03.15.11

Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire

With his tweets, his manic interviews, his insurgent campaign against the entertainment world, Sheen is giving America exactly what it wants out of a modern celebrity. In the full version of an article that appeared in this week’s Newsweek, Bret Easton Ellis explains how you are completely missing the point if you think Sheen's meltdown is about drugs.

“Drugs” is the first word Charlie Sheen utters in his only scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an epic from the summer of 1986 whose ad line was “Leisure Rules,” and the one John Hughes teen movie that has remained the least dated. This four minute scene, expertly written and directed, takes place in a police station where Jeannie Bueller (Jennifer Grey), waiting to get bailed out by her mom and, fuming about brother Ferris’s charmingly anarchic ways (he breaks all the rules and is happy; she follows all the rules and is unhappy), realizes she’s sitting next to a gorgeous (he was!) sullen-eyed dude in a leather jacket who looks like he’s been up for days on a drug binge. But he’s not manic, just tired and sexily calm, his face so pale it’s almost violet-hued. Annoyed, Jeannie asks, “Why are you here?” and Charlie, dead-panned, replies, without regret: “Drugs.” And then he slowly disarms her bitchiness with his outrageously sexy insouciance, transforming her annoyance into delight (they end up making out).

That’s when we first really noticed Charlie Sheen, and it’s the key moment in his movie career (it now seems to define and sum up everything that followed). He hasn’t been as entertaining since. Until now. In getting himself fired from Two and a Half Men, this privileged child of the media’s sprawling entertainment Empire has now become its most gifted prankster. And now Sheen has embraced the post-Empire, making his bid to explain to all of us what celebrity means in that world. Whether you like it or not is beside the point. It’s where we are, babe. We’re learning something. Rock’n roll. Deal with it.

Post-Empire started appearing in full-force just about everywhere last year while Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” gleefully played over the soundtrack. The Kardashians so get it. The cast (and the massive audience) of Jersey Shore gets it. Lady Gaga arriving at the Grammys in an egg gets it, and she gets it while staring at Anderson Cooper (Empire!) and admitting she likes to smoke weed when she writes songs—basically daring him: “What are you gonna do about that, bitch?” Nicki Minaj gets it when she sings “Right Thru Me” and becomes one of her many alter-egos on a red carpet. (Christina Aguilera starring in Burlesque doesn’t get it at all.) Ricky Gervais’s hosting of the Golden Globes got it. Robert Downey Jr., getting pissed off at Gervais, did not. Robert De Niro even got it, subtly ridiculing his career and his lifetime achievement trophy at the same awards show.

What this moment is about is Charlie Sheen solo. It’s about a well-earned mid-life crisis played out on Sheen’s Korner instead of in a life coach’s office somewhere in Burbank.

John Mayer (the original poster boy for post-Empire) gets it in his legendary Playboy interview and his TMZ appearances (he was the first celebrity to get what a game changer TMZ was) and one of Mayer’s leftovers, Taylor Swift, gets it, taking on Mayer (who casually used and dumped her) and even Kanye West (whose interruption of Swift on the VMAs scored a major post-Empire moment as well as creating the masterpiece post-Empire single “Runaway”) in two devastating songs about them on her latest record. James Franco not taking the Oscar telecast seriously but treating it with gentle disrespect (which is exactly what the show deserves) totally got it. (Anne Hathaway, unfortunately, didn’t get it, but we like her anyway for getting naked and jiggy with Jake G.) Post-Empire is Mark Zuckerberg staring with blank impatience at Empire Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes and telling her how The Social Network and its genesis story (he creates Facebook because he was rejected by a bitchy girl!) got it totally wrong (which it did; he was right; sorry, Empire Aaron Sorkin). Empire is complaining that the characters in Jonathan Franzen’s great 2010 novel Freedom aren’t “likable” enough. And it should also go without saying that Banksy gets it more than just about anyone right now. For every outspoken I-don’t-give-a-shit Empire celebrity like Muhammad Ali or Andy Warhol or Norman Mailer or Bob Dylan or John Lennon, there were a dozen Madonnas (one of the queens of the Empire who was never real or funny enough to get it—everything interesting about her now seems in retrospect dreadfully earnest) and Michael Jacksons (the ultimate victim of Empire celebrity—a tortured boy lover and drug addict who humorlessly denied he was either). To someone my age (47) Keith Richards (67) in his memoir Life has a kind of rare healthy post-Empire geezer transparency. But for my younger friends, it’s no longer rare; it’s now just the norm. What does shame mean anymore? my friends in their 20s ask. Why in the hell did your boyfriend post a song called “Suck My Ballz” on Facebook last night? my mom asks. But nothing yet compares to the transparency that Sheen has unleashed in the past two weeks—contempt about celebrity, his profession, the old Empire world order...

