On first, cursory exposure to Évocateur, younger moviegoers can be forgiven for thinking it’s a film about a cousin of Robert Downey, Jr.. Maybe one of those now-it-can-be-told biodocs about the cousin who, save for the vagaries of fortune, coulda been, shoulda been as big as the star of Iron Man and Tropic Thunder. Such a Downey may, in fact, exist but he’s not the subject of this picture. No, the Morton Downey, Jr. at hand is the dude who, for 20 months or so in the late 1980s, was just about the loudest, foulest and most popular mouth on U.S. television, the Darth Vader of trash talk to Phil Donahue’s Luke Skywalker.
Dead now more than 12 years, felled at 68 by a four-packs-a-day cigarette jones, Downey is little-remembered and little-lamented today. Still, a case could be made that without Downey, there would be no reality television, no Fox News, no Glenn Beck, no Tea Party, no Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern. In other words, no civilization as we have come to know it. And, indeed, this is pretty much the case that co-directors Kramer, Miller and Newberger – self-described “recovering Downey fans” – present here. Sure, Downey’s heyday may have been a quarter-century ago and the axes he ground either obscured by history or dulled by over-exposure. Nevertheless, the visceral energy, the foam-at-the-mouth/go-for-the-throat aggressiveness, the knack for tapping into an audience’s inner Horst Wessel remain something to behold in Évocateur’s archival footage. No one else I can recall has ever said to perennial libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, as Downey did in 1988: “If I had a slime like you in the White House, I’d puke on you.”
It may all have been a self-serving and finally self-destructive act, as some of the documentary’s talking heads suggest. Downey, after all, was an active liberal Democrat into his early 40s, the author, in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, of a book of poetry called Quiet Thoughts Make the Loudest Noise and, for all his preening as “the Blue Collar King,” a fan of the fine-tailored suit and a Trump Tower tenant. Act or no, however, it was delivered with such ferocity and bitterness that, at Évocateur’s end, you’ve at least partially bought the filmmakers’ argument that Jr. was driven by some kind of Oedipal revolt to try to surpass the fame, earnings and influence of Downey, Sr., a star Irish tenor in the 1930s and forties, an intimate of the Kennedy clan and, as these scenario’s require, a distant, heartless father. Indeed, the documentary shows that Downey, Jr. never entirely forsook his first love, singing – an ambition encouraged by no less than Dean Martin. Perhaps if Downey had had a measure of success in that regard, his life would have been happier. Then again, he could have ended up like Frank Sinatra, Jr.
While rich in hubris and pathos, no one’s going to call Morton Downey, Jr.’s story a tragedy. How much can you feel for a guy who near the end of his TV run, was hosting both klaxons from the Ku Klux Klan and a homeless woman/double amputee who could play The Star-Spangled Banner on a keyboard with her tongue? The man’s personal nadir came in the spring of 1989, just a few weeks before his show’s cancellation, when he tried to hoax the public into believing he’d been assaulted by Nazi skinheads in a toilet stall in the San Francisco airport.
Évocateur is never less than watchable. At the same time, you have to wonder who’s going to watch it. In an era when fame seems measured in increments even shorter than Warhol’s 15 minutes, a 91-minute documentary about a bug-eyed, chain-smoking sociopath who soared high and fell fast so long ago smacks of folly and misdirected energy, like trying to make a biography out of a footnote.