Memorable Narcissistic Characters I’ve Seen Onscreen (Spoilers!)

In one of my earlier incarnations, I was in graduate school studying to become a counselor. I purchased a copy of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which catalogs every mental malfunction known to man. It was quite useful, as my friend and I used to it diagnose our professors. One instructor was particularly easy — we were positive the guy had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I suspect academia is rife with them.

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In writing this list, I reflected on the whole spectrum of narcissism, from excessive selfishness to the absolute, balls-to-the-wall conviction that one is the center of the universe and everyone else is inferior and basically here for their own convenience.

For the purposes of this list, I am trying to steer away people who clearly meet the criteria for psychopathy. It’s tricky, since narcissism is one of a psychopath’s trademarks, and — seriously — some of these characters probably belong in that category. It’s a gray area, but hey — when it comes to human beings, isn’t everything?

In No Particular Order:

1. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman (2014) — Alejandro G. Iñárritu

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Mike is an accomplished Broadway actor, but does that even come close to compensating for what a pain in the ass he is to work with? From the moment he arrives, with all his spectacular swaggering arrogance, he’s changing the script and pushing people around. Then he goes off on a tangential rant during a performance. Why? Because he’s the only person onstage with an “authentic vision.” He really outdoes himself when he almost rapes his girlfriend onstage — purely for the sake of his art, of course.

Word has it that Norton, who portrayed this character brilliantly, is a bit of a prima donna and a trial to directors. I don’t know the whole story behind those rumors, but I would love it if he accepted this role in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating way. Who knows?

2. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) in Young Adult (2011) — Jason Reitman

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Mavis, an author of young adult novels, is a poster child for borderline personality disorder. When she finds out her ex-boyfriend, Buddy Slade, and his wife have just welcomed a new baby into their lives, she is determined to break them up. As she’s trampling through their lives, oblivious to Buddy’s growing discomfort and frustration with her behavior, she meets an emotionally vulnerable acquaintance from high school. Taking advantage of his attraction to her, she toys with him for a while.

As loathsome as Mavis is, it’s somewhat painful to watch her humiliate herself as she pursues her notion that she and Buddy are — against all odds — meant to be. I was lukewarm about this film, but I loved Theron’s performance, and I admired the way Young Adult took a worn-out romantic comedy trope and turned it inside out.

3. “Sir” (Albert Finney) in The Dresser (1983) — Peter Yates

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In this brilliantly acted film, set in World War II England, Norman is personal assistant to a washed-out veteran actor and gives him unwavering unconditional love and loyalty. It is a spectacularly thankless job, to say the least.

Even after seeing homeless, shell-shocked survivors of the German bombings, up close — a devastating sight — Sir worries only about how the war is affecting him personally. In one unforgettable scene, Sir rages because the Germans are bombing on a day he was supposed to perform. Norman assures him calmly, with only the slightest hint of overt irony, “They couldn’t have known.”

4. Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) in Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets (2002) — Chris Columbus

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I am not a huge fan of the Harry Potter movies — although I adored the books — but they’ve been reliable staples of our family movie nights over the years. And they’re a showcase for a plethora of British acting talent.

Ah, Gilderoy — Magical Me. He seems like an insufferable but basically harmless buffoon until he prepares to abandon Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets. Then we find out about his penchant for misusing memory charms. The poetic justice dealt to him in the Chamber of Secrets, thanks to Ron’s broken wand, is priceless.

5. Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) (BBC Series 2010 – ) — Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat

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For anyone who has watched this series, enough said. When my daughter was first introduced to this television character, she referred to him as “an unholy cross between The Doctor and Sheldon Cooper.” That doesn’t entirely cover it, but it is apt.

It’s small wonder John Watson quips, in my favorite line of the entire series: “I always hear ‘punch me in the face’ when you’re speaking, but it’s usually subtext.”

6. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl(2014) — David Fincher

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Soon after I began reading Gillian Flynn’s brilliantly crafted novel, I had a hunch what Amazing Amy was really up to. The narrative voice, as reflected in her diary, just seemed a bit too perky. Her disappearance was a bit too dodgy. But I had no idea just how far down the rabbit hole all this was going to go.

I didn’t have much sympathy for self absorbed, passive aggressive Nick Dunne (who is made more palatable in the movie than the book), but still… By the time I’d finished this novel, I felt I like a needed a scalding hot shower, but reading it — and watching the outstanding movie adaptation — was pure pleasure.

