Featured Writer, ANNA SPIEWAK
Before The Jerry Springer Show, The New Jersey Housewives and Jersey Shore became household names and trademarks of mindless trash television for the blue collar audience, and conservanazi Bill O’Reilly grilled liberals on his show, there was one man who started it all, back in the late 1980s. The chain smoking, finger-pointing, big-toothed loudmouth Morton Downey Jr. broke ground for controversial programming at a time when everyone was still behaving nicely on air. The brass, rude way that Downey Jr. puffed smoke into his guest’s face, hollered obscenities at some of them and sometimes even threw others off his show while on air – made national headlines
While most may have stumbled upon the Morton Downey Jr. Show late at night airing on WWOR-TV in Secaucus, NJ, back in 1987-1989 and flipped the channel due to the loud noise of the host and his audience, directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, back then impressionable teens, were mesmerized by the man who would become the founding father of what we call today populist entertainment.
The three friends, filmmakers and business partners who founded Ironbound Films in 2003, realized that all of them shared a fascination with Morton Downey Jr. while growing up. The next natural step for them was to make a movie about it.
“For anyone who remembers the show, it’s not like being a fan of “Mad Men” today, it was not a normal TV show, the Downey Show had a bit of a cult following,” said Seth Kramer, one of the directors and editor of the 90-minute documentary showcased at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (www.tribecafilm.com) in an interview with this reporter. “Part of us wanted to go back to that time and figure out what was the appeal to us about him. It was sort of a strange period in our lives and a strange thing to be interested in, we’re not necessarily fans of Jerry Springer, nor cult followers of today’s brand of populist entertainment, so what was the appeal of Downey to us?”
As the directors set out on the journey of Morton Downey Jr.’s life, career and death, they quickly realized that it was not only the show that appealed to them, and Downey Jr.’s conservative political views that he preached at the time, which all directors say they do not share today, but also his style in delivering his message. Celebrity personalities and other talk show hosts interviewed in the film describe MDJ as someone who reacted on emotion during his TV rants rather than reason, and yet someone with a lot of guts to tell some of his guests as it is straight to their face. In a time when television was mainly geared at women and an older demographic, The Morton Downey Jr. show had a certain appeal to the American male population searching for justice amidst political indifference.
“It was almost like watching wrestling, there is a wrestling character that represents America, chauvinism and patriotism, he’s the blond-haired representation of everything you hold dear and there’s another character who represents something foreign and evil and they’re battling it out, either on the World Wrestling Federation or on the Downey show and you want the character who represents the good to win; and for a 17-year-old at that time it’s very easy to see in such a black-and-white way, that’s how Downey represented politics and that also appealed to us,” said co-director Daniel A. Miller, who’s also the writer on the film.
The directors compare the Morton Downey Jr. show to today’s social media in a way, since there was avid audience participation and discussion of shows afterwards. The documentary, which premiered at Tribeca on April 19, shows guests such as presidential candidate Ron Paul and civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who are still making headlines today. The documentary doesn’t shy away from more raunchy segments of his programs, such as Downey inviting a topless porn star to his show who wiggles her oversized breasts at the audience, while he calls her obscene names and pushes her with his pelvis to sit back down.
“Part of the appeal to us was forget about history, he was so over the top that even 25 years later you watch and still can’t imagine that this was ever permitted on the air,” Miller added.
Aside from his controversial show, directors tap into Downey’s childhood, growing up in the shadow of his famous father, Morton Downey Sr. the Irish tenor and best friend of Joseph Kennedy Sr., the father of the Kennedy clan; spending summers at the Kennedys’ homes and attempting a singing career himself in the 60s and 70s.
“His life story is pretty fascinating, so we felt compelled by the story and the filmmaking,” said TFF director of programming Genna Terranova who chose the film to be showcased during the Tribeca Film Festival.
Founded in 2002 by Jane Rosenthal, Robert DeNiro and Craig Hatkoff, the lower Manhattan spring festival was aimed at revitalizing the downtown area of New York post September 11 attacks. Tribeca Film Festival’s mission is “to enable the international film community and the general public to experience the power of film by redefining the film festival experience.”
Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie will also be showing on May 5 at 7pm at Clearview Claridge Cinema, as part of the Montclair Film Festival in North Jersey May 1-6 (http://montclairfilmfest.org), founded by comedian and news show host on Comedy Central, Steve Colbert, a resident of Montclair, a posh Essex County town.
All photos are courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival. For information on the film go to: http://montclairfilmfest.org/2012-festival/evocateur-the-morton-downey-jr-movie/
Tags: Anna Spiewak, Bill O'Reilly, Craig Hatkoff, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, Jane Rosenthal, Jersey Show, Montclair Film Festival, Morton Downey Jr., Robert DeNiro, The Jerry Springer Show, The New Jersey Housewives, Tribecca Film Festival