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. 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…
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