And with that, the Dorian Gray–ish chasm between Sheen’s onscreen persona (charming womanizer who always gets the last word) and his offscreen self (charmless bimbo magnet who never shuts up) became too wide to bridge. Last week’s downward spiral of “exclusives,” in which the actor, overflowing with the bewildered arrogance of a deposed king, announced that he had instantly cured himself of everything and was ready for vengeance, was a hair-raising demonstration of the Cokehead Curse: Being hyperarticulate while having nothing worth saying. Sheen himself suggested, in what sounded perilously close to psychosis, that his mind “fires in a way that is maybe not from this particular terrestrial realm.” That’s unlikely to play well with Two and a Half Men’s core audience (typical residence: Earth). The grandiose rants, the preening narcissism, the jabbery infomercial-style intensity painted such an ugly picture that his insistence that we were all seeing the new, clean Charlie Sheen felt self-defeating. If he’d been high, at least we could have said, “It’s the disease talking.” And perhaps it still is. But the haggard, seething guy under the disease doesn’t seem like someone you want to invite into your home once a week. Or ever.
Of course, he’s got money on his mind. The fantasy about HBO offering him $5 million a week, his delusion that bidding will start at $10 million for the tell-all book he’s pretending he’ll write, his spectacularly tone-deaf assertion that at nearly $2 million per episode, he is “underpaid,” his insistence that CBS apologize “while licking my feet” in the same breath as his offer to return for two more seasons—it’s all nuts (albeit a degree of nuts not even Hollywood has seen before). But it does reveal that Sheen still has one tiny toehold in financial reality: Barring a miracle, “That Darn Priest,” the February 14 episode of Two and a Half Men, may mark the last time he will ever see a seven-figure paycheck for four days of work. Revenge, for Sheen, means cash—the only measure other than Twitter followers and notches on the bedpost by which he can be sure that he’s “duh—winning!” (When your newly minted philosophy of life becomes a national punch line and Internet meme overnight, something has gone wrong.)
Anyway, he’s threatened to sue. There remain questions about whether his Two and a Half Men contract contains what’s known as a “morality clause,” allowing his bosses to fire him for bad behavior. If Sheen is asked about that on the witness stand, he’ll have to do better than his recent response, which was “Yeah, blah blah, nitpick, nitpick, I mean, I haven’t read it.” Meanwhile, Warner Bros. TV has bought itself a couple of months to weigh its options, which are: effecting a reconciliation (stranger things have happened), squeezing another season or two out of the show by soldiering on with or without a new character (also possible), or saying that 177 episodes is enough.
Recently, Sheen has said he relates to Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now, intoning his line, “You have the right to kill me, but you do not have the right to judge me.” He isn’t wrong when he says his life feels like a movie—though it’s not the one he’s thinking of. If anything, his former employers have just played out the final act of Network—specifically, the moment when the corporation realizes that it has gotten everything it’s going to get out of its completely bonkers golden goose and doesn’t need him anymore.
But it was a different film that came to my mind when Sheen announced sneeringly in a February 24 interview, “News flash: I am special and I will never be one of you!” Who, exactly, did he mean by “you”? People who have to live every day “with their ugly wives in front of their ugly children and just look at their loser lives and then they look at me and say, ‘I can’t process it.’ Well, no, and you never will! Stop trying! Just sit back and enjoy the show.”
Listening to Sheen rap out that suicide note of a monologue just hours before they pulled the plug on his series reminded me of Elia Kazan’s great 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd. In it, Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a misanthropic creep who becomes a successful populist entertainer and quickly acquires a dangerously demagogic sense of his own importance and invulnerability. (“Lonesome Rhodes is the people! The people is Lonesome Rhodes!”) In the end, he destroys himself by saying, on air, “Those morons out there? … I can make ’em eat dog food and think it’s steak … You know what the public’s like, a cage full of guinea pigs. Good night, you stupid idiots!”
Good night, Charlie.