Celebrity Schadenfreude: Hating on the stars

On the flight back from a recent trip to Italy, I took a slight flight risk and decided to watch Madonna’s critically maligned movie “W.E.”  Since I had not heard a single positive thing about it (save for Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Wallis Simpson) I was not particularly excited about my choice. But since the flight was 12.5 hours and it was either that or “Jeff Who Lives At Home” I went for stylized melodrama over modern melancholy.

And reader, I liked it.

The film tells the story of Wally Winthrop, a young, upper-crust New York City housewife whose marital turmoil fuels an obsession with romantic legend: the love affair between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, otherwise known as King Edward VIII and the American coquette Wallis Simpson. Their romance scandalized a nation; it began when she was married and compelled him to abdicate his throne. The film has its flaws of course, but it was also intense and entertaining. The score, by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski was a highlight, and though the script was somewhat uneven in its focus on the modern thread (Wally’s affair with a Sotheby’s security guard) and not the classic story, the dialogue was sharp and smart.

By the film’s end I wondered if I liked it more than I should have because my expectations had been so thoroughly sullied beforehand.

As the one of the film’s producers, Harvey Weinstein acknowledged the disconnect: “Of all the movies this year that have gotten a bad shake from the critics, this is the one. And I think it’s Madonna. I think they see the personality behind the film.”

Weinstein’s suggestion that Madonna’s star-power undermined both her and the film’s ability to get a fair shake is an increasing phenomenon.

This is the dawning of the age of celebrity schadenfreude.

Several weeks ago, popular science writer Jonah Lehrer was unstintingly shamed in the press for—I think the term was “self-plagiarism”. The recent staff addition to The New Yorker reportedly lifted whole paragraphs from his earlier work at other publications—among them The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine and Wired—and reproduced them on his New Yorker blog, Frontal Cortex. The media pounced. “Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Self Plagiarism’ Scandal Rocks The New Yorker” read a Daily Beast headline. Really, it rocked his less successful peers: From The New York Times to Slate to New York Magazine, reporters seemed to delight in Lehrer’s harmless gaffe, determined to crucify an otherwise stellar career for the crime of a little laziness.

As Slate’s Josh Levin put it, “[Self-plagiarism is] not a victimless crime. Lehrer’s readers deserve to know whether the stuff he’s representing as new material was first published in Wired in 2009.”

OK, so sue him.

The reason Lehrer received such a pounding in the press is not because of any crime—petty or otherwise. It is because he is young, brilliant and successful and oh what a delight it is to see him falter.

I also wondered whether this ravenous need to topple the talented played into the scathing reviews Aaron Sorkin received for his new HBO series, “The Newsroom.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote, “The Newsroom’ gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping,” and Maureen Ryan wrote on Huffington Post that she found it “obvious and self-congratulatory,” “manipulative and shrieky.” They were hardly the only ones. The tenor of criticism towards Sorkin has been so harsh it reeks of the perverse pleasure the insecure and inferior experience when the brilliant and successful err.

By contrast, one “Newsroom” review that was even-handed and fair (though no less critical) was Jake Tapper’s piece in The New Republic. Before he delved into his critique of “The Snoozeroom,” Tapper, the senior White House correspondent for ABC News admitted, “I wanted this show to be great,” and disclosed that he had “eagerly” participated in a research conference call with Sorkin and other writers and journalists during the show’s development stage. His criticism of the show stood apart because it was mostly about the show, not just Sorkin. While Huffington Post’s Ryan decried “giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight” and Nussbaum snidely remarked that “Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV,” Tapper was the only one who clearly outlined the show’s conceptual and structural failings: “McAvoy [Newsroom’s protagonist played by Jeff Daniels]—and by extension, Sorkin—preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans…The fact that the show begins at the height of the Tea Party’s fervor—is no accident… Sorkin’s intent is to show how events of recent memory coud have been covered better by the media if journalists had only had the courage.” 

A contrarian spirit is an essential quality in criticism (and in fiction, and in a democracy, for that matter). It is the oil that fuels a show like Sorkin’s “Newsroom”, that enlarges and complicates Madonna’s public image, and challenges abnormally brilliant minds like Lehrer’s to stay fresh. Mediocrity should never be acceptable within the status quo. But, to tear down some of our brightest stars when they are not at their best is a pitiful consolation for the indignity of human envy.