When Amy finally comes clean with Nick, I kind of have a grudging admiration for how unapologetic she is. “I’m the cunt you married.” Well, there you go.

7. Susanna (Julianne Moore)  in What Maisie Knew (2012) — Scott McGehee and David Siegel

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In this modern adaptation of the Henry James novel about a child of divorce, the fabulous Julianne Moore had me glued to the screen with her portrayal of Maisie’s narcissistic, somewhat volatile mother, who doesn’t balk at manipulating her daughter to stick it to her ex. Throughout the movie, I referred to her as Narcissistic Borderline Bitch (NBB for short). I also called her another name, but it’s more suitable for bathroom walls than blogging. (Oops … I already used the word on my blog. In this post. Oh well.)

Watching a little girl in the middle of this train wreck was devastating. It made me thankful I’m not a divorce attorney or a family and domestic relations court judge — and that I bailed out of the counseling field. As much as possible, I prefer my bat-crap dysfunctional families in the fictional realm.

8. Prince Humperdink (1987) (Chris Sarandon) in the Princess Bride — Rob Reiner

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His scheme to start a war is going to plan, as long as he can refrain from strangling his blushing bride until after the wedding.

Unless I’m wrong … And I’m never wrong …

9. The Master (John Simm) from Doctor Who  (BBC Series Rebooted in 2005) — Various Creators

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As far as The Master is concerned, the whole universe is a collection of playthings for his perverse, sadistic pleasure. It’s kind hard to top that.

“Before we start all that, I just wanted to say: thank you. Thank you, one and all, you ugly, fat-faced bunch of wet, sniveling traitors.”

10. David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard) in An Education (2009) — Lone Scherfig

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I love this movie, and Sarsgaard is brilliant in this role, but watching him prey on a spirited but naive schoolgirl, who is only one of a string of conquests, is painful to watch.

11. Osborne Cox (John Malkovitch) Burn After Reading (2008) — Joel and Ethan Coen

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Have I mentioned how much I love this movie? It’s almost heretical to say this, but it’s one of my favorite Coen films. I’ve been a big fan John Malkovitch for at least 25 years, and seeing him portray a pissant foreign relations analyst with an unassailable sense of self-importance is pure pleasure.

12. Orson Welles (Christian McKay) Me and Orson Wells (2008) — Richard Linklater

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Is this this portrayal of the iconic filmmaker fair and accurate? I don’t know for sure. But this is a fun movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching his narcissistic rants.

“I am Orson Welles! And every single one of you stands here as an adjunct to my vision!”

13. Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog — Joss Whedon

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Nathan Fillion as an uber-narcissistic super hero? Set to music? Why not?

There is nothing that can’t be made more awesome by including Joss Whedon. And while I’m in my Science Fiction Geek mode … the folks who made the decision to cancel Firefly? They are in danger of going to The Special Hell.

14. Thank You, Wanderer for Suggesting the Final Entry: Prince Charming in Shrek 2

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Everyone’s favorite Oedipal, hair-obsessed, pretty-boy villain. 🙂

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9 thoughts on “Memorable Narcissistic Characters I’ve Seen Onscreen (Spoilers!)

  1. Great list! Some wonderfully narcissistic characters, here. To add a few to who you already have:

    Regina George, Mean Girls
    Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
    Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
    Ron Burgundy, Anchorman
    Roper, Enter the Dragon
    Nora Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome! I haven’t seen the last three movies on your list, but the first three are terrific. I actually considered Patrick Bateman. I also considered the title character from the sit-com Frasier.

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  2. “It made me thankful I’m not a divorce attorney ” – yeah, it’s absolutely nasty. Nothing I see on film in those divorce/broken couples dramas surprises me anymore.

    I thought Mavis was a very tragic figure. It’s clear she lost everything she was told she will have in high school and she was just trying to recapture it in her delusional/alcoholic state. Loved the movie, it was extremely insightful and such a great character study.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know how you endure your job. I was a child/youth therapist for years, and some of the things I saw almost made me want to go around and start sterilizing people. 😦

      As much as I disliked Mavis, I agree that she was a tragic figure. I’ve met people like that, whose lives basically peaked in high school. They go through life trying to recapture some elusive experience that no longer exists for them. 😦

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