At the Oscars on Sunday legendary litigation lawyer Gloria Allred arrived in a spangly dress decorated with a gigantic paper octagon bearing a picture of Charlie Sheen under the legend CHARLIE SHEEN IS A DISGRACE! At an event watched by half a billion viewers worldwide, the sartorial statement she had decided to make instantly elevated Sheen's recent bad behaviour to the realm of celebrity protest usually reserved for causes like AIDS and cancer charities, or fighting homophobia and injustice.
Just 48 hours earlier, and in the face of most expert predictions, his ludicrously lucrative star vehicle 'Two And A Half Men' had been very publically cancelled. How did we get here?
In Hollywood's glamorous heyday, the studios owned the stars, whose services they rewarded with steady work and the almost bulletproof protection of their public image. From drug busts to statutory rape and even manslaughter, no scandal was so big that it couldn't be hushed-up for the sake of the star's box office earning potential.
When stars broke away from the studios' control, they started calling the shots and demanding eye-watering paydays, but were initially still protected by the cocoon of their own success, the fact that American society worships success in lieu of class. In Europe you can be simultaneously successful and ridiculed, but making it big in America allows you to play by a whole new set of rules - which is why, for instance, interracial couples were common far earlier in Hollywood than in wider society.
Powerful people get bored by their own invincibility, risk becomes ever more irresistible, dangerously pushing the envelope a way of life
But now the politics of envy have decimated the cocoon of success and, in this new paparazzoid millennium, the gloves are off and the stars are on their own, with just their money for company. From drug-addled teen queen meltdowns to moral crusaders caught cottaging, the public wants nothing more than to see the great and good with their pants down, ideally faceplanted in the gutter eating shit. Snap a star looking beautiful and nobody cares, whilst pictorial evidence of a career-ending episode could put your kids through college.
Against this backdrop, it must be said that Charlie Sheen's character in 'Two And A Half Men' is a stroke of genius - professional Teflon if you will. Nothing the real life walking disaster that is Charlie Sheen can get up to off camera could ever damage the image of his boozing, drugging, philandering, narcissistic, whore-mongering reprobate of an alter ego - in fact quite the opposite. The producers were so confident of this that they even named the character Charlie, blurring the boundaries between Sheen and Harper, whose disgraceful shenanigans feed into each other's shared myth. Having protected themselves and their show against any imaginable Sheen-shaped screw-up, what could go wrong?
This carte blanche cover was clearly not good though, in a wider sense, for Charlie Sheen, whose lifestyle issues go back a long way. We're talking about a public figure who actively boasted of being one of the biggest spenders in Heidi Fleiss' little black book, considered career Semtex by most of the other names it contained. And who can forget how U2 took him aside during a backstage visit on the Joshua Tree tour and convinced him (briefly) to mend his boozing ways? U2 for a start, that's who. They had never met Charlie Sheen and, being Irish and fond of a jar themselves, weren't prone to lecturing anyone else about their drinking habits. Sheen was simply so wasted that he had hallucinated the whole encounter.
The reason we occasionally find politicians in drag hanging from a rafter with an orange in their mouths is that, as (some) powerful people get bored by their own invincibility, risk becomes ever more irresistible, dangerously pushing the envelope a way of life. Charlie's current contract with the show is worth $80m a year, so you can only imagine the revenue the series must be generating. Sheen claims to have enriched the studio by over a billion dollars, and put half a billion in creator Chuck Lorre's pocket. In a world where money talks, those sort of sums scream "You're invincible!" and, if he thinks he will be allowed to get away with murder because of it, that's probably a fair assumption. Two And A Half Men is worth too much to too many people for ethical concerns over enabling its star's self-destruction to be allowed to derail the gravy train.
Just look at the events of 2010! Sheen starts the year staring down the barrel of a domestic violence case after his wife Brooke Mueller makes a terrified 911 call to the Aspen police. Despite a publicised string of incidents with previous partners and alarming form on this front - who else among us has ended an engagement by accidentally shooting our fiancé? (Kelly Preston, 1990) - his legal team eventually discredit the female cop who came to his house that night and he waltzes out of court scot free - sorry, with 36 hours of anger management, 30 days probation and 30 days at Promises rehab in Malibu (the boutique dry-out-tank that lets the stars out at night to party). As the police officer's lawyer, not to mention a campaigner against domestic violence, Gloria Allred's disgust at Sheen's easy escape is more than understandable.
