By the time Morton Downey Jr.’s five minutes of fame arrived in 1987, movies had been warning of his arrival for years. A bellowing right-wing rage artist who spewed cigarette smoke and invective from a mouth so volcanic it became his briefly sensational, New Jersey-based TV talk show’s logo, Downey was a real-world hellspawn cross between Andy Griffiths’ corn pone demagogue in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Peter Finch’s apocalyptic rabble-rouser in Network (1976). He could appeal to an audience’s basest instincts like a master, and both fed off his studio mob’s hunger for public lynching and fed the remains right back to it.
However, based on the evidence provided by the equally sensational and frustrating documentary Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, and opening at Toronto’s Carlton Cinemas Aug. 30, Downey might have had another big screen harbinger as well: Chance (Peter Sellers), the gardener in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). For as unnervingly in-your-face as Downey (who died of lung cancer in 2001) might have been, he was also something of a one-size-fits-all televisual cipher, a man upon whom any manner of interpretation and outrage could be projected, but who was ultimately as ephemeral, inscrutable and insubstantial as Sellers’ gossamer transparent TV tagline presidential candidate.
It’s this ultimately unreadable quality of Downey’s which manifests itself in the movie not only in the man’s arresting history as a miserably failed pop singer (and bitterly jealous son of a once famous crooner), or as a dedicated buddy, neighbour and campaign worker for the Kennedys, but also in the fact that no amount of outrage has managed to find secure purchase for the man in TV history. Once the object of countless hand-wringing editorials, cover magazine profiles and end-is-near liberal sermonizing, Downey was all but invisible within a year of his show’s abrupt cancellation.
These days, not only does Downey remain almost entirely unreferenced despite the fact his show was among the fastest rising (and plummeting) phenomena of its day, but the case the movie makes – that without Downey we’d have no Becks, O’Reillys or Hannitys – just doesn’t wash. As convenient a narrative hook as it might be to say that this was the first guy to throw what would later erupt into a full scale Tea Party, it fails to appreciate just how mutant a force Morton Downey, Jr. really was. Indeed, if his otherwise inexplicable political morph from Kennedy Democrat to red meat demagogue should suggest, Downey’s only platform was the one that drew the biggest spotlight.
As populist as he seemed, the only citizen represented by Downey was Downey. He was celebrity monstrously personified, a man who existed only when the camera was on, and who became what he was purely because it played. And that’s why, when it stopped working, when the ratings began to plummet, guests devolved into strippers, skinheads and sideshow freaks, and Downey was reduced to faking his own attack by neo-nazi thugs in an airport washroom, he almost completely disappeared. Despite his pathetically dubious attempts to become the poster boy for anti-smoking after his fatal diagnosis, no one was really buying. First, because it seemed like just another act, and second, because once he was off the air Downey pretty much ceased to exist. All that remained was a smelly footnote to TV history.
While Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie has more than its fair share of mondo moments – like Downey going full-on Hulk on Ron Paul, presiding over the public decking of an ascendent Al Sharpton, Jr., or literally chasing humiliated guests right out of the studio – it misses its best opportunity for resonance by trying to retrofit the man into the role of perverted visionary of the Fox News world to come. The most compelling thing about this now almost forgotten loudmouth sensation is exactly that: how his very brand of sensationalism had no historical traction, and precisely because it had no agenda apart from its own self-promotion. If Downey had really had something like a coherent political worldview, he might have lasted longer, and a legitimate claim might be made for his paternity to the world of American right-wing broadcasting today. But he wouldn’t have been Morton Downey, Jr., who got famous for setting himself on fire and running around until the flames died out.
That’s the real story here, but it’s not the one Évocateur tells. If Downey was a monster, he wasn’t made by politics. This was a creature created purely by TV.