Published Aug 29, 2013For a short time in the late '80s, controversial talk show host Morton Downey Jr. provided a lurid alternative to the painfully civilized programs being put on by Phil Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael, paving the way for the shock value entertainment of Jerry Springer and a glut of political programs based upon contentious talking points. As a study of how and why a changing culture embraced and encouraged the actions of a charlatan spewing narrow-minded Republican views laced with healthy doses of bile and venom, Evocateur is incredibly compelling.
The son of a famed Irish tenor, whose shadow he would be perpetually trying to wriggle free from, Downey tried his hand at singing before lending his voice to far more incendiary purposes. Interviews with staff members and fans of the show help provide context and anecdotal testimony of its rise to becoming an unlikely syndicated phenomenon, broadcasting out of Secaucus, NJ. Downey specialized in a magnetic brand of theatrical bluster, parading out noted experts with opposing opinions to his, such as lawyer Alan Dershowitz, then eviscerating them through screaming and physical intimidation.
In the many clips, what's most unsettling is how the show's studio audience — nicknamed "the Beast" and compared by some to a lynch mob — exploded in a cacophony of approval when Downey expressed the most horrendously misogynistic and prejudiced views. This in spite of the fact that reputable guests of the show like Al Sharpton and Gloria Allred still thought highly of him.
In telling of Downey's success with his program, the film interstitially returns to his past, revealing how in his early years Downey had been a friend and supporter of Democrat Ted Kennedy. Some of the interview subjects, including comedian Chris Elliott and rival host Raphael, even read selections from a book of poems Downey wrote after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
This builds Downey into somewhat of a tragic figure, right down to the fact that his smoking, which was an integral part of the blowhard image he was projecting to audiences, ended up precipitating his demise from lung cancer. However, it was this same derogatory façade that tapped into something people likely didn't even realize they wanted to see on TV and the movie raises intriguing questions about whether he was actually a voice for the disenfranchised or just a carefully constructed character.
Downey's bewildering path to notoriety can't help but recall the great Kurt Vonnegut quote: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." (Kinosmith)