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Originally published Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 3:08 PM

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‘Èvocateur’: Portrait of a provocateur

A review of “Èvocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie,” a documentary about an early TV proponent of uncivil discourse.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

‘Èvocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie,’ directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger. 90 minutes. Rated R for language and some nudity. Grand Illusion, through Wednesday.

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No, he’s not Robert’s brother. Morton Downey Jr. had a moment — actually a few years — back in the ’80s when he was a household word; now his name, for many, brings puzzlement. “Èvocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” traces Downey’s career, focusing on when he transformed from would-be singer (like his famous father) and poet to conservative TV talk-show host. “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” loud and controversial, debuted in New York in 1987 and went national in 1988. It featured, says rival talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael in the movie, “that prurient excitement of not-nice people saying not-nice things.”

At a time when most talk shows (think Donahue) were polite, Downey was unafraid to say, “I puke on you” to guests, and said just that to libertarian candidate Ron Paul, who seems to have survived. Constantly smoking a cigarette, Downey got into the faces of his guests, yelling and provoking, and the audience joined right in. “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” we’re told, has the distinction of being the first TV talk show that requires its audience to pass through a metal detector — for good reason.

It was a meteoric rise, and an equally quick fall: In April 1989, Downey claimed he was attacked by skinheads at an airport, but was soon discredited, and the show was canceled that June. He died of lung cancer in 2001, and his legacy seems to be an awful lot of yelling. The movie, made by three former teenage fans of the show, is an odd mixture of admiration and repulsion; even his friends and former producers, interviewed for the camera, seemed mixed in their feelings for him. Ultimately, his influence is summed up this way: “Passion plays on television — even if it’s an act.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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