Charlie Sheen: just another American psycho
The author Bret Easton Ellis thinks actor Charlie Sheen has changed once and for all the nature of celebrity, for the better, by destroying it.
Ellis, writing in Newsweek, says Sheen has confirmed that celebrity is nothing but illusion. Sheen, says Ellis, has massacred the aura of the big Hollywood studios and destroyed the halo of fame itself. There has been no PR lackey compelling Charlie to stick to the corporate line; no one standing between Sheen and the world.
The prophylactics are off and fame lies ruined on the sheets while Sheen stands over the remains. There is a war between celebrity and reality and Sheen, according to Ellis, is winning.
“It’s thrilling watching someone call out the solemnity of the celebrity interview, and Sheen is calling it out for the sham it is,” says Ellis.
But Ellis’s claim that Sheen has changed the world at all must be looked at with caution. Especially when it is remembered that Ellis, as the author of American Psycho, appeared for a moment to dislodge the Earth from its axis when that book was released. But that, too, turned out to be illusion.
Ellis defines the world of celebrity as we know it into two fields: the old school, which he calls the “Empire”, which is represented by more established film, book and sport celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Madonna, Norman Mailer, Tiger Woods; people who seem earnest and dull compared to “post-Empire” stars of the moment, such as Lady Gaga, Mark Zuckerberg, the Kardashian sisters, Ricky Gervais and Sheen.
What he’s saying is celebrities must confront, challenge and upset people otherwise they’re worthless. “Sheen is the new reality, bitch,” he tells Newsweek readers.
Hypocrisy is dead; Sheen has made it so. Stardom calls for extreme measures and only those making full and open admissions are acceptable. Nice people, like Anne Hathaway, who just hosted the Oscars, are not believable, because being nice is not believable.
There is something to what he says. Something, but not much.
Ellis is right that Lady Gaga does have something to say. She sings about love and sex with such hate—“I want your ugly, I want your disease/I want your everything, as long as it’s free” - that she really is a bit scary.
Her lines are horrific and fascinating. The fact that I don’t fully get it, and go back to look again, like trying to unravel a nightmare you want to happen, tells me I have acknowledged her legitimacy.
Ellis is also right that Gervais, in hosting the Golden Globes and upsetting most of America, revealed much about the absurd self-importance and sacrosanctity of America and its film stars.
According to the Ellis doctrine, had Tiger Woods not given his unconvincing apology to the world for betraying his wife (funny, isn’t it, how you apologise to the world for betraying your wife, rather than the wife?) and instead raised an unapologetic middle finger, Woods would have made it into Ellis’s list of currently valid stars.
Instead, Woods did his corporate duty, as expected, and claimed his penis had a mental problem. Not good enough, is what Ellis seems to be saying. Woods should have admitted he enjoyed himself, hugely, and taken a seat with Sheen.
As for Madonna, he says everything she’s ever done looks tame and slow compared to certain current stars, for whom pornographic performances – whether actual porn, or extremely self-revealing behavior – is no cause for embarrassment.
Therefore, he defines Bob Dylan as old-school Empire. As Ellis explains it, Dylan’s mid-1970s “Blood on the Tracks” album might have been a finely crafted self-expose on his feelings and relationships, but we’ve moved along. He prefers Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP”, because his album is more transparent, personal and self-excoriating than Dylan’s.
But at the same time, Ellis allows Keith Richards into the new post-Empire school of cool on the strength of his recent nasty-funny iconoclastic autobiography, “Life”. It’s curious. Bob Dylan is still capable of making good records. Keith Richards hasn’t made a good one since he made “Tattoo You”, with the Rolling Stones, in 1981.
It would be interesting to learn whether Ellis considers himself Empire or post-Empire.
Ellis published American Psycho 20 years ago. It was a book with such explicit sadistic and ultra-violent sex that it was variously banned, sold bound in tight Glad Wrap, clad with heavy warning stickers, hated, celebrated and mass cult-worshipped.
The argument was whether the book was literature or porn. The literature argument won the day. It had to. The very fact that so many intellectuals from all sides of politics took strong positions on the book revealed, in itself, that they all took it seriously on some level.
It was not possible, at the time, to guess whether people from the left and right would either support or condemn the book. Both sides did both. This was very different to carbon tax politics.
It didn’t matter to me. When it came out, I was impressionable (to the book, not the commentators). I loved it, though if pressed – then, as now—I could not really say why, except to say that I’d never read anything like it. Even buying the book was thrilling.
Then the panic died down. The Glad Wrap came off. The world was still safe.
I think I’ve read most of Ellis’s books; most recently, Imperial Bedrooms, which I started out enjoying because it had the tone of a noir thriller. But when it turned to sex and torture towards the end, I started skim-reading and then stopped altogether. I learned my tolerance for this kind of unexplained sadism had deserted me, somewhere along the road, many years ago.
Artists are of course permitted to revisit certain themes and indeed make careers out of it. Everyone does it. But the violations Ellis commits on his characters in Imperial Bedrooms occur simply because Ellis has failed to think up a good conclusion. Extremism is fine, but its authors – whether writers, musicians, filmmakers—really only get one chance to make their case in this world. And then you’ve got to move on to something else. Ellis had it with American Psycho.
Ellis has not moved on with Imperial Bedrooms. It is savage only for savagery’s sake, and must be classified as Empire, not post-Empire (which is the place he’d like to be with Sheen).
There is something troubling about him sending Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer and even Madonna to the archives, just because some incumbent star has produced work that necessarily reflects current times and is more extreme and explicit.
I wonder what Ellis would make of the Ben Cousins story. He would – as I do – admire Cousins for revealing himself so openly in his documentary, and for refusing to apologise. But as a West Coast Eagles fan, I would have much preferred that Ben Cousins did not go on an extremist bender and destroy his career.
Cousins would probably be lining up to play his last season with the Eagles this year. And his opponents would still be wary and watchful of a player who brought to the stage the inestimable qualities of craft, dedication and skill, all of which are more dangerous and threatening than a brief descent to chaos.
Paul Toohey is the US Correspondent for News Ltd newspapers in Australia. People wishing to contact him in regards to stories from America should feel free to do so at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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