Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, a bizarre black comedy based on the memoirs of the gameshow producer (and later host) Chuck Barris, is the first film directed by George Clooney. It’s a spirited, inventive, funny and highly stylized movie with a good cast on song, and it has become something of a cult classic since its release in 2003. But one question still hangs over the film ten years on: how much of it is actually true?
Barris wrote the book Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind in 1984. While it fulfilled certain autobiographical criteria, examining his years as a songwriter (he wrote Freddy Cannon’s hit Palisades Park, which got to number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962), TV producer (and later host) of popular TV gameshows like The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, Barris also made the bizarre claim in his book that throughout the 1960s and 1970s he had worked as an undercover CIA operative, and had assassinated several targets under agency orders (the film reckons 33 in total). That’s the kind of twist you don’t often see in a celebrity autobiography, to say the least.
Of course this could well be the shameless claim of a man whose fame and appeal was on the slide after years in the primetime spotlight. It’s certainly an attention-seeking move, and unsurprisingly Hollywood came a-sniffing soon after the book was published. Columbia bought the film rights, but after a false start (Richard Dreyfuss was slated to play Barris but refused to read the script as he disagreed with Barris’s taste in humour) the project was shelved for well over a decade.
In 1997, the writer Charlie Kaufman was enlisted to write a new screenplay. (This is, of course, pre-Being John Malkovich; though a successful TV writer, Kaufman was not the famous name we know today.) Barris himself was a fan of Kaufman’s treatment, and Curtis Hanson was penciled in to direct, with George Clooney, Drew Barrymore and Sean Penn to star. Barrymore was so keen to land the role of Penny Pacino, Barris’s long-suffering partner, that she would regularly phone the studio to check on the development of the project, reminding them all the time that she “was Penny”.
Hanson dropped out, and a host of other directors were attached to the film at one point or another: PJ Hogan, Sam Mendes, David Fincher, Brian De Palma, Bryan Singer and even Darren Aronofsky all came close to directing Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. While the project was passed from one director to another, Mike Myers was set to play Barris, but after three years and not much movement his patience was exhausted and he lost interest. Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Ed Norton, Robert Downey Jr and Ben Stiller were also linked to the role of Barris at the turn of the decade, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger were all considered for the role of Pacino. Eventually Johnny Depp was signed up for the lead, but after production stalled again due to financial issues and disagreements regarding rights, he left to work on other projects. Bryan Singer subsequently pulled out due to commitments on X2.
Finally, Clooney got the nod as director, presumably in part due to the fact his pitch to Miramax included the promise that he would work for scale as director and that he would try to bring the rest of the cast on board inexpensively so that the budget stayed under $30 million. He also agreed, as part of the deal, to appear in a cameo in Spy Kids 2: The Island Of Lost Dreams. No-one can accuse the man of not suffering for his art. George Clooney being George Clooney, he was able to convince big names like Julia Roberts and Barrymore to take lower-than-usual paychecks for the sake of the film, and called in a couple of favours for cameos (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon both appear in one amusing scene as rejected Dating Game suitors; interestingly a young Michael Cera and Maggie Gyllenhaal also have early, minor roles).
Miramax were a little unsure about Clooney’s preferred lead, though. The director had starred alongside Sam Rockwell in Welcome To Collingwood, and was adamant that he should play Barris, not only because of his talent as an actor but also due to his (slight) physical resemblance to the gameshow host. Clooney struck a deal with Miramax that allowed Rockwell to star as Barris, and for final cut to rest with the director, in exchange for Miramax having the first option on several upcoming projects from Clooney’s production company.
Barris’s story begins in the 1950s. He is portrayed here as a young, ambitious guy living in Philadelphia, permanently on heat but too sleazily eager to enjoy any progress on the dating scene (the great irony being his TV career really took off with the launch of The Dating Game); he’s also angry and lacking any real direction in life. His only apparent skill is the uncanny ability to talk himself into bar fights, something that ends up as a recurring motif during the rest of the film. Comically, he never wins one.
After moving to New York, Barris becomes an NBC page boy, and realises that his dream is to become successful in TV. Unfortunately, he is laid off before he gets anywhere with the network. Still, he recovers to write the hit song Palisades Park, meets the love of his life Penny Pacino (Barrymore) and ends up pitching The Dating Game to ABC, even though they reject it in favour of another game show, Hootenanny.
After reacting to this setback with yet another bar fight, Barris is approached by the ultra-serious CIA agent Jim Byrd (Clooney), who convinces the impressionable young man that he fits a ‘certain’ profile that is perfect for the agency’s needs. Barris subsequently trains to be an assassin and, after graduating*, begins whacking Lefties around the world in the name of all that is just and free. (Amusingly, as he leaves the CIA’s training centre, he says goodbye to a couple of friends that he has made: “Alright Jack [Ruby], see ya Lee [Harvey Oswald].” Confessions is full of neat comic touches like this.)
