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Games people play: True confessions from Barris, Clooney and cast of 'Dangerous Mind'

Sunday, January 26, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

NEW YORK -- When George Clooney's production company called actor Sam Rockwell about his availability for a movie, Rockwell naturally asked what the project was.

"I can't tell you," Clooney's man replied.

PG Review:
"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"


Considering the screwball nature of the project, not the least of which were some of the crackpots involved with it, the answer couldn't have been more apt.

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," which opened Friday, offers Clooney his first credit as director, a job he admits "wasn't something I was looking to do." It is based on the book of the same name by Chuck Barris, creator of TV's "Dating Game," "Newlywed Game" and "Gong Show."

An autobiography of sorts, it claims that, in his spare time, Barris worked as an assassin for the CIA. Even the publisher's blurb on the back of the paperback reissue uses the word "allegedly" when describing the author's exploits.

The screenplay was written six years ago by Charlie Kaufman, the unorthodox (to put it mildly) creator of such off-the-wall fare as "Being John Malkovich" and the current "Adaptation." In the latter, he makes himself a central character. His twin brother Donald is also a character and gets co-screenwriter credit. In real life, Charlie Kaufman doesn't have a brother Donald -- only in his vivid imagination.

So Kaufman and Barris may be kindred spirits. Just as Kaufman gave himself a fake brother, just as Barris may have created an ersatz secret life for himself, the movie plays fast and loose with certain facts in Barris' biography.

Toward the end of the film, for example, Barris' hang-ups are explained in part by the fact that his mother dressed him as a girl for many years. It turns out to be as much of a fact as Donald Kaufman is a brother. Charlie made it up.

"Charlie Kaufman doesn't bother himself with little things like truth," Rockwell said. "Chuck was a little weirded out by that, but I think he understands and appreciates what is so great and what is so uniquely creative about Charlie Kaufman. That's just his stream-of-consciousness way of writing. I think it's what sets him apart from other writers."

Says Clooney, "Charlie writes very funny comedies. But they're only funny if you're just scratching the surface. They are actually sort of sad tales if you watch 'Malkovich' and if you watch 'Adaptation.' ... There is always this underlying current of tragedy underneath those screenplays."

He finds a similar quality in Barris.

"The good news is, things worked out. The bad news is, there is certainly some real tragedy in there. In some sort of strange way, it's a Charlie Kaufman happy ending." That means you're not sure whether it's a happy ending at all.

Clooney, who also plays a supporting role in the movie as a CIA contact, doesn't know the truth about Barris' supposed spy exploits -- and didn't ask.

"I thought it was incumbent on me not to ask him, because I wanted to be able to tell the story, true or not. And I wanted to be able to say, I think it's a really fascinating story if it's not true, that someone as successful as Chuck felt the need to write that story."

Then again, it's fascinating that the man who in his heyday was one of the most prolific producers in television still doesn't consider himself a success.

If the movie version of "Confessions" is a success, Barris said, "then the book was a success and I did something that was some kind of a success."

He wrote the book as a catharsis at a time when his shows were canceled and his reputation and morale were at an all-time low.

Understand that Barris' shows, which ran mostly on weekday afternoons from 1965 to 1975, were smash hits. They were unlike anything else on the air, and their influence carries on in the reality shows of today. Detractors pointed at them as harbingers of society's decline and fall, suggesting that they lowered the bar on how far TV's infamous common denominator could sink.

"I never understood why I was singled out as the destroyer of civilization. I never gave that much importance to the shows I did," said Barris, now 73. "When I see 'The Sopranos' today, or 'South Park' or 'Jerry Springer' or whatever, I can't imagine what was so bad about 'Dating Game' or 'Newlywed Game.' "

On "The Dating Game," a pretty young woman questioned three bachelors and then picked one for a date. Nowadays, it's two dozen women, and the winner has to marry the guy, and -- oops -- he's not a millionaire as advertised. "The Newlywed Game" had a smarmy host pose suggestive questions to one-half of a newlywed couple, which the other spouse then tried to match, often with embarrassing results.

"I always had a sort of a reverence for the contestants," Barris said. "I always looked at it as, they were having fun. They were having the best time for about 10 minutes that they'll ever have perhaps for the rest of their lives."

On "The Gong Show," he would give often grotesquely untalented wannabes a showcase for their, uh, art. And if they were sublimely bad enough, the celebrity panel would terminate the act by hitting a big Oriental gong.

"I had to succeed. I was just driven to succeed," Barris said. "The criticism that was stopping my success was driving me crazy [and] the pressures of everything that was happening.

"Really being a second-rater -- that was bumming me out.

"It seems like I just wasn't being able to connect in the areas I wanted to. I'm a big romantic at heart. I wanted to be happily married; I wanted to be a big success in television. When I sold the company in '86, it was on the cusp of a big breakout. If I had stayed with the company, I'd probably be worth a billion dollars today. These demons drove me away from that company. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been driven away.

"I think my legacy will be 'Chuck Barris -- he finally got gonged.' It'll be on my tombstone. I'll go down being associated with 'The Gong Show,' which is in a way kind of sad."

The movie that might change that wouldn't have happened but for Clooney, who was determined to see the screenplay produced.

"It had fallen apart so many times that it wasn't getting made," he said. He had been linked to the project for six years, originally as an actor. Mike Myers and Johnny Depp were among those set to portray Barris. Curtis Hanson and David Fincher were potential directors.

Miramax had pulled the plug on the production about eight weeks before filming was to start, Clooney said, in part because the movie was going to cost too much -- more than $40 million.

"I thought, if I came on board as a director for scale and was able to bring everybody else on inexpensively, if I could get the film back down under $30 million, I would be able to get the film made."

So he called in several of his "Ocean's Eleven" pals. Julia Roberts has a supporting role as a femme fatale. Matt Damon and Brad Pitt function as sight gags -- they have cameos as bachelors on "The Dating Game." Clooney had worked with Rockwell on the low-budget blue-collar caper film "Welcome to Collinwood." The other major cast member, Drew Barrymore, who plays a composite character based on women Barris has known, was the newcomer to his circle.

"He's amazing. He's one of the best directors I've ever worked for. He makes your acting better. He really watches you like a hawk and comes in and tweaks and adjusts things you're doing and gives you incredible directions," said the 28-year-old actress, a notorious wild child through much of her career, which began at age 4.

Of her character, a free spirit named Penny, she said, "There was a real challenge in making her seem like a grounding light in [Barris'] life. .... He's at his best when he's with her."

Does she believe Barris was a CIA killer?

"I know he has an amazing imagination. I like it when people tweak the history as we know it and show a different way of how they got about it.

"I don't know what to believe. I don't want him to have hurt anybody, obviously. In that way, I hope it's not true."

Like Barrymore, who hails from the famous acting clan, Clooney has some show business in his genes. His aunt was the late singer Rosemary Clooney. His father, Nick Clooney, was a longtime newscaster and television personality in the Cincinnati area.

"My father had a game show when I was growing up called 'Money Maze,' " the younger Clooney said, and that may be a factor that drew him to Barris' story.

"I know what those sets look like. I showed the guy how to do cue cards. I grew up on 'em, and knew what it looked like and smelled like. And I knew something about some of the trappings of fame. So I felt I had a unique take on it."

And why not? No one else is quite like Chuck Barris.

"I always wanted to be a writer," Barris said. "That was my biggest dream. I never felt I succeeded in TV. What have my programs done compared to the successful programs in prime time? I did 'The Dating Game' and 'The Newlywed Game' and 'The Gong Show' and five other shows you don't even know about. What big success is that?"

But now there's the movie. "This," he proclaims, "is a big success."

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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