al Sharpton footage here from when he was a couple hundred pounds heavier and considerably more entertaining) to his full-throated embrace of the worst show biz excesses to his crash-and-burn descent that was aided and abetted in no small part by a fake “attack” he perpetrated on himself and blamed on some Nazi skinheads no one was ever able to find (and yeah, in case you were wondering, this movie definitely answers the question as to whether or not Mort drew that sloppy-looking pseudo-swastika on his face with his own hand). With voices as disparate as those of Pat Buchanan, Gloria Allred, and Alan Dershowitz sharing their personal reminiscences of the man, we finally are able to get a clear idea of just how — and why — a guy who hobnobbed with the Kennedys right up until the early 1980s was able to become TV’s first big right wing sensation just a few short years later.
The picture painted is hardly a pretty one — Mort wasn’t the most pleasant guy in the world even before fame went to his head, but afterwards it got exponentially worse — but in the end this is a very human story about a hopelessly flawed guy who spent decades reaching for the brass ring, only to have it slip through his fingers largely due to his own dumb mistakes. His subsequent tragic illness, also largely self-inflicted, further humanized someone who used to be more or less a walking, talking, smoking, swearing caricature, and by the time he passed away, even his most bitter critics had to concede, “ol’ Mort — he was a sonofabitch, but I’m gonna miss the guy.”
For my part, I wish today’s conservative gas bags were even half as entertaining as Downey was in his prime. You get the disturbing feeling that the likes of Limbaugh and O’Reilly actually believe the venomous shit that they’re slinging, but Mort was so over the top and off the rails that there was no way his whole shtick could have been anything other than an act. Call me deluded, stupid, or hopelelssly nostalgic, but I kinda miss that. Sadly, the ugliness and audience-baiting are pretty much the only facets of Mort’s slim “legacy” that have survived, and the folks who tread that ground today actually have the temerity to insist that we take them seriously. If you ask me, The Right’s never been actually right, but at least in Mort’s day they he made sure they were fun.
Evocateur : The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, which is getting some limited theatrical play on the coasts right now and is also available on demand on most major cable and satellite systems nationwide, hews to that same “hey, it’s all just an act, anyway” ethos (wait for the awesome spoof of Rocky Horror‘s famous singing mouth as the final credits roll), and the end result is one of the more enjoyable show business documentaries in recent memory.