Actor Charlie Sheen has been all over the news this week in the wake of yet another porn "star" and cocaine bender. As a result, his show "Two and a Half Men" has taken a hiatus while Charlie chills on the sticky couches with drug counselors in the coke den he calls home, which also sometimes serves as a porn set. Meanwhile, photos from the infamous evening of debauchery make the rounds of the gossip media, a grinning Sheen flashing what's left of his cocaine-ravaged front teeth topped with gold caps.
The fact that a member of Hollywood royalty is looking like his next role should be relegated to that of starring in "Crackman and his Pimpmobile" or "Two And A Half Teeth" isn't much of anyone's business but his own, but it raises questions about priorities and values in the world of celebrity.
Sheen had the stellar luck of sliding out the right birth canal. Then he had the good sense early on to change his birth name of Estevez to that of his famous actor father, Martin Sheen, to redirect his future train wreck onto the correct track of nepotistic entitlement. His first role came at the age of 8, and he doesn't seem to have had much of a problem with landing work. The automatic success, family name, and lack of struggle in a competitive industry could explain an early sense of imperviousness to consequence.
Then came the hookers, drug binges, parole violations, and overdoses resulting in hospitalization. But you know what? Charlie Sheen is a pretty good actor. So good that he's the highest paid across a televisual landscape littered with reality show fledglings totally lacking in self-awareness. Charlie Sheen—like his dental work—is pure gold. Most of the people who still watch TV aren't surfing the Internet and seeing all this news about Sheen having sex with paid help and absorbing his paycheck through permanent and temporary orifices. Sheen is enough of a pro to pull it together to read some lines written by someone else. But try the following line on your grandma (assuming she's a fan of Sheen's show): "Hey grandma, did you know that one of the 'Two and a Half Men' has track marks on his arm under his yuppie wardrobe, was reenacting porn films with call girls last night, and has a nose like the guy's from the Operation game when the tweezers hit the side?"
"No! You do not say that about that Martin Sheen's lovely boy!" she'll say. You see, the Sheen family is in her house twice a week, between 'The West Wing' DVDs starring dad Martin you bought her and Charlie Sheen's sitcom. You don't speak that way about grandma's two best friends after Katie Couric and Brian Williams!
Reality and phony are two realms that never collide in Hollywood, or in the world of show business. At least not in traditional showbiz. Granted, with the relatively new phenomenon of reality shows, the whole idea is to capitalize on people's real-life drama, dysfunctions, mental illness, and assorted problems to attract attention and ratings. Sheen isn't in that category. His work doesn't put his life on display. As long as reality and showbiz can be kept separate enough for his viewers, no one around him will care until he takes himself out of the game by checking into either prison or heaven.
That's the difference between Charlie Sheen and starlets such as Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. The latter two were screwing up professionally. If industry reports are to be believed, Sheen is equally or more professionally competent with his system pumping a ski run's worth of white powder than much of Hollywood is completely sober. And as long as the team is able to get him out of his wifebeater first thing in the morning, no one truly cares.
Sheen has been married and divorced four times. I'm not qualified to pass judgment, because obviously I don't know the people or circumstances involved. All I can do is point out a few facts: According to various reports, he accidentally shot a fiancée (actress Kelly Preston, now married to John Travolta) in the arm, ending the relationship. He was subsequently convicted of assaulting one wife and sentenced to anger management lessons, and was accused by a previous wife (actress Denise Richards) of threatening violence. Recently, he reportedly met up with her at a NYC hotel for dinner, a young porn star on his arm, and proceeded to trash the hotel room next to his wife and two young daughters.
This is where the permissiveness of celebrity arguably gets awfully close to the line, if not crossing it. Behavioral freedom of choice, in these instances, suddenly becomes violently and painfully damaging to others as it bleeds into their lives against their will. Who stepped in when these events occurred? Did anyone? Stars such as Sheen, much like top-level politicians, tend to be surrounded by yes-men. These clingers often have a financial or reputational interest deeply connected with the screwup in question. They can be friends, family members, managers, or colleagues. Due to their proximity, they are in a position to issue ultimatums in response to poor or harmful behavior—at least more than anyone else. But they don't—usually for fear of being excluded from the inner circle. Or because they just can't be bothered. Sometimes they'll help in the coverup, or in the campaign to trash a victim. All this serves to further empower the famous offenders and further obscure their moral compasses and senses of right and wrong.
Then one day the train derails, along with the entourage. They all wonder how they got there when two seconds earlier they were clinking champagne glasses in first class, surrounded by all the bolted-on silicon fun bags that money, fame, and class can buy. Then it's all over for the lot of them—both the ones you can see and the ones who pulled the strings and filled the cracks. And the Hollywood machine just orders up a new train to put back on the track.