Upon his return Barris learns that The Dating Game has been picked up by the network, and the show becomes a huge primetime TV success. He subsequently creates The Newlywed Game, which is also successful, and fixes the prizes of both gameshows so that the winners end up travelling to grey, unappealing Cold War destinations like Helsinki and West Berlin. While there Barris, acting as chaperone to the contestants, performs hits for the CIA. He also meets fellow agents Patricia Watson (Julia Roberts) and Keeler (Rutger Hauer), falling in love with the former, who shares his love of Thomas Carlyle.
The film deals with Barris’s subsequent supposed double life and the strains that it has on his professional career and his relationship with Pacino. Unable to cope with the pressure of killing, as well as the threat of a CIA mole that is bumping fellow agents off one-by-one, Barris gradually loses the plot and ends up imagining himself gunning down studio audiences. Coupled with his inability to handle criticism from TV critics, Barris rents a hotel room and goes into hiding, grows a straggly beard and spends his time naked, staring at a TV screen all day long (this is actually how the film opens – it jumps back and forth in time a fair amount but it is edited very well).
Clooney’s film is as darkly comic as it is serious, yet the balance between humour and the more serious act of ruthless killing is pitched just right, creating a striking tone that sets Confessions aside from any other spy film and any other biopic. At times it is cartoonish in style, approaching the 60s and 70s in a way that’s not too dissimilar to brightly coloured lighthearted period pieces like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There is much fun to be had with the film’s recurring motifs; for example every time Barris has a great idea it is filmed as a comical ‘Eureka!’ moment, and watching Clooney’s CIA man appear suddenly and silently in a variety of settings is a witty nod to spy films and TV shows of yesteryear. Yet as the film turns darker and deals with the more outlandish of Barris’s claims it becomes more serious and – weirdly – more believable, thanks in part to Kaufman’s clever script and Rockwell’s superb performance at its heart. Rockwell manages to switch skilfully from being a gregarious, outgoing entertainer to a wreck of a man who is struggling to deal with his longstanding demons; he can be a fantastic actor at times, and is completely captivating here.
It helps that he is well-supported. Barrymore excels as the effervescent, ever-smiley Pacino and Clooney is very watchable (and pretty funny too) as the poker-faced Byrd. Roberts also clearly has great fun in the black-clad femme fatale role, and Hauer makes the most of his limited screentime with a poignant monologue. I generally haven’t enjoyed the films of Julia Roberts during the past couple of decades, but there’s no denying that she has the kind of screen presence that few other modern actors possess.
Clooney uses brightly coloured, well-decorated sets informed partly by his own experience of a childhood spent hanging around in TV studios (his father Nick Clooney was a news anchor before hosting his own show for five years; he even had a stint as a gameshow host with WKRC-TV’s The Money Maze). While the carefully-chosen colour scheme helps to describe the passing of time (the 60s has never been more Technicolour…there are even shades of Austin Powers here) it can also be seen by the changing fashions and decor, not to mention Penny’s pronouncements (“I’m a hippy now!” she exclaims after returning from San Francisco). Clooney also employs several techniques to create specific looks for each era of Barris’s life covered by the film. Racking focuses were used for the scenes set in the 1960s, for example, which were popular in spaghetti westerns of the same period. Hand-held cameras are used for the 1970s scenes, partly as an homage to the films of Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula and Mike Nichols (primarily Klute, The Parallax View and Carnal Knowledge). Clooney’s reasoning for this is that memories of a certain period are often linked to the movies of the time. However it also means that Confessions opens itself up to the criticism that it’s not all that much more than a crazy mish-mash of homages: is Clooney merely a magpie that borrows from all the great directors he has worked with, or does he have enough of his own visual style on display?.
The argument that there are too many ideas on show in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind shouldn’t be dismissed easily, but I can understand Clooney’s desire to impress, it being his first film as director. Still, this is a hyperactive film in comparison with his far more measured but equally stylish second film, Good Night And Good Luck (yet I would counter that by saying although I know which film is the more worthy, I also know which one I would rather watch for my own entertainment four or five times over). Reviews were mainly positive, but some critics suggested a lot of the tricks Clooney employed were gimmicky, and detracted from the story.
