Director Daniel A. Miller remembers when loud-mouthed talk show host Morton Downey Jr. was literally all the rage on TV in the '80s.
"I was drawn like a teenage moth to the flame that was Morton Downey," says Miller, whose documentary, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, that he co-directed, screens at 6:45 p.m. on Friday and at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
"He was a blow-smoke-in-your-face, confrontational, violent talk show host," says Miller. "It was the perfect thing for a testosterone-filled young boy. All we had was MTV music videos that catered to the teenage demographic. If you were interested in current events, he put things in a way you could understand. It was like a wrestling match. He presented it in a black and white way. He told you which side to side with. The bad side often lost and got kicked off the stage, much like a gladiator match."
Miller says he and co-directors Seth Kramer and Jeremy Newburger consider themselves to be "recovering fans." They set out to try to figure out why Downey Jr. had such appeal. In the film, they explore his background (he was friends with the Kennedys and grew up as a liberal) and his sudden rise and fall.
"He had an epiphany in his radio days when he took on these extreme views," says Miller. "It seems like an act at first but at some point, it didn't matter anymore. He was so subsumed by the act. It's like Kurt Vonnegut says, 'You are what you pretend to be.'"
So was his rapid fall deserved?
"No," says Miller. "His fan base chewed him up and spat him out to some degree. Yes, he was catering to that fan base and there's only so long that that fire and intensity can last. Whether anyone who is entertaining people deserves to go out in flames, it's hard to believe that. He's like the Sex Pistols. He was in your face and screaming but then that demographic grows up and it's a question of whether the next generation buys into it."