Exactly the sort of figure presaged by “Network,” Morton Downey Jr., with his unique blend of bullying, liberal-baiting politics and Barnum-like eye for the human circus, turned his latenight New York talkshow into syndicated TV’s most attention-getting sideshow. Now Downey’s brief but influential moment in the spotlight is the subject of “Evocateur,” an entertaining, affectionate docu created by three self-professed fanboys, which proves as nostalgic for the host himself as for a bygone broadcast era, before the reality-TV explosion allowed the inmates to fully take over the asylum. Solid reviews and fest pedigree should draw the Downey faithful and assorted other media gadflies to this day-and-date Magnolia release.
As New York and New Jersey high schoolers in the 1980s, co-directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger never actually made it to a taping of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” but various friends and friends of friends did, some becoming regular members of the mob-like studio audience known as “the Beast.” Two decades later, some of them, interviewed here, look back with a mix of fondness and embarrassment at clips from the show, reasoning that the hyperactive host’s unambiguous, take-no-prisoners style held a special appeal for pimply-faced teens — and somewhat less innocently, for a particular breed of bigoted, disenfranchised suburban white male (unsurprisingly, Downey’s largest demographic).
The brainchild of producer and MTV co-founder Bob Pittman, who envisioned Downey as a successor to controversial 1960s talk host Joe Pyne, “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” premiered in the fall of 1987 on New Jersey-based WWOR, went national in 1988 and was canceled by the summer of 1989 — a relatively brief tenure that nevertheless feels like an epic in this telling, complete with the usual culprits of money, sex and unregulated ego. Employing a lively mix of talking heads, compulsively watchable excerpts from the show, and several animated interludes that turn Downey into a literal cartoon character, pic posits its subject as someone who was determined to find his way into the zeitgeist by any means necessary. Despite his claim to speak for the common working man, Downey himself was a child of Hollywood, the son of famed Irish tenor Morton Downey Sr. and the nephew of actress Joan Bennett, who grew up counting the Kennedys as family friends and flirted with a singing career of his own before finding his true metier.
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“Evocateur” suggests Downey was the antecedent to a host of slightly better-behaved conservative pundits, including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, as well as shows like “Jersey Shore” that have highlighted the very kind of Jersey loudmouths who once populated Downey’s audience. Meanwhile, friends and former colleagues address the lingering question of whether Downey was being sincere or engaging in an elaborate form of performance art. (The answer: By the end of the show’s run, Downey himself could scarcely tell the difference anymore.) It’s an intriguing cast of characters that includes former Downey sparring partners Gloria Allred, Pat Buchanan and Alan Dershowitz, fellow hosts Richard Bey and Sally Jessy Raphael, and Downey’s daughter, Kelli, who offers a generally warm remembrance of her late father, even while acknowledging the sometimes compromising positions he placed her in (especially with regard to his womanizing).
Downey reached the peak of his popularity — and arguably his nadir — with his extended/obsessive coverage of the Tawana Brawley alleged rape case, culminating in a raucous onstage shoving match-cum-brawl between Brawley advocate Al Sharpton and civil rights advocate Roy Innis during a 1988 taping at the Apollo Theater. Despite being characterized as a friend and occasional co-conspirator, Sharpton is conspicuous by his absence here, as are any of Downey’s four wives and three other daughters — suggesting there may be more unfinished business than “Evocateur” would like us to think.
Pic also largely glosses over Downey’s post-syndication years (which included a bankruptcy and myriad lower-profile TV and radio gigs), devoting most of its final section to the lung cancer battle that rendered the former chain smoker a gaunt, contrite shadow of his former self — and, of course, thrust him back into the headlines.