Say what you will about Charlie Sheen — that he is a raving lunatic, an egomaniac, a train wreck, an anti-Semite, a drug-addled cautionary tale — he has also actually made some sense this past week by offering up a reasonably astute analysis of the relationship between the public and its celebrities. In fact, Sheen seems to have decided to liberate himself by liberating us from the illusions we harbor about the stars.
Most of us want to think of celebrities as ordinary folks who, by dint of talent, hard work and a bit of luck, ascended to the heights. We want to think of them that way, one suspects, because it binds them more closely to us and because it allows us to indulge the fantasy that it could be us up there on the screen.
Unlike Europeans, Americans have never much tolerated Sarah Bernhardts, the sort of grands artistes who exist in a different and higher realm from the hoi polloi. We take our democracy seriously, right into entertainment. We like a star who is modest, self-effacing, self-deprecating — in effect, one of us. That's why the fan magazines in the 1930s and 1940s featured Clark Gable and Carol Lombard lolling in their backyard just like any old married couple, or Joan Crawford tending to her brood just like any old mother.
This was the basic contract: Entertain us, and we'll grant you fame, riches and adoration — so long as you remain one of us. Violate that contract at the peril of your career. Abide by it, like, say, Tom Hanks, and you will be rewarded with longevity. All we ask is that you be, or at least appear to be, normal.
Bruce Willis once described the basic trajectory of celebrity in America as having four stages: You arrive, you peak, you bomb and you come back. Whether he realized it or not, Willis was also describing the phases that anthropologist Joseph Campbell had discerned for the hero across cultures — save for one thing. Heroes don't bomb. That is a distinctly American interpolation, one designed to ensure that our demigods never confuse themselves with gods. As our stars rose into the heavens, we reserved the right to humble them, to bring them back to Earth. Think of Eddie Murphy or John Travolta or Tom Cruise, all of whom seemed to get too big for their britches and were brought down a peg for it.
So Charlie Sheen's verboten media blitz flaunting a lifestyle that is decidedly not shared by the vast majority of his fans (how many of us have two live-in porn star "goddesses" or can profess to have consumed an amount of cocaine that would have killed a mortal?) explicitly violates the contract, which seems to have been Sheen's point.
He says he isn't off the rails like Mel Gibson or Lindsay Lohan. He insists he is the engineer. He is doing exactly what he wants to do, what his riches and fame allow and entitle him to do. As he puts it, he is embracing his "rock star" life.
The irony is that living large and doing exactly as he pleases has long been a central ingredient in Sheen's appeal. His role on "Two and a Half Men" as a womanizing, footloose bachelor seems lifted out of his real life, which is one of the reasons it is funny. We think we are seeing Sheen spoofing himself. When Sheen reminded us that his life is even more extreme than his character's, the media turned censorious — an example of trying to have your comedy and revile it too. Sheen is absolutely right to call this hypocrisy. He has never pretended to be a Boy Scout. He has always purported to be precisely the opposite.
More broadly, even as Sheen blows the whistle on the idea that celebrities are just like us (or that he has ever been anything other than a loose cannon), he also reveals the cracks in the "humble star-grateful audience" contract. When Willis was making his observations on celebrity some 15 years ago, he explained that Americans everywhere, having seen the benefits of fame, desired it. Increasingly, he noted, it isn't what we have in common with stars that binds us to them; it's exactly the opposite. Privilege and arrogance once repulsed us. Now, in our amped-up, success-obsessed culture, it attracts us.
And if Sheen isn't the first celebrity to be overtly imperial, he may be the first to tell us just how imperial he is. Think "Adonis DNA," and "winning, duh."
And that may be Sheen's real infraction to his detractors: In letting us know that he is nothing like us — that his life is the American dream on steroids and that many of us, as he says, are jealous of him for it — he has shown us that envy is at least as potent a force as identification. With his firing this week, one might even say that he sacrificed his career for the cause.
Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of Edward M. Kennedy.