Published on November 15th, 2013 | by Brendan Flaherty0
Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story
For a couple of years in the late 80s, America — the ‘real’ America — had a voice. It was a smooth, sonorous, irritated, chain smoking, bellowing voice: Morton Downey Jr.’s voice. In a time before the term ‘reality television’ was even a synapse in the calloused brain of Mark Burnett or Simon Cowell, Downey brought forth real life colliding with studio audiences with more force than a dozen Jerry Springers. He whipped his audiences into a self-righteous fervor that Glen Beck and Sean Hannity (both skilled conflict profiteers in their own right) would vote Democrat to attain.
The Morton Downey Jr. Show began in 1987 as a local cable show, its studio located in scenic Secaucus, New Jersey. Within six months, it was syndicated nationally, broadly broadcasting a unique and soul-deadening cocktail of ignorance, rage, and patriotism that would alter American television. As illustrated in the excellent film Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story, Downey brought trash TV to new lows that the medium would never really recover from. Though it reached a wide audience very quickly, it wasn’t long before Downey’s fault lines started to shift, hastening the show’s demise. It was cancelled in late 1989 and quickly brushed under the rug of pop culture’s dirty secrets.
Given its subject matter, it’s rather surprising that the film is so elegantly put together. The filmmakers (Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newburger) provide a myriad of opinions of Downey, most of them favourable (or favourable inasmuch as the scorn is laced with understanding). In addition to being the examination of an American fad, Évocateur is a thought-provoking attempt to reconcile the different facets of Downy himself: father, poet, ballad crooner, misogynist, firebrand, opportunist.
The most dismaying part of the whole affair is that America didn’t learn anything. Other talk shows sprung up in Downey’s place, like the heads of the mythical hydra. Cable channels continued to cultivate prophetic blowhard hosts willing to tear the nation apart in the name of higher ratings. Business as usual went on. The iconic image of Morton Downey Jr. yelling into the faces of his guests while clutching an ever-present cigarette was replaced in 1996, when Downey was diagnosed with lung cancer. A staunch proponent of the freedom to smoke became an anti-smoking crusader. The loudmouth learned to shut up every once in a while.
Évocatuer is the story of a talk show host, sure, but it’s also the story of America. He makes bad choices, stirs up trouble, and offends pretty much everybody. And the people eat it up.