Watching Charlie Sheen

All week long I’ve been wondering if it would be completely inappropriate of me to blog about apparently over-the-edge actor Charlie Sheen, but now I think I’ve found an angle that justifies some comment. I demurred several times on publishing this, but ultimately I kept coming back to my draft and re-reading it, so here it is.

I’ve found Sheen’s recent, furious spate of bad boy antics and megalomaniacal television interviews to be fascinating, and it’s not just a fascination borne from schadenfreude, either. Yes, the man is a car wreck that it’s hard to turn away from, but what an interesting car wreck. I have no doubt that there’s something psychologically wrong with him, and a lot of his behavior is plainly abhorrent and inexcusable. But I also happen to believe there’s an element of genius at work here, too, even if it’s inadvertent.

From Zero to Anti-hero

A few weeks ago, Sheen was making plenty of tabloid headlines as another unhinged actor, but really he was little more than a mildly amusing punchline to some minor jokes, a lower-tier celebrity whose former career in high-grade movies had collapsed into a hellish tour of duty on one of the most artistically inauspicious shows on television. No one was really interested in him, but now, all of a sudden, people are transfixed by his apparent unpredictability, spellbound by his self-destructiveness. It’s actually horrible and not a little pathetic, but through this mess he’s somehow managed to transcend his former status as a has-been, freed himself from the ignominy of being just one of the stars of “Two and a Half Men.”

I’m pretty sure this was Sheen’s aim all along, whether he was aware of it or not. I suspect that he was desperate to free himself from that show, imagining that he was a much bigger, better calibre of star than would appear on a sitcom like that. In truth, he’s not much of a talent, but here’s where his shenanigans offer a lesson to, well, all of us, really: a little bit of self-delusion can go a long way. By hook and by crook, he has transformed himself into a marketable commodity, someone that can hold the attention of a huge audience of people, someone who will probably go on to do things that weren’t possible had he just resigned himself to his role as a sitcom actor. He basically willed himself into a new strata through bad behavior, yes, but also through sheer belief in his own worth.

Sheen is not a role model by any means, and no one should emulate him, but I can’t help but note how he’s created something new out of his own cluelessness, and almost in spite of himself. Many of us, when we find ourselves mired in dissatisfying situations, stuck in unfulfilling jobs, can do little more than remain handcuffed by circumstances, by an inability to break free, and by a fear that the current state of affairs is really the best we can do. It’s during those times when being able to set aside reality, operating instead on an inflated notion of ourselves can come in handy, can serve us well where pure, self-doubting rationality would be little help. Letting this high self-regard result in insults and harm to others — as Charlie Sheen has — is not excusable at all, of course. Nevertheless it’s worth noting that the power of self-delusion can take you places.



  1. No doubt. It took Bush The Younger all the way to the White House, it can certainly take a C- or D-level star and punch him up a bit. Though I doubt we’ll be talking about him in a year.

  2. “The power of self-delusion can take you places.” Welcome to Hollywood.

    I was able to ignore this whole mess until this week, but I have to agree that there are some interesting aspects to it. He is so unapologetic, which is a refreshing turn around from the typical PR-trained celebrity who goes into rehab and come out crying and saying that they’ve changed their ways. For as clearly disturbed as he is, he still comes off as likable and despite his gloating, you can’t help but feel that partying with him would be as epic as the terms with which he describes it. Nondestructive artists aren’t trying hard enough.

  3. It makes me wonder what Robert Downey Jr would have been like if Twitter et al had existed when he was ‘resting’.

  4. Pretty sure he’s just manic right now. Manic people are sometimes hilarious anti-heroes, that’s how it works.

  5. Charlie Sheen as Delusional Charlie Sheen is the best role he’s ever played. I’m serious. It may be sad for a lot of reasons, but he’s f*cking genius right now.

  6. No doubt, as you mentioned its kind off ironic that through unknown reasons this bad boy behavior is so so alluring to regular folks(non hollywood types). I think the real question here is, “what does that tell us of our own human nature?” Are we secretly coveting some of this bad behavior ourselves? I don’t know, I know most of us are regular stellar citizen of the world and would never consider harming and insulting others as normal but Charlie Sheen’s own selfish behavior has garnished not only national attention but worldwide attention. Are we so interested in things or actions we normally would not condone but passively accept them if you’re a hollywood type. In the end, I think this just exemplifies the iconicity of hollywood stars and our own craving for the “ooh that’s bad mentality”. In reality looking back in a not so distant past, nothing really has changed since the original 60’s rat pack, just the names we read.

    Great insights Khoi!!

  7. Sorry, but I can’t agree. It says something pretty disheartening about our culture when a person can act this way and get a response of celebratory infamy rather than complete derision or indifference.

    The fact that his behavior does get such a response should be quite fascinating to social psychologists.

  8. I can’t believe you have the nerve to comment on someone else’s “plainly abhorrent and inexcusable” behavior. Don’t you have matters of your own to deal with?

  9. Wow, what an original and insightful take on a horrible situation. You’ve made me take another look at Sheen’s antics. Per your larger point, I quit a corporate design job right at the start of the recession which, in hindsight, was an incredibly reckless and selfish act. I had no backup plan, just confidence that I would quickly find a job that would be a “better fit.” Well, that’s not how things worked out. Anyway, it’s sort of mind-blowing to think that there’s a correlation between what Sheen has done and what I did. Hmm!

  10. I’m saddened to think that our culture allows and even encourages the public disintegration of a human being as a form of entertainment, following it with interest as he unravels before our eyes. He is mentally ill. He needs help. We should avert our gaze and resist staring at this car crash.

  11. I’ve always felt that self-delusion can be a useful thing, though I’m not sure it’s done me a lot of good, and by definition it’s difficult at best to succumb to on purpose.

    In this particular case, let’s assume that you’re right and that the rubbernecking that’s happening right now will lead to exciting new career opportunities for Charlie Sheen. If that happens, will it be thanks to his behavior or thanks to the public’s bizarre fascination?

    That is, if a tree allegedly abuses women and melts down in the forest, and no one clicks on its Youtube videos, will it still become an Even Bigger Star?

  12. Nice to read an alternative view point to the usual hype surrounding a celebrity downfall.

    There’s no doubt that the original few interviews he was as high as a kite and rambling—a briefcase of coke will do that to a person—but since then he has come back to a level where you question the ‘sincerity’ of the rants.

    To me, it looks like he’s playing it up for all it’s worth.

    Self-parody as an art form perhaps? It’s certainly much more interesting than Two and a Half Men in that regard.

  13. Reality is a truck that runs over people like Charlie Sheen eventually-unless they make a radical shift towards the light. So far his life’s story has been a slow motion tragedy, playing out over many years. Evil is always sad. It’s actions have an aesthetic of banality to them.

    Self deception is never good, regardless of what it gives, in the end it leads to chaos and death. Hubris is not hope and pride is not confidence. If Charlie does have wisdom, he will recognize this one day, humble himself, take responsibility and seek forgiveness. I sincerely hope he does before it’s too late.

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