Post-Empire isn’t just about admitting doing “illicit” things publicly and coming clean—it’s a (for now) radical attitude that says the Empire lie doesn’t exist anymore, you friggin’ Empire trolls. To Empire gatekeepers, Charlie Sheen seems dangerous and in need of help because he’s destroying (and confirming) illusions about the nature of celebrity. He’s always been a role model for a certain kind of male fantasy. Degrading, perhaps, but aren’t most male fantasies? (I don’t know any straight men who fantasize about Tom Cruise’s personal life.) Sheen has always been a bad boy, which is part of his appeal—to men and women. There’s a manly mock-dignity about Sheen that both sexes like a lot. What Sheen has exemplified and has clarified is the moment in the culture when not giving a fuck about what the public thinks about you or your personal life is what matters most—and what makes the public love you even more (if not exactly CBS or the creator of the show that has made you so wealthy). It’s a different brand of narcissism than Empire narcissism. Eminem was post-Empire’s most outspoken character when he first appeared and we were suddenly light years away from the autobiographical pain of, say, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (one of Empire’s proudest and most stylish moments). It’s not that we’ve moved beyond craft, it’s just that there’s a different kind of self-expression at play—more raw, less diluted. On The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem rages more transparently than Dylan against the idiocy of his own flaws and the failure of his marriage and his addictions and fantasies than any Empire artist (and let’s include Empire Bruce Springsteen and his great Tunnel of Love album while we’re at it)—by recording fearlessly the fake murder of his ex-wife at his own enraged hands, a defying act that Bob or Bruce would never have even considered. Blood on the Tracks and Tunnel of Love have an Empire tastefulness and elegance that in post-Empire has no meaning. That doesn’t deny their power or artistry. It just means we’ve moved on. And, hey, that’s okay. Let it go.

We extol celebrity at a time when it has never seemed more fleeting or meaningless. A lot more people are famous now for doing, well, nothing—and, so what? Fran Lebowitz in her Empire HBO documentary (Produced by Graydon Carter! Directed by Martin Scorsese!) complained—and I’m paraphrasing—that what has really been lost in American culture is connoisseurship: the ability to tell the difference between what’s genuinely good and what’s mediocre. She’s bemoaning the fact that we don’t seem to be at that point anymore where the ability to be very good at something and to be rewarded for that talent (with attention, respect, money) exists. That era is not really gone—at least not in the alarmist Empire way Fran thinks it is, even though every day in American culture it feels like it may have evaporated—but only if you have an Empire viewpoint. When you’re “being” a housewife on a reality show, your fame shelf-life is short because so many other people can do what you do and you can be replaced instantly (and they are every season and everyone’s okay with it). Very few people become famous today because they can actually do interesting things and Charlie Sheen has been, admittedly, not one of them. Charlie Sheen staggers amiably through a bad sitcom. He’s fine. He’s inoffensive. Sheen barely engages with anyone on Two and a Half Men. He retains a semi-stunned look of restrained disgust at the shoddiness and unearned smarminess of the proceedings. If Sheen was allowed to give Charlie Harper more personality—a spark, a genuine leer—he would probably throw the sitcom woodenness of Two and a Half Men off balance.

