Celebrity Schadenfreude (print version)

The only thing Americans love as much as their celebrities is … hating them.

Just ask Madonna. During the course of a three-decade career,

her public image seems to have been defined more by her indulgences in ignominy than exemplifying personal values. Is it just me or was she was much more fun hitchhiking naked in Miami Beach than foisting kabbalistic platitudes upon us all? How impoverished our love of her would be had she not burned crosses, angered the pope, portrayed Jesus as black and introduced us to S&M.

But star worship, the rich and famous quickly learn, is a double-edged sword.

On a recent trans-Atlantic trip, I took a slight flight risk in watching Madonna’s critically maligned movie “W.E.” Because I had not heard a single positive thing about it (save for praise of Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Wallis Simpson), I was not particularly excited about my choice. But, with 12.5 hours until touchdown, even a time waster held appeal.

And, reader, I liked it.

The film tells the story of Wally Winthrop, a young, upper-crust New York City housewife whose own marital turmoil fuels an obsession with a 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 relationship scandalized Great Britain; it began when Wallis was still married and compelled Edward to abdicate his throne — perhaps laying plain why Madonna liked the tale.

Her stylized take on the melodrama has many flaws (including a throwaway line about the duke’s ardent Nazi sympathies), but the film was not nearly as pitiful as declared by some critics. In fact, by its end, I wondered if I liked it more than I should have because my expectations had been so thoroughly sullied beforehand.

Harvey Weinstein, one of the film’s producers, acknowledged this 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,” he told Deadline.com.

Weinstein’s suggestion that Madonna’s star power undermined her directorial debut is indicative of current attitudes toward the overly acclaimed. That is, we cherish our icons so long as they live up to our ideals of them, but God help them if they go off script (Madonna, a director?) or off-kilter.

Reviews savaged Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” weeks before it premiered. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote, “ ‘The Newsroom’ gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping.” Likewise, Maureen Ryan wrote on the Huffington Post that she found the show “obvious and self-congratulatory,” “manipulative and shrieky.”

The tenor of criticism toward Sorkin was so venomous — and personal — it reeked of the perverse pleasure the less secure and less successful feel when the brilliant and prosperous err. Many attacks were aimed straight at Sorkin rather than at his show, with Ryan decrying “giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight” and Nussbaum snidely remarking, “Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV.”

This ravenous need to topple the talented also laid claim recently to Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling science author newly added to the staff of The New Yorker. Several weeks ago, when blogging (for free) on his New Yorker Frontal Cortex blog, Lehrer recycled whole paragraphs from his own work that had previously appeared in other publications. The media pounced, unstintingly shaming him for “self-plagiarizing,” an oxymoron to begin with, as, by definition, plagiarizing requires copying the work of another.

“Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Self Plagiarism’ Scandal Rocks The New Yorker” blasted a Daily Beast headline. When, really, it rocked his lower-ranking peers: From The New York Times to Slate to New York Magazine, reporters seemed to delight in Lehrer’s harmless gaffe, determined to smear an otherwise stellar career for the crime of a little laziness.

Lehrer received a pounding in the press less because of what he did and more because of who he is: young (30!), brilliant and successful, and oh what a delight to see him falter.

This is the downside of stardom, though it is rooted in our own self-conscious aggrandizement of the stars.

Ruminating about the apotheosis of the pop star Adele, The New Republic’s David Hajdu wrote, “[O]ne of the things we expect of celebrities is a hint, at least, of normalcy — a strain of mere humanity among the superhuman qualities we demand of and project upon the hyper-famous. That thread of ordinariness, however thin or slippery, gives us something to tie ourselves to. By retaining an imagined connection to the celebrities we celebrate, we can make use of them as objects of aspirational fantasy without wholly succumbing to the feelings of profound personal inadequacy that go along with celebrity worship.”

In other words, as long as stars screw up, as Hajdu expertly puts it, “We can love our stars instead of loving ourselves, but without hating ourselves too much for doing so.”