Is Charlie Sheen crazy? Or are we crazy for looking at his meltdown as entertainment?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 10 2011 5:52 PM

Charlie Sheen

He may be winning, but we're losing.

Charlie Sheen. Click image to expand.
Charlie Sheen

The past days have found Charlie Sheen in many poses—stiff-backed on a talk show, rocking gently in a wicker lawn chair, lunging toward the camera from the day-for-night murk of his outdoor kitchen—but his message, all the while, has been unwavering: No one surpasses what Sheen does; everyone stands in his way. By the time the Two and a Half Men star got fired this week, though, it was unclear what he'd ever been prevented from doing. Recently, Sheen has mugged for all the cameras in sight, fired insults at his sponsors, and dismissed addiction-control programs as bunk. When he appears in uncut interviews, which he does more than somebody with a decades-long drug problem probably should, he comes across as overwrought and infirm, spouting cryptic aphorisms like a kind of wan, demented Yoda. He's aggressively self-lauding. From his soapbox, Sheen opines on the winningness of his own lifestyle, a state that has something to do with mind control and strong-brewed coffee and the constant company of "goddesses." Where he is not yet winning, he is doing battle, and in this endeavor he assumes a grim Top Gun intensity. "Most of the time—and this includes naps—I'm an F-18, bro," he said. "I will destroy you in the air, and I will deploy my ordnance to the ground."

It is no secret that the body of Charlie Sheen has vacuumed up many things in its day, and listening to these emissions can, at times, feel like being pummeled with the contents of a large cultural DustBuster. The joke about "naps," though, comes from a more self-ironizing place, and it points toward what some people had suspected from the start—that Sheen was, in part, acting out for public entertainment. In the days since the first lurid outpouring, theories about his motives have proliferated. Is he truly blind to his crisis or "crazy like a fox," as Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams suggested, tossing out his rants and battle cries the way a shock-jock plays for ratings? Is he not an all-devouring black hole of self-interest but—as Sean Penn theorized in a recent GQ profile—a self-sacrificing performance artist at heart? The day after his long-term publicist quit, Sheen started posting to a Twitter account; with a precocious command of the form, he garnered more than 1 million followers in his first 24 hours. This past Saturday evening, and three times since, he dispatched a broadcast from home on the do-it-yourself Web service Ustream. "Not all of this is totally serious. There's a reason I've had mad success in comedy," Sheen told an interviewer at one point. And given public response this week, who's to disagree?

The problem here is that what's at stake isn't just performance art, or comedy, or public entertainment. Sheen has a wastrel's past, and behind the outlandish facade, there's a disturbing history of physical abuse of women and recursive self-destruction. Sheen would like us to ignore this record. ("The moment's over. It doesn't exist," he chanted when pressed. "We've got to get into right here, right now.") But it's hard to know where the pathos and illusions end. The debut of Sheen's Korner, his Saturday-night special, was a mix of self-conscious showmanship (Sheen followed a script scrawled on Letterman-like index cards) and genuine woe: The "show" was all too clearly a fallen star giving a bad, disordered broadcast from his study in the company of some stoned-seeming yes-men. The more Sheen tries to burnish and shellac his antics, the more it's possible to see through this surface, to the struggle beneath.

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To watch Sheen is to be unsure how to respond, what to feel. This is not an unfamiliar problem on the stage of lowbrow life. The star's latest exploits have elicited joking and speculative comparisons to reality TV—Sheen is reportedly in conversations about getting his own show—but the closer you look, the more illuminating that parallel seems. Sheen is trading on the same uncertainties that reality entertainment elicits: deliberate blurring of the boundary between performance and real pathos, between an actor's control and the absence of it. And he's been doing so for years. The past week pushed Sheen to the fore of national discussion largely because it marked the convergence of his career-long project—erasing the boundary between his real life and his life on-screen—with a new kind of audience hunger. The world can't get enough of Charlie Sheen, because his crises have an ambiguity we've come to recognize as entertainment.

It is tempting to regard Sheen's surreal public meltdown as a career killer, but it's actually the flowering of a sensibility his work has cultivated from the start. Sheen grew up in a Hollywood family with a dual identity: His father performs as Martin Sheen but has retained his real name, Ramón Estévez; unlike his actor siblings, Charlie (né Carlos Estévez) took the public lineage over the private one. In some contexts, his early immersion in the movie industry might have given him mature polish. In practice, though, it simply left him raw. Sheen had no woodshedding stretch, no period of obscurity in which to work up his craft. (He was getting lead billing in films within a year of starting in the business.) His roles are notable because they seemed, deliberately, to pick up where his real life left off.

