People have forgotten how much Morton Downey Jr. contributed to our aggressively patriotic, bully-boy culture. For a brief, crazy time in the late '80s, the multi-moled rabble-rouser came up with the mad dog formula that Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and the entire Fox News Network continue to whip up to a frothy foam.
The documentary Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie comes out of the gate making that oh-so-obvious connection. As it shows modern-day conservative talkers doing their shtick, the movie takes us back to Downey's loud-and-proud talk show, where the chain-smoking host could rile up his audience and guests without breaking a sweat. A screaming match here, a nose-to-nose confrontation there, a little "you pablum puker" thrown in for good measure—and they were putty in his hands.
For the most part, the documentary shows how Downey (who died of lung cancer in 2001) was more fame monster than ass kicker, looking to get celebrity status by any means necessary. Downey virtually made it his goal to be more famous than his dad, an early 20th-century singing sensation. After striking out as a singer himself (although he continued to pursue it when he was doing his talk show, even releasing an album), he found his calling playing the role of conservative-minded man of the people. His political stance was ironic: He grew up vacationing next to the Kennedys, and he hung out with Ted Kennedy during his political prime.
The movie is as entertainingly bombastic and grandiose as Downey was, including animated sequences re-creating Downey's most surreal, personal moments (his limo getting swarmed by Catholic schoolgirls, for example). Co-workers, close associates and frequent guests give their remembrances—some of them quite unflattering. (Al Sharpton, whose roly-poly righteousness made him a regular, is unfortunately absent.) Downey's over-the-line experiences with female employees alone could make even Don Draper cringe. Eventually, his excesses and outlandish publicity stunts (remember his "run-in" with skinheads in an airport bathroom?) led to his downfall.
While Downey's act was transparent even then (Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott called him "a gory fake" during the show's zenith), he inevitably earned a place in pop-culture history for being a slick-as-hell entertainer who made a killing pretending to care about the common man. He was the perfect by-product of the Reagan era and, as Evocateur reminds us, someone rabid, right-wing broadcasters should gratefully praise every day of their lives.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Blowholes."