When it comes to show business, we often hear the word narcissism — or a variation thereof — employed.
“He’s a narcissist. All he does is talk about himself.”
“She’s so narcissistic. She can’t stop telling stories about herself.”
“It’s all about him!”
“You think your boss is a narcissist? Mine couldn’t care less about anyone else. She’s only interested in what you can do for her!”
This term is batted around as effortlessly as a pingpong ball. And with so much batting around, it’s kind of, sort of, lost its gravitas. But narcissism is far more than someone who simply likes to talk about him or herself all the time.
When it comes to the creative process of character development in movies, books, even shorter pieces, it’s interesting that the more extreme the personality, the better. In real life, however, this is most definitely not the case.
Narcissists in Real Life
In real life, narcissists wreak havoc. They wear a mask, behind which lurks a black hole. This black hole — a lack of sense of self — is very frightening to the individual in which it resides. There’s a feeling of emptiness, of void, and it’s something that the narcissistic person has attempted to cover with a mask or persona. Threaten to pull that mask off — without even realizing you’ve done so — and they retaliate. That perfectly crafted exterior is not what you end up getting.
I don’t know anyone who consciously seeks out this type of person for a relationship — romantic, work or otherwise. However, put a well-crafted, well-written narcissistic character (as a fictional character, that is; the nonfiction ones are just bores!) on television or in a movie (I am not talking about reality shows, either), and we’re intrigued, mesmerized, and sucked in (without actually being chewed up and spit out!).
Nicole Kidman’s character in To Die For immediately comes to mind, as does Al Pacino’s character in The Devil’s Advocate and Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in There Will Be Blood. Check out the list of narcissists in the movies over at Wikipedia’s Narcissism page.
Narcissism in the Movies: Helping Us Understand Its Gravitas
In his book [amazon_link id=”0395798671″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery[/amazon_link], Don Richard Riso describes the unhealthy characteristics and traits of those who are prone to narcissism. His list of unhealthy traits gets more extreme as it goes along:
“A pathological liar, devious and deceptive, maliciously betraying people. May become vindictive, attempting to ruin what he or she cannot have. Sadistic, psychopathic tendencies: sabotage, murder, assassination.”
The average traits of such an individual — meaning they are higher up, or healthier, on the spectrum — include “making himself sound better than he is, arrogance, exhibitionistic, hostile and contemptuous of others.” Two of the narcissist’s key motivations are “to be admired, and to impress others.”
On a daily basis, knowing a person who embodies all these traits, even in the slightest way, can be exhausting and terrifying. On screen, however, we rely on these characters to, in part, educate us about what we need to look out for in real life. This is where the gifts of the screen, large or small, are apparent, particularly when well crafted.
The stories in these movies serve as a cautionary tale, without us having to experience a cautionary tale in real life. When it comes to learning about narcissism — the real kind — that’s a gift that goes a long way.
This was an interesting post. I’m a fan of Daniel Day Lewis. (I heard he’s playing Lincoln next??) I’m fortunate to have avoided narcissists in my life, but I do enjoy watching them in film!
I love watching the way narcissists act…on the screen, that is. In real life, though, it is far from entertaining!
I agree that the term is batted around a lot, so much so that many people don’t even realize it’s a true mental illness. When I tell people that I have a relative who is one, I think they sometimes think I’m using the term out of hand. No, really, I have to explain, they are truly imbalanced.
your perspective has me thinking about what other sorts of character and personality traits we learn about from film
I agree with your other commenters: I’m happy to leave as much distance as possible between me and the pathologically self-involved.
@MeredithResnick interesting perspective – I had not made the connection of the charm and fascination of narcissists (which is why we are unfortunately drawn to them in real life relationships) and why their larger-than-life personas translate so well to the big screen. Thx! I’m one of those unfortunate folks who married – then divorced a narcissist parasite – and I certainly did not consciously seek him out, I was charmed – just as all of us movie-goers are watching the films you posted. Thanks for your perspective.