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By **Clancy Sigal**

In Partnership with Alternet.Org.

It’s possible that Carlos Irwin Estevez, the actor known as Charlie Sheen, is ranting the simple truth when he claims to be invulnerable and indestructible because he’s fleetingly super-famous and has “tiger’s blood” running in his pharmaceutically enhanced veins. With “serious” journalists and TV bookers tripping over themselves to get him to vomit up something, anything, to feed us on his Roman circus, shrewdly timed, allegedly suicidal spiral caused by a diseased ego and an apothecary’s shopful of mind-blasting substances, it’s no wonder he has such a heightened sense of his own importance. After all, he just broke the Guinness world record for gathering 1 million Twitter followers in the shortest time.

We Americans do love our bad showbiz boys (even more than out-of-control girls like Lindsay Lohan and Britney) running amok. It’s a tradition that goes from Mel Gibson, Dennis Hopper and Robert Downey Jr. all the way back to Robert Mitchum, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Sex, dope, a slug of violence (preferably against women), and most recently a soupcon of anti-Semitism will magnetically snag the electronic gatekeepers of TV’s celebrity-hungry audiences.  

A lot of us indulge in this pleasure of watching human train wrecks, otherwise the Charlie Sheens wouldn’t even get a local-access gig. Exposure is the ultraviolet ray that springs this hardy weed into life; without it he’d be dead or institutionalized. Look on the bright side: we keep Charlie alive.

But there I go, being judgmental, just like he accuses his esteemed actor father, the Catholic activist, Martin Sheen. Maybe it’s that predatory Charlie look, both feral and smug. In fact, he’s a sub-so-so actor of a string of rotten movies, except for Oliver Stone’s Vietnam war masterpiece, Platoon, in which Charlie superbly played a rookie grunt with divided loyalties. Platoon made Charlie’s career, from which he launched his now-notorious all-year drunks culminating in beating up women, including his wives, girlfriends, live-in porn stars, etc.

Woman-beating never bothered his CBS network bosses while his really dumb show, Two and a Half Men, is a hit and earns him up to two million smackeroos per episode. What exasperated CBS into firing him in mid-season, tossing hundreds of backroom workers onto the dole, was Charlie’s snide digs at Jews aimed at his main producer Chuck Lorre, and maybe at his business manager, too, though Charlie accuses his in-rehab wife Brooke Mueller of the latter. You can rape a dozen nuns at high noon in the village square and still catch an Emmy, but in my allegedly “Jewish” business, mind your mouth.

We did these things differently when I first got into movies, as a gofer, musclehead, and playing a “native boy” on the magnificent cult film Bride of the Gorilla. Hush hush, sweet Charlotte was the studio’s law then. The “seven sisters” studios—MGM, Fox, Paramount, Warners, Universal, Columbia, and RKO—had such a censoring stranglehold on stars’ pranks—rape, homosexuality, abortions, (especially mixed race) affairs, even murders—see Jean Harlow, Thelma Todd, Lana Turner, William Desmond Taylor—that nothing got past the publicity mavens except what they wanted the public to see, perfection in spike heels. This Qaddaafi-like system of suppression operated via payoffs to LA’s then-bribable cops, coroners, doctors, and ex-spouses to shut them up. [Though the cover-ups collapsed with monotonous regularity, as a glance at Kenneth Anger’s brilliant Hollywood Babylon makes pitilessly clear. Editors.]

A lot of us indulge in this pleasure of watching human train wrecks, otherwise the Charlie Sheens wouldn’t even get a local-access gig.

The studios’ conspiracy of silence began to crumble when Robert Mitchum was arrested for partying on Mary Jane and got his picture on Page One smiling sleepily, dreamily at us through the bars of a county jail cell. There goes his career…not. A whole new bobbysox audience aided by their grownups liberalized by war values surprisingly sprang to Mitchum’s defense and his career skyrocketed.

Then, in the McCarthyite ’50s, along came the explosive New York-based, Reds-under-the-bed Confidential magazine—the National Enquirer of its day. Edited by an alcoholic former Communist Daily Worker writer Howard Rushmore, it “ripped the lid” off scandal by publishing sex-and-race scurillity—naming names! Liberace gay! Clark Gable’s first wife tells all! Elvis! Kim Novak and Sammy Davis Jr.! Pinkos, ex-felons, illegitimate kids!

When House Un-American Committee informers and narcs ruled Hollywood, the Confidential operation depended on a spy network of shady private eyes, waitresses, going-nowhere starlets, parking valets and call girls.

Millions in America read this 25-cent weekly but nobody would admit it. Or as Humphrey Bogart—one of its targets—dryly remarked, “Everybody reads it but they say the cook brought it into the house.” My mum devoured Confidential claiming she’d found it in the garbage dumped by a neighbor.

This spy network is reincarnated today in a vast network of tipsters to celebrity programs like TMZ and other Hollywod gossip programs that deliver the unflattering dirt, preferably with iPhone images of the star sprawled in the gutter. Trouble is, most of the nailed “stars” are publicity crazed Day Of The Locusthangers-on you never heard of because the real megastars—Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Natalie Portman—often lead dull domestic lives. If America ever goes more rightwing than it is, say if a Tea Party president were elected, an American fuhrer would have a ready-made gestapo in this seemingly innocent TMZ-like web of informants.

Politics and celebrity overlap until they’re almost the same. Most recently, the ethically challenged and confessedly twice-adulterous former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been making the rounds of evangelicals upchucking his personal miscreancies in the hope of getting their pastoral support for a 2012 presidential run. In this context, Charlie Sheen sounds almost reasonable, rational, and honest.

Copyright 2011 Clancy Sigal


This post originally appeared at Alternet.Org.

Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles.

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