Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Craig Lindsey on the Chuck Barris “biopic” Confessions of a Dangerous Man.
So, there’s this guy, and he spends most of his youth knocking back drinks, getting into barfights and, of course, trying to get laid. As he gets older and more established, this guy, still hobbled by the arrogance and hotheadedness of his callow days, finds himself fraternizing with a sinister crowd who involves him in something he may not be emotionally equipped to handle. Eventually, this man becomes haunted by the sins he’s tried to keep hidden, ones that turn him into an erratic, paranoid, screaming mess in front of others.
You may be thinking of a certain, calendar-keeping crybaby right now. This piece isn’t about him. This piece is about Chuck Barris.
Barris was the TV impresario (he died last year of natural causes at age 87) who gave boob-tube audiences The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and that crown jewel of mediocre, amateur-talent shows The Gong Show, where he also served as the unruly host. He was also an assassin … or so he claimed.
In 1984, he wrote an “unauthorized autobiography” called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. In that book, he divulged that he was a contract killer for the CIA, using the trips he gave to his game-show winners as covers to go overseas and take out Cold War targets. While the intelligence agency has denied that Barris ever worked for them — and the one-time applicant himself once admitted that the story was nothing more than a what-if fantasy — people in Hollywood thought it was entertaining enough to snap up the film rights.
Confessions passed through a lot of hands after it was optioned in the late 1980s, back when Jim McBride (The Big Easy) was attached to direct and Richard Dreyfuss passed on it because he thought the material was too vulgar. Directors (David Fincher, Sam Mendes, Curtis Hanson) and stars (Johnny Depp, Mike Myers, Ben Stiller) showed up and dropped out over the years. If it wasn’t for the reality-TV boom of the early aughts, where cutthroat competitions like Survivor and celebrities-at-home shows like The Osbournes enthralled and amused home audiences, the movie probably would’ve still been in development hell. George Clooney, who was attached to co-star, eventually made it his directorial debut.
After he’d finished the film, Miramax — yes, the House That Harvey Built via Years of Intimidation, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct — dumped it into theaters in the winter of 2002 with little fanfare. (The movie didn’t even have a proper, Flash-heavy website that was all the rage back then.) Despite premiering at Cannes earlier that year and getting some decent reviews upon its release, Confessions came and went real quickly, only making $33 million worldwide. And for some — like screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who later voiced displeasure over how Clooney handled his script — not soon enough. (It makes sense that Kaufman would be the guy who wrote the script. After all, he has made it his career to spin bizarre tales about neurotic, narcissistic creative types and their quest to achieve some sort of notoriety.)
Although Barris is known on-camera as that goofy, shaggy-haired guy who always promised “more stuff” on The Gong Show, behind the scenes, he was one of the first to recognize that real people can give you some great entertainment if you just put a camera in front of them. He also understood how most regular folk would kill their mommas for a chance in the spotlight, even for a fleeting moment and even if they didn’t have any talent. Barris practically made it OK for talentless people to be TV stars. The Kardashians should send flowers to his grave every day.
And, yet, being known as an crude, exploitative film-flam man-of-the-airwaves didn’t sit well with him. In his more legitimate, 1993 memoir The Game Show King, Barris wrote how being known as one of the most hated public figures in America — he recalled how a sporting-event crowd immediately started booing when it was announced he was at the venue — wasn’t exactly a source of pride. After ruling the Seventies with his controversial brand of television, he moved to the south of France and wrote Confessions, where Chuck the Badass Assassin was born — because it’s a far more fascinating persona than being the guy who introduce the world to The Unknown Comic, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and the Popsicle Twins.
Confessions finds its ideal Chuck in Sam Rockwell, his first, lead performance in a major film. Like so many characters the actor has since played, his Barris is crass, selfish, sleazy and ultimately sad and miserable. As much as his search for celebrity, sex and power gives him, well, celebrity, sex and power, it doesn’t make him content or complete. Even when he’s at his notorious peak, he’s still confused, fearful, ashamed of who he’s become. He’s the embodiment of self-loathing.
It isn’t until Barris starts climbing the ladder to TV success that secret-agent man Jim Byrd (an icy, no-nonsense Clooney) shows up and lures the game-show host into doing some independent wetwork. It would be easy to write off these espionage-filled escapades as figments of his imagination. Every time life gets too real for Chuckie Baby, like when his longtime love Penny (Drew Barrymore) pressures him to settle down, here comes Byrd out of nowhere — all the better to slip him a new assignment, giving him an excuse to leave the country, wipe out bad guys and get busy with fellow killer operatives like Patricia (Julia Roberts). It’s up to the viewer to decide if these chilly, noirish adventures are all in his head. However, as the movie progresses and Barris realizes that taking lives is just as unfulfilling and anxiety-inducing as creating trashy TV shows, you’ll find that Barris is like so many of us: self-destructive, self-centered and really just trying to do something that’ll make his whole godforsaken life worth living.
Confessions is worth a second — or first — look, even though it’s a movie where everyone who was involved in making it (which includes Michael Cera and Maggie Gyllenhaal in bit roles and Clooney pals Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in silent cameos) has barely talked about since. It’s certainly the actor-director’s most experimental, least grandiloquent film as director, and with the exception of his Oscar-nominated, sophomore effort Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney’s behind-the-camera filmography mostly consists of heavy-handed message movies that usually, embarrassingly miss their marks. (What up, Suburbicon?)
The only message here, really, is: Not all biopics have to be about heroes. They can also be about dicks — flawed, insecure, occasionally insensitive dicks (usually hopped up on white privilege and entitlement) who are in denial about how hard and rough being a Respectable, Responsible Adult can be. Instead, they choose to live a life fueled by danger and delusion. In their minds, they’re cool, awesome, guys you shouldn’t fuck with. In actuality, they’re scared, pitiful man-children who are driven by their egos more than their wits.
And if these past couple of years have taught us anything, there a lot of dicks are out there … and they’re usually, unfortunately the most powerful people in the room. Celebrities, studio execs, TV chairmen, Washington politicians — even when they royally fuck up, they still manage to get away with their douchebaggery because, well, they can. Some of them might be gunning for a Supreme Court justice seat; some of them might already be President. It’s one reason that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is just as inspirational, if not moreso, than your garden-variety, conventional biopic right now. It reminds the viewer to steer away from dicks, so you hopefully won’t turn into one in the process.
Previously: The Manchurian Candidate