Directed by: Seth Kramer & Daniel A. Miller & Jeremy Newberger.
Does anyone really remember Morton Downey Jr.? I admit that before this movie, I hadn’t heard of the man. I was a little young to remember his short lived talk show – that debuted in 1987 as a local show, went National in 1988, and was cancelled in 1989. In two years, Morton Downey Jr. went from being someone most had never heard of to national celebrity to pretty much a nobody again. Yet when you watch the movie – which uses generous clips from the show itself – you see how influential Morton Downey Jr. really was on our current culture – in mostly negative ways. You can see the influences of everyone from trash talks shows Jerry Springer, to Conservative pundits like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, to the cast of Jersey Shore reflected in the show, the host and the audience.
The easiest way to describe Morton Downey Jr. as host of his talk show would be to say he’s seems like a man who watched Peter Finch in Network, and decided that he too could do that. He is angry pretty much the entire time he’s onscreen – always with a cigarette in his hand, screaming at his guests – and encouraging the audience – affectionately referred to as “The Beast” – to do the same. He spoke for “the common man” sick of politicians in Washington screwing everything up. He was an unabashed Conservative, and the audience tuned in every night to hear him yell at his guests – bleeding heart liberals. This probably describes why his show didn’t last very long – if you knew going on the show meant being screamed at by the host, and the audience, why the hell would you agree to be on it? He got a lot of mileage out of the Tawana Brawley case – that of a 15 year old African American girl who accused 6 white men – including police officers and an attorney – of raping her, then leaving her in a trash bag, with racial slurs written all over her. The case, eventually, proved to be false – with Brawley making the whole thing up – but Downey delighted in doing show after show on the case while it was national news – Brawley advocate Al Sharpton was a frequent guest. The show, which was never high minded to begin with, quickly devolved into a sideshow – culminating with Downey taking a page out of Brawley’s book, and faking an attack by skinheads – eventually leading to Downey to return to obscurity, trying, unsuccessfully to restart his career. The movie ends with his battle with lung cancer – which did get him somewhat back into the spotlight, in a far more sympathetic way than before.
The film was directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger – three self-professed fans of the show, who admit that Downey’s angry rants appealed directly to them at the time when the were teenagers. They, along with some other fans as teens, look back on the show mostly with nostalgia for their youth, mixed with a little bit of embarrassment for being so taken with the show at the time. The trio of directors take a fairly standard documentary approach to the film – mixing clips from the show with many talking heads – and a few interesting animated sequences, which takes the logical step of making Downey into a literal cartoon character.
Despite the fact that the trio are fans, they do not turn this into a fawning picture of Downey. Far from it. What the trio eventually conclude about Downey is that he was hungry for fame – by any means necessary. The son of Morton Downey, the famed singer and movie star from the 1930s, Downey grew up privileged, with a demanding father, but powerful friends – he knew the Kennedy quite well growing up. Part of the reason he became such a Conservative seems to be little more than a shot at his father, who was an avowed liberal. The producers of the show, when interviewed, essentially admit that they had to teach Downey all about the issues he was supposedly so outraged about night after night. Downey, it seems, didn’t really care about politics – he cared about fame.
Still, despite all of this, it’s hard not to somewhat feel for Downey in the later part of the film. He was a man haunted by his father, and essentially self-destructs. The fact that the film only has an interview with one of his children – who remembers him mostly with affection, although admitting he wasn’t the best father – or any of his ex-wives probably means the people who knew Downey best still have issues with him. That said, this is still a fascinating movie about a short lived TV show, with a blowhard host, who is at least partly responsible for the state of television culture over two decades later.