Chuck Barris’ life has been so bizarre that when they made a movie of it, you still can’t tell what’s real, what’s fantasy, what’s fiction, and what’s such a whopper of a tale that it could very well be the truth.
Barris begins as a school kid in Philadelphia in the halcyon 1940s, the product of a loveless marriage, eager to be off to New York to make his fortune in the brave new world of television in the 1950s: Steve Allen and Perry Como and Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand.’ Chuck Barris began as a network hire who distinguished himself from the other 2,000 applicants by giving as a reference some of the highest executives in television. They didn’t call his bluff, and he got hired, in part to go back to Philadelphia to spy on Dick Clark.
He’d been a lonely young man for so long that he took to hanging around amusement parks, just trying to meet women. But his burning ambition even parlayed that into a hit song, ‘Palisades Park,’ which he was glad for somebody else to sing. He just enjoyed collecting the royalties, with which he produced a pilot for a new kind of television: the game show. Chuck Barris was the creator of several early hits: first The Dating Game, then The Newlywed Game, then The Gong Show. And in his success he was criticized as the person who lowered the standards for television.
Barris had wanted desperately to succeed, and he did. But somewhere along the way, he’d learned that he also desperately yearned for something darker and deeper than even commercial success could give him. He claims that the CIA contacted him about being an operative for them. With his trips to exotic locales to ‘chaperone’ the winners of his game shows, he had a perfect cover. And, he had an ideal profile: an angry and lonely young man with an inner rage that mere bar fights wouldn’t assuage.
In the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ a crazy/genius mathematics professor is recruited by the CIA to help break codes. It turns out it’s all a figment of his fertile mind. Could this also be true of our crazy/genius television producer? Is the CIA story accurate or not?
Well, the movie certainly appears to make George Clooney, as the recruiting operative, seem convincing. And Julia Roberts, as the spy with the whiff of intrigue and the allure of beauty, seems as mysteriously remote as ever. The scenarios of silencer-hits in distant lands seem convincing. But then, so are the dream sequences of his TV shows becoming suddenly violent, or his foreign victims appearing as faces in a crowd which seems to be closing in on him.
Barris’ only true connection with reality is his long-time girlfriend, Penny (Drew Barrymore). She pretends to be open-minded and free-spirited, but really, she’s simply in love with him and wants a traditional marriage, despite her protestations of openness. She’s usually bright and bouncy, but she’s actually a tragic figure; she’s always wanting what she can’t have, and he’s always disappointing the only one he ever really loved.
Is Barris one of the formative pioneers of television? Definitely. Was he a CIA operative, as well? Hard to tell. In his creative mind, fiction and fantasy and reality and entertainment all dwell closely together, as they do in this film. It’s not very uplifting. But it is compelling, no matter how much of it is true.