Well, he certainly handles all these tricks and shifts in visual style with a certain flamboyance. The director also employs a ‘theatrical’ approach to many scenes, which works really well. For example, at one point we see Barris appear as part of an NBC tour party in the GE Building of the Rockefellar Centre in New York. The tour party leader exits to the right as we see Barris walk away from the group and approach a window to enquire about jobs with the organisation. Next the camera pans left, with no cuts, and we see the same tour party leader continuing her tour with the same crowd following her. However a secondary tour walks past from the left of the screen led by Barris, who is now working for the network. It necessitated a change of clothes and a quick dash around the back of the set by the actor, and it works seamlessly, especially as he shows no signs of being out of breath.
In another example, when Barris is on the phone to ABC network chief Larry Goldberg (Jerry Weintraub) in his apartment, Penny is dancing around, much to Barris’s annoyance. The screen seemingly splits so that we see Barris on the phone on the left and Goldberg in his office on the right-hand side, though it’s actually all part of the same set, allowing Penny to dance right through the middle of Goldberg’s office during the call. Barrymore presumably had to move round the back of the camera crew very quickly, so that she could be in the correct place when the camera pans back to the left, concentrating solely on Barris’s apartment once again.
Charlie Kaufman, that master of blurring the lines between fact and fantasy, wasn’t too happy with the finished version of the film. Disgruntled by the fact Clooney made alterations to the screenplay and didn’t collaborate during filming, he said: “I was upset by the fact that Clooney took the movie from me and then cut me out after that. I’m unhappy with the end result. And I’m unhappy with George Clooney. I had a movie that I wrote and that isn’t it. I’ve always been involved in the process with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. If there’s any rewriting to do, I do it. But with Clooney it was different; even the end of the movie is different. I mean, Clooney went on forever about how my Confessions screenplay was one of the greatest scripts he’d read. But if someone truthfully felt that way they’d want the person who wrote it to be on board offering their thoughts and criticisms. But Clooney didn’t. And I think it’s a silly way to be a director.”
To be fair to Clooney, he asserts his admiration for Kaufman’s script in the DVD extras, pointing out that the dialogue was so good it allowed him to employ single long takes of conversations between characters from distance (e.g. Byrd and Barris in the TV studio, during which we mainly see the back of Byrd’s head and feel ‘removed’ from the action; the point being that if the dialogue is good enough you can show it in any way you please, whereas if the dialogue is average you have to focus up closely on the actor’s faces and film it from different perspectives). He also talks about a scene where Penny arrives home to find Chuck in a state of undress on the couch with another woman. Throughout the scene Rockwell’s face is kept in complete darkness; Clooney felt he could only do this because the dialogue was spot on, and the viewer would know exactly what expressions would be on the character’s face as a result.
Despite receiving good reviews, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind – surprisingly – bombed at the box office, just about making back its $30 million budget. It also suffered from poor DVD sales, which is perplexing considering a) who was in the director’s chair and b) the other actors that appear in the film, even though Rockwell isn’t exactly a household name. It’s sad to think that audiences would shy away from this simply because it blurs the lines between a couple of different genres and requires a little bit of thought and, indeed, a leap of faith regarding the crux of the story. I would suggest that if you haven’t seen it you seek it out as soon as possible. It’s a gem of a film, and while it is a mixed bag of looks and styles I think it is put together sufficiently well for this to work in its favour. It’s also full of effervescent energy and wit, and Rockwell’s performance is superb. Its offbeat oddness – which presumably put many cinemagoers off – is not quite as expertly handled as the Coens at their finest, but it’s certainly in the same ballpark.
And as for the original question, about how much of it is actually true: well, the film uses interview footage with real-life Gong Show judges and acts, as well as other TV people that have known Barris professionally for decades. Some of them are convinced that, yes, he could well be a CIA assassin. Some laugh it off. Some feel that although they know him very well, they still can’t quite be sure. These supposedly-real interviews help to keep the viewer’s disbelief suspended throughout.
During the film, Barris struggles with the fact he is pilloried by critics for creating shows that dumb down television. Is he really a success, or due to the critical backlash does he actually consider himself a failure? The subtle suggestion is that he is so concerned that history will remember him as the latter he created a far more interesting fantasy world to ensure his fame lasted. Rockwell stated that the film’s charm for him is that it’s a great story, regardless of whether it’s true or not.
And the official line? Barris himself has stuck by the claim for nearly three decades, and even wrote a follow up book about his experiences. Clooney maintains that as ludicrous as it all seems, he’s not sure enough to say whether it’s true or not. After the movie was released, though, the CIA moved to distance itself from the story, with a spokesman claiming that the idea was “…ridiculous. It’s absolutely not true.”
But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?
Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: Charlie Kaufman (screenplay), Chuck Barris (book)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, Julia Roberts
Running Time: 113 Minutes