His admitted contempt for the material makes the show (now) more interesting than it ever was, but not enough to actually endure an episode. Sheen has admitted that this “comfort TV” is a “tin can” of a show (he’s actually called it much worse), but do the fans of Two and a Half Men give a shit if its star does blow, fucks hookers, and allegedly abuses women (who keep coming back again and again and again for more abuse)? Every time there’s a lapse in Charlie Sheen’s imaginary moral clause (he doesn’t have an actual one) the show does better than ever in the ratings. Trudging through an awful sitcom that Sheen has to appear in to make the big bucks—and that he knows is no good—has got to be its own kind of princely nightmare. (It’s not like he’s playing Don Draper so, hey, it’s worth it. It’s not even like he’s playing Jack Donaghy! He’s playing an unamusing watered-down version of Charlie Sheen and that must kind of suck.) If I had to perform these scenes or deliver these one-liners week after week after week, I’d probably want to lose myself in drugs and alcohol and hookers as well. (Actually, I want to lose myself in drugs and alcohol and hookers anyway. What man doesn’t?) And I would expect the people who have hired and rehired and rehired me and helped make them an enormous amount of money to ignore my weekend escapades and let the cameras roll when I show up to work on time Monday morning. Which, as of now, Charlie Sheen no longer has to do.

You are completely missing the point if you think the Charlie Sheen Moment is really a story about drugs. Yeah, they play a part, but it isn’t at the core of what’s happening. Drugs are not why this particular Sheen moment is so fascinating. I know functioning addicts. They’re not that rare or that interesting. Let the flameout begin, but let’s also take his five kids and the horrible wives out of the picture—they also don’t have anything to do with The Sheen Show. They’re really not a part of the narrative that has been unfolding. This isn’t about them. (I think most of us who have gone through our parents’ traumatic divorces aren’t going to find anything more outrageous than our own experiences here except that Sheen’s has been played out publicly and our parents’ tortured divorces were not.) No, what this moment is about is Charlie Sheen solo. It’s about a well-earned mid-life crisis played out on Sheen’s Korner instead of in a life coach’s office somewhere in Burbank. The mid-life crisis is the moment in a man’s life when you realize you can’t (won’t) maintain the pose that you thought was required of you any longer—you’re older and you have a different view of life and this is when the bitterness and acceptance blooms. Tom Cruise had a similar meltdown at the same age in the summer of 2005, but his was more politely manufactured (and, of course, he was never known as an addict). Cruise had his breakdown while smiling and he couldn’t get loose, he couldn’t be natural about it. He’s always essentially been the good boy who can’t say “Fuck You” the way Sheen (or even someone as benign as Cee Lo) can. Cruise is still that alter boy from Syracuse who believes in the glamour of Empire earnestness, and this is ultimately his limitation as a movie star and as an actor. (Could Cruise be hiding something? That would explain why he was so great in Magnolia as the liar who gets caught.) Tact might have worked in the Empire, but something like Knight and Day just doesn’t fly in post-Empire. And Les Grossman gyrating on the MTV Movie Awards (by the way, totally Empire) is not Tom Cruise getting post-Empire loose. Les Grossman taps into a giant part of how Cruise actually comes off in the press—Empire control freak at its most monstrous. This is why some people think Les Grossman is funny because the character parodies a side of Cruise that is recognizable. Face it: Cruise was a king of the Empire and not even Les Grossman is going to erase that. Sheen was a minor member of the Empire by comparison. Who would have thought that he would be the one solidifying and paying the price for this transitional phase of post-Empire celebrity?