This became clear early, with the release of Platoon, Sheen's first big coup as an actor. Platoon is an echo of Martin Sheen's iconic Vietnam film, Apocalypse Now, but it is also a movie that made an aesthetic out of its emotional realness: Oliver Stone insisted that his cast prepare for the shoot by living, for two weeks, as actual soldiers would have. He filmed a druggy scene using real pot and, at least once, shot off live weaponry as the cameras rolled. The goal was to erode the layers of fictionthat normally surround a Hollywood production—to raise the uncomfortable possibility that the fear in the eyes of an on-screen actor was real. In some sense, Platoon resembles basic training for Sheen's lifelong habit of self-revelation through his work: The character he plays in the movie, a greenhorn soldier caught between good intentions and a hopped-up, diabolic reflex of destruction, seems a lot like Charlie Sheen of the same period.

Other actors in Platoon moved past the movie's Method travails to have more or less normal careers. Sheen, though, kept getting cast back on his own life. Wall Street, which followed the next year, had Sheen portray Bud Fox, a young buck lured from his path by the glimmer of cold cash and industry celebrity. (The industry here was finance, with prizes including lavish real estate and blond babes.) The role of Bud's wise, hardworking father and moral conscience fell, in a casting call that was both charming and awkward, to Sheen's own dad.

Charlie was 22 when Wall Street came out. Less than three years later, he went publicly into rehab for the first time, further engraving in his public narrative the notion that his flamboyance on-screen was not entirely an act. ("Sheen," USA Today declared a month before he entered, "would like to dump his image as a real-life wild thing.") In the years since, that similarity has taken on a patina of irony. Following his rehab stint, Sheen starred in Hot Shots!, a feature-length spoof about young pilot who, overshadowed by his father to the point of emotional crisis, is deemed too unstable to be trusted with an important mission. In 1999, he played "himself" in Being John Malkovich, a Charlie Kaufman movie that was scripted but intended to seem tortuously organic. (Sheen's big scene in the film found him chatting, disheveled, with John Malkovich about the psychotropic nuances of drug use.)

Two and a Half Men launched in 2003 as a vehicle to carry this weirdly theatricalized private life to its far shore. Playing a dissipated, substance-dependent, generally Sheen-esque character named Charlie, the actor was charged with bringing his own crises to the screen once more and recasting them as gently fictionalized entertainment. When Sheen lays into his Two and a Half Men handlers for failing to be on the ball when he shows up to "bring it" from a coked-up, porny holiday or a fresh course of rehab, he is shirking accountability for his addictions and abuse in the slimiest way imaginable. But he's also pointing toward an odd facet of his professionalism: The gap between Sheen's public dissolution and the entertainment experience he is hired to conjure on-screen is dangerously narrow.

If there is a surprise in the Mayday coverage of the past weeks, in fact, it is not Sheen's flamboyant megalomania. It's the public proof that all the Nietzschean chants of self-importance are, actually, pretty shrewd assessments of his audience rapport. Where we might expect to witness a disturbing public breakdown, we've instead been entering, gratefully, into an entertainment pact.

The terms of that pact predate Sheen's recent sound-bite foundry. They predate even the Internet culture that has sustained him. Reality-show stars audition, are performers. Often, what they're acting out is a subculture with a quirky entertainment value. (This is surely the appeal of Sheen's bitchin' lexicon, passion for "commerce," and omnivorous moneybags consumption—all of which cast him as a relic of the striver '80s.) But they're also performing something that is scarcer in commercial entertainment: spontaneity.

The culture critic Michael Hirschorn has written about reality TV as a genre rooted in the space between journalistic documentary and scripted programming, cherry-picking the best elements of each. "Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter," he argues, "reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact." Producers have been unsqueamish in playing up that opportunity: Over the past decade, reality TV has gotten more exercising to watch while becoming more complexly unreal. When that guy chef and that gal chef hooked up on Top Chefwith the camera looming voyeuristically at a safe distance (and despite having lovers back home), what part of the encounter was real, with actual emotional fallout in these people's lives, and what part was performed? The warm feeling we get from watching reality TV is moral exculpation, the conviction that we need not feel full human empathy for these "real" situations, because, after all, they are produced by shrewd people for entertainment. The genre's central act is to show human pain and then persuade us that we still have disbelief to suspend.

"They look at me and say, 'I can't process it.' Well, no, you never will. Just stop trying. Sit back and enjoy the show," Sheen told his viewers last week—another way of saying, Don't let yourself care too much. This is the unctuous voice of reality entertainment, and Sheen's outlandish, vérité-style dispatches take their cues from that model of public interaction. It's a shield for him, of course, making every excess seem like craft. (In a recent New York Times piece, Anna Holmes eloquently traced a parallel between the gender dynamics of reality TV and Sheen's self-exculpation for his history menacing women.) But it's shielding us, too. Sheen is having a crackup. He may well be mentally ill. Where we should feel a humane urge to temper his self-humiliation and protect the family members reliant on him, we're instead egging him on, feeding his overkill. If there's a real tragedy in Sheen's career, it's the meeting of a life that flows too easily into performance and a style of mainstream entertainment that turns public dissolution into an aesthetic. It's a grim situation for the actor and his world but, really, worse for all the rest of us. When millions of viewers can request Twitter updates but can't recall what to feel about a human being coming apart, no one wins.

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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