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Bret Easton Ellis on Charlie Sheen

March 17, 2011 |  4:06 pm


Onetime literary bad boy Bret Easton Ellis weighs in on current celebrity bad boy Charlie Sheen in Newsweek/at the Daily Beast, summing up the actor and his unique societal place succinctly: "In getting himself fired from his hit TV show Two and a Half Men, this privileged child of the media's sprawling entertainment Empire has now become its most gifted ridiculer."

Ellis is tuned in to what made Sheen's flameout, specifically, so fascinating to watch:

It’s thrilling watching someone call out the solemnity of the celebrity interview, and Charlie Sheen is loudly calling it out as the sham it is. He’s raw now, and lucid and intense and the most fascinating person wandering through the culture. (No, it’s not Colin Firth or David Fincher or Bruno Mars or super-Empire Tiger Woods, guys.) We’re not used to these kinds of interviews. It’s coming off almost as performance art and we’ve never seen anything like it—because he’s not apologizing for anything. It’s an irresistible spectacle, but it’s also telling because we are watching someone profoundly bored and contemptuous of the media engaging with the media and using the media to admit things about themselves and their desires that seem “shocking”.... No one has ever seen a celebrity more nakedly revealing—even in Sheen’s evasions there’s a truthful playfulness that makes Tiger’s mea culpa press conference look like something manufactured by Nicholas Sparks.

Ellis' case is less interesting when he focuses on his idea of Empire and Post-Empire, a riff that generally puts figures who are establishment and rule-obeying into Empire, those self-satiric or refusing to follow a culturally accepted script Post Empire. This is a fun parlor game (Madonna: Empire! Lady Gaga: Post Empire!) that crumbles: Jersey Shore is Post Empire. Um, right.

Nevertheless, there are few contemporary authors who can write about fame, its hazards and indulgences with the authority that Ellis can. "Anyone who's put up with the rigors of celebrity (or suffered from addiction problems) has a kindred spirit here," Ellis writes. When Ellis burst onto the scene in 1985 with "Less Than Zero," an author could face that glare, too, and he and his friends did. Now, few rise to that cultural level; authors rarely gain so much media attention that they have to consider the troubles it can cause.

Ellis' piece has been online at the Daily Beast since Monday; the print version is edited differently and includes a few swear words that aren't online. What this says about old media and new media -- Empire and Post-Empire? -- I'm not entirely sure.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Bret Easton Ellis in 2010. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times. Charlie Sheen being interviewed by ABC's Andrea Canning on February 26, 2011. Credit: ABC News / Reuters