So what is another Les (Moonves) thinking about Charlie Sheen now? Well, on one level Les must have “approved” some of the following for a long time up until the official firing. The arrests? The accidental overdose? The half-hearted stints in rehab? Martin Sheen’s teary-eyed press conference? The briefcase full of coke? The Mercedes towed out of the ravine? The misdemeanor third-degree assault on the third wife who also went to rehab—she was addicted to crack, for God’s sake? Sheen allegedly threatening same wife to cut off her head and put it in a box and send it to her mother? (It sounds like something he would say and it always cracks me up.) Sheen chain-smoking on TMZ, gesturing to the 24-year-old “goddesses” he’s shacked up with, both alternately bored and enjoying himself, railing against CBS and Warner Brothers who have decided to cancel the rest of Two and a Half Men’s season, and later that week fire him? The priceless dialogue? (On CBS executives: “They lay down with their ugly wives in front of their ugly children and look at their loser lives.”) The September 11 conspiracy theories Sheen believes in and being a member of the 9/11 Truth Movement? (Oh, well.) Shooting Kelly Preston in the arm? (Maybe the impetus for her to gravitate to gay dudes, a friend has suggested.) Fucking Ginger Lynn and Heather Hunter and Bree Olson? Being a regular client of Heidi Fleiss? Refusing to admit he has hit rock bottom (“A fishing term,” Charlie says dismissively.) Admitting—gasp—that his PR guy lied about the “medication mix-up”?!?

And yet he always managed to show up to work and has not hurt the reputation of Two and a Half Men despite the drugs, the whoring, and the mid-life crisis. Compared to Cruise, Sheen has put on a mesmerizing and refreshing display of mid-life crisis honesty—he’s just himself, an addict, take it or leave it (the Empire regime at CBS decided to leave it no matter what the legalities are). On Piers Morgan and 20/20 and the uncut TMZ interview Sheen doesn’t seem like he’s on drugs. Look, you don’t do drugs and then want to give TV interviews. You do drugs and want to bang hookers in Vegas while smoking a carton of Marlboro Lights and downing three bottles of Patron Silver. You don’t do blow and then chat with Andrea Canning on ABC who looks both horrified and also, um, charmed. (Hey? Wanna know a secret, Andrea? Partying is fun. Addiction is hell but partying is a fucking blast.) These interviews don’t seem erratic to me. (He’s taken various drug tests and passed them all.) The TMZ interview is a major post-Empire triumph and I thought he looked great on CNN. Piers Morgan, after an uneven month (try watching the Empire attitude of the Winklevoss twins and not cross your eyes) seemed, finally, happily excited with Sheen’s aggressive transparency. Compare this to how bored Piers was with Janet Jackson’s Empire interview, complete with evasive pauses that lasted so long you could have rolled boulders through them, and Sheen’s honesty made Piers seem almost positively orgasmic. (Imagine Sheen being interviewed by Oprah. Sheen refusing to bow and apologize to the Empress might actually cause her face to melt off and her head to explode.) Sheen seems like a genuinely interesting person now. Maybe a wreck, but REAL. Transparency: that’s where Charlie’s at—sorry, Dr. Drew, it’s just not as logical as you think it is. So Sheen is in the strange new position of defining what that exactly means for a celebrity in post-Empire.

It’s thrilling watching someone call out the solemnity of the celebrity interview, and Charlie Sheen is loudly calling it out as the sham it is. He’s raw now, and lucid and intense and the most fascinating person wandering through the culture. (No, it’s not Colin Firth or David Fincher or Bruno Mars or super-Empire Tiger Woods, guys.) We’re not used to these kinds of interviews. It’s coming off almost as performance art and we’ve never seen anything like it—because he’s not apologizing for anything. It’s an irresistible spectacle, but it’s also telling because we are watching someone profoundly bored and contemptuous of the media engaging with the media and using the media to admit things about themselves and their desires that seem “shocking” because of society’s old-ass Empire guidelines. No one has ever seen a celebrity more nakedly revealing—even in Sheen’s evasions there’s a truthful playfulness that makes Tiger’s mea culpa press conference look like something manufactured by Nicholas Sparks.

