“I’m the same kind of phony that you are.”
— Morton Downey, Jr.
“Mort just understood performance, how to turn everything into something theatrical.” Describing Morton Downey, Jr. Bob Pitman is getting at his own version of the ideal media personality. And as he speaks, in Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, it’s clear that Pittman is something of a showman himself, someone with an understanding of how to present “something” that might attract attention, and more importantly, might make money. For this is the show that Pittman — captioned here as “media mogul” — understands very well, the one that not only draws consumers but also helps to create them.
Showing at Maysles Cinema on 24 July, the film argues that Downey’s story is at once banal and outrageous, predictable and (sometimes) surprising. You might guess that his father, the first Morton Downey, is an influence. Here the singer known as the “first recording star in America,” son of Irish immigrants, appears in performance shorts, tuxedoed and singing stale ballads, earnestly. His mother was a dancer, remembers longtime Downey friend Lloyd Schoonmaker, and when the couple divorced, his father took custody and refused to let her have “any contact with the son.” As the film zooms in to young Morton in a stagey-looking family photo of a young, laughing Morton Jr., Schoonmaker says, “He said his father drove her to drink, so really Mort was denied his mother.”
“He hated his father,” adds Downey’s writer Jim Langan. Whether or not this formulaic psychic structure explains the phenomenon of Morton Downey, Jr., it is an easy way to set up both his loudly provocative performance mode and what Langan calls “some anger towards women” (he goes on to say, “I don’t now where that came from”). The film illustrates the mode and anger in clips from Downey’s TV show, where he’s repeatedly baiting (as opposed to debating) his guests, both regular citizens and professionals, like Lyndon Larouche , Alan Dershowiz or Ron Paul.
Gloria Allred appears on the show in a pink dress with buttoned-up white collar and poofty sleeves and now, slightly less scary: “He was in your face,” she says, her metaphors as tacky as her object. “He was take no prisoners.” He fights with vegans, feminists, lawyers, and, according to one of the young white male fans assembled here as representative of “the Beast” (the Downey fans), he “just tapped into that 17-year-old male something.” Another puts it this way: “He was yelling at people who you felt like yelling at sometimes.”
This notion that Downey spoke for and to a particular demo, that he was devoted to them as they were to him, constitutes its own performance, of course. In this sense, he was, as Pittman says, “made for television,” a format changing shape just after Watergate and looking into an increasingly cynical-seeming future. As Downey puts it in an archival interview, “My audience finally found somebody who identifies with their needs their dreams. I love those people. I’ll do anything to protect them.” Constructing a kind of parental narrative, this assessment is at once patently false and also intriguingly real. Senior producer Peter Goldsmith asserts, “He related totally on an emotional level, there was no intellectual level for Mort. He attacked a guest with a ferocity and people loved him for it.” Here again, footage of Downey telling guests to shut up as he stalks the stage or performs any number of crude gestures, indicates the kind of “love” he means.
And this is the film’s primary narrative, that Downey helped to invent reality TV, the specious, vulgar, very popular sort of programming that runs more or less counter to Phil Donahue and Oprah. The artifice of the show, the theatricality, was always apparent, and yet, he crosses a line when he and Al Sharpton engage on the Tawana Brawley case and then again, in 1989, when he stages an assault on himself by “skinheads.” Both of these episodes are now infamous as proto-examples of reality TV gone too far, though neither goes as far as current reality TV goes on a daily basis.
Évocateur makes the case for Downey’s innovation and his insight into his audience, as it shows that his capacity for manipulation and his serial self-reinventions are simultaneously horrifying and estimable. The film doesn’t consider, overtly, the specific ways that Downey made visible the cultural fractures premised in race, class, and sex. It doesn’t intimate that he had control of his own performance, or that he understood the show he made or the gifts he possessed. Such lack of intent analysis speaks to the process that Downey perfected, however, the brilliant, immediate, painful exposure of ugliness and the enactment of it.