Then comes the Plaza hotel incident last October where, if reports are to be believed, police found him stark naked, face caked with cocaine, screaming racial abuse at the walls while porn starlet Capri Anderson cowered in the bathroom, where she had locked herself after he became violent. With perfectly American prudishness, the police had to throw a sheet over Sheen before tackling him. Reports disappointingly fail to mention whether or not a tent was pitched, and I would still dearly love to know why Sheen was calling his hotel suite a "nigger", but no degree of comic wastedness can alter the fact that anyone who uses that word as an insult is unquestionably a chateau-bottled shit of the first order.
The Plaza hotel incident last October where, if reports are to be believed, police found him stark naked, face caked with cocaine, screaming racial abuse at the walls while porn starlet Capri Anderson cowered in the bathroom.
And what were the consequences of this globally-splashed meltdown? Zip, zilch and nada, with a sprinkling of nowt on top. Anderson is now suing him for false imprisonment and battery but, despite a trifecta of commonly career-ending factors, the studio basically rolled its eyes and tutted: "That Charlie! What is he like?"
After surviving the Plaza Hotel incident with zero repercussions, Sheen must have been wondering if there was anything he couldn't get away with. Maybe being anti-Semitic in Hollywood would prove his orange-in-mouth auto-erotic accident, or maybe he would - as usual - even be able to get away with the precise palette of prejudice and domestic violence that had recently hobbled Mel Gibson's comeback.
Recent reports from the Two And A Half Men set suggest a very unhappy workplace, with Sheen retreating for increasingly long spells to his trailer, emerging so intoxicated that his comic timing has completely deserted him. With resentment growing, and writers struggling to divvy up the punchlines amongst other cast members, producers have been making begging calls to Martin Sheen, whose understandable response is: "What can I do? If he has turned up for work, he's your problem."
In an Alex Jones Show radio podcast last week Sheen lashed out at the show's creator Chuck Lorre, one of the giants of modern American comedy, who he accused of being "an AA Nazi and blatant hypocrite".
This followed the four-week suspension of the series after Sheen was hospitalised 36 hours into a party that began with the delivery of a briefcase full of cocaine to his house, and was followed by Friday's announcement: "Based on the totality of Charlie Sheen's statements, conduct and condition, CBS and Warner Bros. Television have decided to discontinue production of 'Two and a Half Men' for the remainder of the season."
In an open letter to TMZ, Sheen responded to the cancellation: "What does this say about Haim Levine (Chuck Lorre) after he tried to use his words to judge and attempt to degrade me. I gracefully ignored this folly for 177 shows ... I fire back once and this contaminated little maggot can't handle my power and can't handle the truth. I wish him nothing but pain in his silly travels especially if they wind up in my octagon. Clearly I have defeated this earthworm with my words - imagine what I would have done with my fire-breathing fists."
Addressing Lorre by his Jewish birth name provoked accusations of anti-Semitism, to which Sheen responded with a certain panache by suing the Anti-Defamation League, insisting that they should make Chuck Lorre apologise to him. A heated Facebook thread couldn't agree whether Sheen was an anti-Semite for referring to Chuck as Haim, or whether Lorre was a disgrace for changing his Jewish name in the first place.
While Charlie's radio outburst was clearly the final straw, I doubt it was the frankly mild racial element that detonated the meltdown from above. Anyone who understands how much hard creative legwork goes into great television shows before the so-called "talent" gets involved, will be able to imagine the rage Chuck Lorre must have felt at Sheen's radio claim: "I have spent the last ten years somehow magically turning your scraps of tin into gold!"
If I were spending every waking hour trying to save TV's most valuable comedy franchise from the increasingly erratic incompetence of its star, only to be taunted by him publically taking all credit for the show's success, the resulting blood pressure spike would see me bleeding from the ears. As the man behind 'Grace Under Fire', 'Cybill', 'Dharma & Gregg', 'The Big Bang Theory' and 'Mike & Molly', Lorre can walk away from 'Two And A Half Men' anytime.
As someone growing old disgracefully himself, I've always had a soft spot for the Chasmeister, and there will always be those who greet his every new depravity with the cry "Legend!", but the truth is that his wild man act has become really tired and desperate, and at no point has racism or wife-beating ever been cool. Charlie Sheen and his antics have stopped being funny and, when you're supposedly the king of comedy, that's a real problem.
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