The people unable to process Sheen’s honesty can’t do this because it’s so unlike the pre-fab way celebrity presented itself within the Empire. Anyone who has put up with the fake rigors of celebrity (or has addiction problems) has got to find a kindred spirit here. The new fact is: if you’re punching a paparazzo, you now look like an old-school loser. If you can’t accept the fact that we’re at the height of an exhibitionistic display culture and that you’re going to be blindsided by TMZ (and humiliated by Harvey Levin, or Chelsea Handler—princess of post-Empire) walking out of a club on Sunset at 2 in the morning trashed, then you’re basically fucked and you should become a travel agent instead of a movie star. Being publicly mocked is part of the game now and you’re a fool if you don’t play along with it and are still enacting the role of humble, grateful celebrity instead of embracing your fucked-up-ness. Gaga’s little monsters, anyone? Not showing up to collect your award at the Razzies for that piece of shit you made? So Empire. This is why Charlie seems saner and funnier than any other celebrity right now. He also makes better jokes about his situation than most worried editorialists or late-night comedians. A lot of it is sheer bad-boy bravado—just saying shit to see how people react, which is very post-Empire—but a lot of it is transparent, and on that level, Sheen is, um, winning. And I’m not sure being fired from Two and a Half Men and having to wear those horrible rockabilly bowling shirts for another two years is, um, losing…

What do people want from Charlie Sheen? Knowing more details about the benders and the porn stars and the trumped-up anti-Semitism (well, yeah, maybe, whatever) and being a “womanizer” (what the fuck does that archaic term mean)? What has been labeled “freakery” is really just a bored, pissed-off celebrity whose presence helps make a TV network an insane amount of money and by comparison is paid accordingly. When I tweeted “I love Charlie Sheen” on February 28 after watching him on the Piers Morgan show (and no, I wasn’t being ironic), the number of tweets I received agreeing with me (not ironically) from both men and women was a surprise. (It was the fastest I had been RT’d since something I tossed off about Angry Birds a couple of months ago.) Look, I’m not denying he has drug and alcohol problems, and perhaps even struggles with mental illness, but so do a lot of people in Hollywood who hide it so much better or that the celebrity press just doesn’t care enough about, and I’m not denying that Sheen is exploiting a problematic situation that he has helped create. But you can’t step around the fact that the negativity certain people feel about Sheen has never outweighed our fascination with the hedonism Charlie enjoys and which remains the envy of any man—if only women weren’t around to keep them liars. His supposed propensity for violence against women hasn’t hurt his popularity with female fans either (and if you want to get into what that means then that is a whole other story for another article—or about fifty books. Jezebel.com take note.) And, of course, if Sheen was a rock star (another anachronistic term from the Empire), not many people would be paying attention.

Do they really want manners? Civility? Empire courtesy? No. They want reality, no matter how crazy the celeb who brings it on has become. And this is what enflames CBS and the Empire press (but also gives them boners while they’re wringing their hands): Charlie Sheen doesn’t care what you think of him anymore, and he scoffs at the idea that anyone even thinks there’s such a thing as PR taboo. “Hey suits, I don’t give a shit, you suck,” is what so many of the disenfranchised have responded to. Charlie Sheen blows open the myth that men will outgrow the adolescent pursuit of pleasure, the dream of a life without rules or responsibilities; even if they have children, a flicker of that dream always remains. Charlie Sheen: Truth! Score! We’ve come a long way in the last ten days: Charlie Sheen is the new reality, bitch, and anyone who’s a hater can go back and hang out with the rest of the trolls in the Empire’s dank graveyard. No one knew it in 1986, but Charlie Sheen was actually Ferris Bueller’s dark little brother all along…

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Bret Easton Ellis is the author of five previous novels including, Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, Glamorama, and Lunar Park, and a collection of stories, The Informers. His most recent book, Imperial Bedrooms.