[Picture of projector]

Laramie Movie Scope:
Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

The meteoric rise and fall of a fascinating character

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

November 18, 2013 -- I had heard of Morton Downey Jr., but had never seen his show. Seeing this documentary about the firebrand talk show host, however, seems very familiar. He is one of a kind that comes along every so often, and there is a certain similarity to all of these guys who attack and humiliate people for our entertainment.

I grew up listening to Les Crane on radio station KGO. Crane had a national TV show on the ABC network in 1964. Crane had a confrontational interview style which was later emulated by Joe Pyne. Although Crane, a liberal, and Pyne, a conservative, both had some success, it was nothing like the stardom enjoyed by Morton Downey Jr. when he burst upon the national scene in 1988 when his syndicated TV talk show went national.

Downey perfected an abusive style of being a controversial talk show host. He had developed his skills and style hosting a radio talk show on KFBK-AM in Sacramento. After being fired in 1984, he was replaced on KFBK by Rush Limbaugh, according to Wikipedia. It was on TV that Downey made his mark, taking on the persona of a defender of blue collar middle America and attacking “pablum puking liberals” in Washington.

He got right into the faces of his guests, yelling insults at them, taunting them, provoking fights. Sometimes real violence did erupt on the set. The more conflict on the show, the better. He seemed to lose control at times, screaming at his guests, and they screamed back. He claimed he really believed what he said on the show, but the documentary throws some doubt on that, by showing that he behaved differently before and after his brief success on the TV show.

Downey did not grow up in a middle class family. His mother and father were in show business. His father, Morton Downey, was a popular recording artist who performed on national radio, and appeared in movies. His father also co-hosted a national TV game show. Morton Downey Jr. always wanted to be a recording star himself and desired to greatly exceed his father's fame. He did cut a few records, but his real fame came as a talk show host. His mother, Barbara Jane Bennett, was an actress who appeared in a few Hollywood films, the last one in 1930. She committed suicide in 1958, according to Wikipedia.

Downey's home life was not a happy one, according to the documentary. A story is told by a co-worker of Downey angrily destroying a copy of a national magazine with his father's picture on the cover. According to the film, Downey was also a liberal, like his father, and was friends with Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate. Downey ran for office as a Democrat once. The film hints that Downey's on-air persona and his on-air politics were an act, either fully, or in part. Downey played to the crowd, and the crowd was angry, and largely Republican.

Downey thus comes across in this film, not as a right wing thug, using his lynch mob of an audience to destroy his guests, but as a more complicated character. Downey is a man who may have actually believed all the B.S. he was dishing out on his show. He seems to be a man who desperate psychological needs to achieve fame and fortune. He will do anything, believe anything, to satisfy this need for achievement. The man behind this public mask may have been a much kinder, gentler person.

The ironies in Downey's life are so thick it is impossible to push past them to get to the real man. There is some hint of the real Downey his final acts, when he reaches out to some of the people he had savaged on the show, such as the famed lawyer, Alan M. Dershowitz, who is one of those interviewed for this film. Others include Pat Buchanan and Chris Elliott.

Downey was like a meteor. He rose to fame in 1988. His show was cancelled the following year and he filed for bankruptcy the year after that. A chain smoker, he finally died of lung cancer in 2001. He had pushed the limits of the talk show format past the breaking point, but he paved the way for people like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Sean Hannity, who have the same kind of act, but toned it down a bit.

It takes a delicate balance to stay on the air with an abusive interview style, and Downey went too far. In the end, most famous guests refused to be on his show because of the way he treated his guests.

This documentary probably raises more questions than it answers, but it does give a fair portrait of a very interesting character. The film ends, strangely, with a scene which is a close copy of a scene taken from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2013 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)