“I wouldn’t want to live his life, because I think he hasn’t been happy all his life,” says Dick Clark. “Some of the pieces of the puzzle are missing.” Clark’s grainy video image cuts to a grainier TV image, Ronald Reagan’s swearing in. But Clark isn’t talking about the president. He’s talking about Chuck Barris, the man who invented The Gong Show.
Barris (Sam Rockwell) first appears in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, standing in front of a TV showing the 1981 inauguration. He stands at attention, naked and alone in a dreary hotel room. At this point, Barris’ voice over begins, lamenting the mess he’s made of his life and careers, his failure to live up to the potential modeled by Albert Einstein or Joe DiMaggio, and his eventual career choices—game show producer and CIA assassin.
His redemption, Barris abruptly realizes, can come only in detailed recollection, specifically, in his decision to confess his many sins, that is, to write his “unauthorized autobiography.” He starts typing: “I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered 33 human beings.”
Mm-hmm. The book does indeed make this claim, and to the surprise of few, it didn’t sell a bijllion copies back in 1984 when it was published. Happily, Charlie Kaufman got a hold of it some years ago, and seeing in it a perversely kindred spirit, the man who scripted Being John Malkovich and Adaptation refashioned the narrative so that the point was not whether or not events occurred, but how they infect and reflect a trash-loving, truth-fearing culture. That is, how the story is our own.
Directed by George Clooney, someone who has his own experiences with the politics of identity and entertainment, Confessions is a brilliant mix of television history, artistic license, and resilient self-inflation. Rather like Reagan, Barris’s performance of self is premised on a Cold War-ish worldview, a combination of paranoia and egotism that allows him to rationalize his aggressions while imagining how much smarter he is than anyone else.
Thus established to be layered with fears and lies, as well as filtered through multiple perspectives, Confessions traces Barris’ experiences, beginning with his early years in Philadelphia, when he can’t convince any girls to make out with him in movie theaters. Apparently, such disappointment moves him to seek grander displays of affection in show business: he writes a pop song that makes it to American Bandstand (hence, the Clark connection), and makes his way to New York.
When ABC rejects his initial pitch for The Dating Game (choosing instead, “Hooten-fuckin-nanny”), poor Chuck despairs. Miraculously, just as he’s feeling most forlorn, he’s tapped by Jim Byrd (Clooney), shadowy, grim, and fedora-ed, much like you would imagine a CIA handler should be. Informed that he “fits the profile” of the international spy, Chuck signs up, anticipating exciting missions, exotic locales, and beautiful women.
Whatever doubts he has about the morality of this line of work, Chuck is soon convinced that they are beside the point. His training—in particular, by gruff Instructor Jenks (the terrific Robert John Burke)—convinces him that he has what it takes, and he’s more than happy to be whatever someone else tells him he can be. His first assignment occurs in a scene marked “Mexico City 1964,” shot in stereotypically yellowy filters, at once making the situation look “exotic” and “dangerous,” and drawing attention to the conventions of conveying such “exoticism” and “danger.” When he returns to the States, Chuck evinces a newfound sense of confidence and performance. He’s immediately rewarded with a deal from ABC: they’re picking up The Dating Game. The show is phenomenally successful, as is The Newlywed Game that follows. Suddenly, Barris is a “hitman,” several times over.
When a bellicose FCC censor (on set to instruct Dating Game contestants as to what’s allowed on air—i.e., no explicit blow job jokes) is also played by Robert John Burke, the connection between Barris’ fantasies and ostensibly real life careers is hard to miss. But this connection is further complicated in its levels as the film’s primary metaphor: the “decline of Western Civilization” attributed to Barris’ miserable game shows has nothing on the decline brought on by nationalist self-regard and self-interested international policy. Who’s lying to whom about whom?
In order to maintain his “cover,” Barris’ assignments coincide with “dates” he must chaperone for winners of The Dating Game, conveniently set in snowy Helsinki or Berlin. Some of these assassinations involve collaboration with fellow spy Keeler (a wholly entertaining Rutger Hauer), who, having been around the block a few times, likes to have his picture taken with his targets, mid-death-throes. Chuck is at first astounded by this chutzpah, but then, after a couple of successes on his own, he also starts to seek out the charge of an assignment. He calls Byrd, as urgently as any junkie: “I need something, man.”
Again, this speaks doubly to the culture of addictions that produces and is produced by a personality like Barris. If his undercover self isn’t quite real, the creation is elaborate enough to seem real. And seeming is enough. His desperation to please, to be loved, to do right, and to get off is all of a piece. The film’s jaunty, colorful slip-slidey approach interweaves fictions and facts, dreams and losses. All these games, spy and TV, feed on greed and humiliation, highlighting Chuck’s lifelong desire for approval, extending to his generalization that “any American would sell out their spouse for a washer-dryer or a lawnmower you can ride on.”
The film elaborates on this conceit through Chuck’s own womanizing self-image—simultaneously, he wants a spouse he can sell out and rejects the stifling normalization that such a relationship connotes. On the one hand, he sleeps with any girl he can; on another, he falls in love with the perfectly perky Penny (Drew Barrymore), who, as she seeks her own ideal self-image during the film, transforms from cool-cat New Yorker to San Francisco free-lover (“I’m a hippie now!” she exults, “Come back there and be my old man with me!”) to devastated girlfriend to blushing bride. She’s finally willing to accept anything from her man but the truth, which, as he has it, is just too ridiculous to believe. Less a character than a marker of Chuck’s changes (she can’t believe his spy tales), Penny reflects his other self, perhaps happy.
On a third hand, he shares CIA assignments with dastardly Patricia (Julie Roberts). Though she appreciates Chuck’s sinister side (his false identities and violent tendencies), she also never believes him. Their mutual deceits lead to a psychosexual meltdown that parallels Barris’ collapsing TV career, in a stunning set piece as he hosts The Gong Show, feeling scrutinized by every balding crewmember on the set. He starts to flail, the images start to careen, and the set is strewn with bloody bodies—crew and studio audience members murdered, just as they “deserve” to be.
This meta-narrative is exacerbated by talking head commentaries throughout the film, by Dating Game host Jim Lange and Gong Show panelists Jaye P. Morgan, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, and the Unknown Comic, complete with paper bag. These underline the ways that nostalgia, performance, and narcissism inevitably intersect in any life’s creation and recreations. The film leaves it for you to parse. As Morgan puts it, “I know some things about him that are very distressing. And you wouldn’t want to know them about him.” She’s probably right.