Narcissistic personality disorder is defined by “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” as having the following symptoms: a high sense of self-importance, a need to be looked at and admired, a tendency to go into a rage with little cause, a habit of treating others with indifference and fantasies of unlimited fame, power and success.
NPD is thought to be caused by childhood emotional abuse or trauma, which brought about intense feelings of emptiness, inferiority and shame. The narcissist creates a “false self” to interact with the world that shamed him, and narcissistic attitudes and behavior are an overcompensation to negative feelings. The narcissist’s life, therefore, is a never-ending battle to prove worthiness and counteract the earlier shaming messages.
Narcissistic behavior knows no bounds, can be the harbinger of academic or athletic achievement, creating great works of art or collecting them, status symbols, womanizing or anything else that can arouse envy in others.
Some memorable characters have been disqualified from the list. Real-life narcissists who have been depicted in large or small screens are not included. Yes, the title characters of “Chaplin,” “Nixon” and any of those TV movies about the Kennedys seem narcissistic. But, this list features only the fictional ones. Nor will it include memorable characters from “American Psycho,” “Basic Instinct” or “Silence of the Lambs.” Those characters are psychopaths. Narcissists lack the pure evil of psychopaths, and psychopaths cause carnage and destruction for its own sake, not for fame or recognition. I’m not going to say the “18 Greatest Narcissists in Film and TV” because there are undoubtedly some other great ones I do not know about. They are not in any particular order because I do not feel like rendering judgment on who is better among them. (How does one compare Nora Desmond and Tony Soprano?) When entertainment magazines claim that kind of thing with their lists of characters, don’t you just hate that?
Alec Baldwin’s Characters: A doctor in “Malice” who declares, “I am God,” a casino owner in “The Cooler” and a brash, cocky real estate salesman in “Glengarry, Glen Ross,” who has the least screen time and is the most memorable character in a story where everyone trades in b.s. and braggadocio. His “30 Rock” character, Jack Donaghy, seems at least partly a comedic version of this. (Not a parody, mind you, a comedic version.)
Dr. Christian Troy, “Nip/Tuck”: A vain, womanizing, status symbol-obsessed plastic surgeon, a living archetype of all the rest of the country do not like about Los Angeles and Miami (which are both settings in the show), his is a perfect depiction of NPD, in that he is a survivor of childhood trauma, specifically sexual abuse who in true narcissist.
Tony Soprano, “The Sopranos”: Yes, he kills people. No, he’s not a psychopath. He kills people for narcissistic reasons and not psychopathic ones, for money and power and not the joy of killing. A mob boss who is, also, a scared little boy with his mother, his narcissism leads the otherwise tactically brilliant mafia kingpin to a series of behaviors that cause him even more problems than his life of crime would provide, from adultery to inciting a gang war with his uncle. As is typical of narcissists in therapy, he continually tries to assert control over his sessions and to challenge his therapist.
Superheroes and the Villains Who Loathe Them: The superhero story template is a hero who has power he does not want dealing with the fact that with that great power comes great responsibility and a villain who wants that power and the fight between the two that knocks over buildings and causes stuff to blow up. Loki in “Thor” presents a more complicated story as narcissist with an antagonist with adopted child issues and severe stepsibling rivalry and a protagonist who is sent to Earth as punishment for his arrogance. With the men in the iron masks of the two “Iron Man” movies, evil tech nerds challenge the good tech nerd/womanizer. Superhero stories, also, provide a physical representation of another element of NPD. These characters create false selves, which are far more impressive than how they fear they really are.
“Friday Night Lights,” almost every character: What began as the story of a man dealing with a plethora of narcissists gradually morphed into the story of a man and a woman dealing with a plethora of narcissists. Football coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami Taylor, a high school guidance counselor turned principal turned back to a guidance counselor have to contend with narcissists of a wide range of ages, cocky jock Brian “Smash” Williams, arrogant team booster and business owner Buddy Garrity, vain mean girl Tyra Collette and “sports father” (for those not familiar with the term, think “stage mother” with more testosterone”) Joe McCoy, to name a few.
Tom Cruise characters: A narcissistic bartender, a narcissistic Navy fighter pilot, narcissistic womanizing guru (meaning he is a guru of womanizing, not a guru who also womanizes), a narcissistic pool hustler, a narcissistic sports agent, a narcissistic vampire and a narcissist with an autistic brother who is really good at math, Tom Cruise made a career playing characters who start out mighty but are then humbled for our viewing pleasure. (You can look up the films for yourself. You can’t expect me to do everything for you. But, if you did, you’re a narcissist.)
“Enter the Dragon”: I do not know why the characters in Bruce Lee’s biggest film have only one name. In an awkwardly balanced script Lee (played by Bruce Lee) has more screen time, but the character arc belongs to Roper, a narcissistic wealthy playboy, whose expensive tastes, gambling habit and womanizing have left him broke and in debt. He chooses heroism after narcissistic, megalomaniacal mafia leader Han tries to seduce him into his crime ring by challenging Han’s muscled-up enforcer Bolo, who killed Roper’s friend, Williams.
“Sunset Boulevard,” Nora Desmond: Nora Desmond is to this 1950 film noir what Satan is to “Paradise Lost,” a villain who is by far the most intriguing character in the story. Both stories feature narcissists who grow only more narcissistic when cast out from a world where they were once favored. An aging has-been actress who exhibits the delusion and denial inherent in NPD, who before the days of reality shows convinces a struggling screenwriter to pen a script for her triumphant return. As an exploration of film industry culture, an allegory on ill-weaved ambition and vanity and a cautionary tale to Hollywood aspirants, it manages to never feel outdated.