The Gong Show was nearly the bottom of the barrel. The moment it hit the air, whatever positives the invention of television had created or whatever good intentions the device had in its inception were all wiped clean as if violently knocked off the table with a forceful arm sweep. Produced and created by Chuck Barris, The Gong Show was one of the most mean-spirited and dumbest shows produced before the advent of reality television as we now know it. In short, regular people, mostly varying shades of untalented, would volunteer to come on the show and do their act where they would get eviscerated by both the audience and the celebrity panel. The jokes were crude, the production slapdash, and the prize money was arbitrary and mostly a pittance. The whole point of The Gong Show was to watch pitiful people, both contestant and audience member alike, at their most base, cruel, and cynical.
That The Gong Show was so noxious shouldn’t have been much of a surprise for anyone given Barris’s two other game show brainchildren, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, which were only slightly less terrible than The Gong Show and more an extension of Barris’s own insatiable libido. But, that being said, they weren’t without some kind of acrid foundation either as, to quote Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Newlywed Game was an idea that counted on the notion that “people would sell out their spouse for a refrigerator.” Barris knew how awful people could be simply because he knew how awful he was.
Based off of Barris’s “unauthorized autobiography” of the same name, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a wild, hilarious, surprisingly dark, and ultimately sympathetic portrait of a massively broken man who began his career in television only to find himself an outcast and dejected pariah by 1980. A project that had been bouncing around Hollywood since Barris sold the rights to his book in the late 80’s, the Charlie Kaufman-penned screenplay in the late 90’s was what eventually got the ball rolling on production of the film. After moving through various directors and stars who all attached and then unattached themselves for scheduling reasons, it finally fell into the lap of George Clooney, then looking to expand the boundaries of his resume a little further after making the transition from “television actor” to “bonafide star.”
More than just a vanity project by a bored thespian wandering outside of their comfort zone on a lark, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is anything but rote and risible. Though he takes some stylistic cues from buddy and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, a highly energetic George Clooney injects the project with a bigger shot of tactile realism than it probably would have had otherwise due to the director having grown up around television sets and Hollywood due to his father, Nick, and his aunt, Rosemary. His insistence on keeping the story close to the ground is what gives it the longer legs even if the draw of the film may very well be the wackiness of Chuck Barris’s storied (and story-filled) autobiography.
You see, while Barris was composing his autobiography in 1981, he thought it would be fun to thread in a wild tale that declared that he was not only a game show producer with a hit songwriting credit to his name (“Palisades Park”), but that was also an independent contract killer for the CIA who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of over 30 people. This was, according to Barris, a gig he did on the side as he carried on his normal duties in television. And Barris was just kooky enough to the point where, for some readers, it seemed like a semi-buyable premise even though he himself debunked the myth on the book’s press tour in 1984.
Under Clooney, the very real world of Barris is handled with the utmost care and seriousness. Always seen through Barris’s eyes, Clooney knows that the unreliable narrator at the helm of the story needs a perpetual leash and to be anchored in something the audience recognizes. This is all handled in the film’s expert period design (one can almost feel the texture of that glittery Gong Show set) and, especially in the early flashback sequences, the reliance on a faded Technicolor look which feels as odd as it does instantly familiar.
There is a playfulness in Clooney’s approach as well. His 2002 nostalgia for the 70’s feels almost like a paean to the pre-9/11 1990’s which was a true golden era for indie-minded blockbusters that came from the best and most original voices of their day. This extends to a hilarious moment in which Brad Pitt and Matt Damon appear as Dating Game contestants who both get snubbed in favor of a schlubby whine bag.
The warmth and affection afforded to Clooney as an actor gets extended to him as a director as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is very much an actor’s film. Sam Rockwell was a choice for whom Clooney had to really fight, but its easily one of the smartest choices he made for the film. A nervous live-wire of insecurities and pent up anger, Rockwell does an uncanny job filling out the person audiences really only ever got to see as he nervously fumbled his way through his host duties on The Gong Show (which Barris was not terribly happy doing). Drew Barrymore’s bubbly and somewhat tragic Penny begins the movie as a flighty, post-beatnik who is so liberated at the jump that her way of introduction is telling Chuck Barris that she just “fucked a real hip negro drummer.” But by the end of the movie, she’s the symbol of normalcy; allowing Chuck as much room as he needs but drawing boundaries she must know will still be trampled upon and bring her nothing but heartbreak. George Clooney takes a dry approach to a droll backseat role as Jim Bird, Barris’s CIA contact and Julia Roberts is clearly having a ton of fun playing a dark femme fatale and frequent interloper in Barris’s life in espionage.
Though the film never really addresses a lot of things in Barris’s life that, strangely, The Gong Show Movie (1980) accidentally would (for example, Barris’s daughter whose life was both brief and terribly sad), it’s still a damning self-portrait. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind doesn’t really end up solving the enigma of Chuck Barris. Really, how could it? But what it does reveal is a decently honest portrait of a fractured soul who, for many reasons still not quite understood by most, was falling apart right in front of everyone’s eyes.
In the end, the thing that actually threw Barris into television exile was not, in fact, The Gong Show but 3’s a Crowd, a game show that exploited the marital discord that occurred between husbands, wives, and secretaries. It was more contemptuous of the human race than The Gong Show could have ever dreamed of being. For all of the things he might have wanted to do, Chuck Barris found success the cheapest way he knew how. As irony would have it, his success would also be his greatest curse. This is why, for all of his accomplishments, as the real Chuck Barris stares into the camera in the final frames of Clooney’s film, he’s identified only as “Chuck Barris: Host of The Gong Show.”
Not surprisingly, Chuck Barris signed off on that.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain