Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie Blu-ray Review
I still remember when I heard about The Morton Downey Jr. Show. I was in high school at the time. A friend came up to me in health class and asked if I had seen this crazy show with the chain smoker, who would yell at his guests. There honestly was nothing like this on the air. Sure there was Geraldo, but this show seemed different. I never did really get into the program, but whenever I wanted a quick laugh I would check it out. The guy burned so bright that everyone knew back then that it couldn’t last. I don’t think anyone knew the downfall would be so swift though. EVOCATEUR: THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. MOVIE is a fascinating portrait of a man with many contradictions. I wish the movie dug a bit deeper, but it still entertained and provided some interesting moments and insights.
The documentary weaves through various periods of time with many talking heads to fill in the blanks. Downey Jr. was a son of parents that were both in show business. His father was a famous singer and his mother was an actress. The marriage did not last and Downey Jr’s father kept him from his mother. She died at a young age due to a suicide. Downey Jr. also implies that she was an alcoholic. So these events could easily have shaped him to what he became. Downey Jr. resented his father and deeply disliked his domineering ways.
Most of the time is spent in the period when his show was on in the late 80s. Flashbacks to an earlier time offer some glimpses of what made Downey Jr. tick. Downey Jr. tried to make it as a singer and was unsuccessful. You see a piece from the 50s of him crooning a song, while Dean Martin critiques it. His father was friends with the Kennedys. They had a house near the Kennedy compound. Melody Miller, an aide to Ted Kennedy, knew Downey Jr. when he went by Sean. He was a loyal Democratic supporter and several revealing photographs from the 60s show him smiling or clapping for Ted Kennedy. Downey Jr. also wrote a book of poetry shortly after the death of Bobby Kennedy. This poetry is weaved in and out of the story and narrated by various people to sometimes comical effect. So what made him switch to a conservative firebrand? That question is never quite answered. Conservative politician Pat Buchanan speculates that Downey Jr. was always a conservative and he just played a part as a Democrat. There is no evidence to back this claim up. Downey Jr also liked to say he was a man of the people and that clearly wasn’t the case with his privileged upbringing.
The home videos provided by Kelli Downey Cornwell, Mort’s daughter, are an interesting contrast to his television persona. We see him at Christmas time having a swell time with his children or walking down the stairs sleepily in his robe. This seems to point to the fact that what was on television was somewhat of an act. That is an opinion shared by some featured here.
The show opened in New Jersey in 1987 and was cancelled less than two years later in 1989. It shot out like a rocket and Downey Jr’s fame was instant. He was featured on magazine covers and interviewed by the likes of Ted Koppel. Several people who worked on the show provide great material. Senior Producer Peter Goldsmith, Writer Jim Langan, Executive Producer Bill Boggs and Associate Producer Rebecca Johnson all have wild stores that they share. One of my favorite scenes shows a production meeting. Langan gives Downey Jr. some lines he can use on the show. Downey Jr. basically repeats the lines verbatim later on. It is the peeling away of the mask that makes you understand this troubled guy more.
Talk show hosts Sally Jessy Raphael and Richard Bey also give their perspective of Downey Jr. and his legacy. Gloria Allred and Al Sharpton rose to prominence with appearances on the program. Sharpton made his name with the discussion of the case of Tawana Brawley. Brawley was a black teen who claimed to have been kidnapped and raped by several white men. A jury eventually found that she was making the whole story up, but Sharpton was there at the forefront fighting for her rights no matter if they were right or not.
The other incident that was prominently featured here was Downey Jr’s infamous claims that he was attacked by skinheads. Friend Lloyd Schoonmaker goes over that sad display and how it played out. The end was already drawing near for Downey Jr. and his show even before this happened. The last ten years of his life is quite tragic in its telling. He barely looks like himself near the end of his life after several operations.
The documentary goes over his fight against lung cancer and his relationship with his last and much younger wife. Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger do a mostly good job of gathering revealing interviews and never before seen photographs and video. Whenever there wasn’t documentation to show, animation is provided by Murray John. I personally enjoyed the animated marching cigarettes in the vein of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Downey Jr’s visit to a Catholic school. The animation is somewhat cheeky and goes along well with the flow of the film. I thought of The Morton Downey Jr. Show as like a gladiator performing in the Roman Coliseum. Downey Jr. would rile the audience up and they in turn would back him up as he went after the guests with such glee. It could be exhilarating, but also frightening in a way. Morton Downey Jr. ultimately went too far in his zeal to be right and to confront. His head got too big and his career suffered because of this. I think there can be a happy medium between viciously berating a guest you don’t agree with and lobbing soft balls about inconsequential stuff.
EVOCATEUR: THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. MOVIE is a fun documentary that peels away some of the layers of the controversial talk show host. I did wish the filmmakers would have tried to explain Downey Jr’s political conversion, but maybe that answer wasn’t to be found.
EVOCATEUR: THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. MOVIE BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: The vibrant colors used come through nicely here especially in the impressive animation.
Audio: Everything is clear and audible. That is a good thing to have for a documentary on a talk show host.
Commentary with Director/Editor Seth Kramer, Director/Writer Daniel A. Miller and Director/Art Director Jeremy Newberger: Fun commentary with the three directors. They share interesting tidbits like most of the past audience members interviewed were childhood friends and that media mogul Bob Pittman was instrumental in giving access to the tapes of the show. It never gets too serious with this feature and you learn little things here and there.
Memorable Moments (6:09): This shows some of the famous guests that appeared on the show like Joey Ramone, Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman. There is also a section about personal space which showed some of the close quarter confrontations between Downey Jr. and his guest and audience members.
An Evening with Mort’s Guest Kellie Everts (1:56): She was the former stripper who had a memorable appearance on the show. She mostly talks about her forays into bars.
“Behind the Animation” with Murray John (4:29): Great feature that has Animation Director Murray John discuss the animation in the movie and what was left out. We learn of some of the obvious inspirations for these scenes. The three directors also talk about the animation in their commentary as well.