Narcissism is just about everywhere these days. You hear about it in the news, particularly in relation to political leaders, and it seems like it’s everywhere. Narcissism is all around us, and it seems to be more prevalent in our materialistic, self-absorbed culture. In fact, you might also find works of fiction that depict the abuse of a narcissist in some way. There are several movies that have shown just how much damage a narcissist can do.
I have created a list of 13 movies that involve the damage a self-centered narcissist can do in the lives of their loved ones:
- Mommie Dearest
- Mean Girls
- What Lies Beneath
- The Girl on the Train
- Wall Street
- Basic Instinct
- Cruel Intentions
Narcissistic personality disorder is created when a child is unable to fully develop a sense of self. They construct a false self in its place, but they need a constant supply of adoration to boost their self-esteem. To get that adoration, they will manipulate and try to control everyone in their life, often with disastrous results. Let’s look at how each of these 13 movies depicts the devastation of this personality disorder.
This 1981 film classic starred Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford. Crawford was an actress and emotionally and physically abusive, narcissistic mother who terrorized her adoptive children for their entire lives.
She ran her household with an iron fist and often hurled both emotional and physical abuse on her children as she faced the realities of an aging Hollywood actress whose world was crumbling around her. Dunaway’s masterful performance perfectly captures the internal fears of a narcissistic woman. I saw my mother so much in this movie. She was at times so vulnerable, but at the same time, so angry and fearsome. This really took me back to my childhood.
This 1944 movie coined the term gaslighting. It stars Charles Boyer as the manipulative husband attempting to convince his wife that she is slowly going insane. He literally turns the gaslights down without touching them to frighten his wife into thinking she’s losing it. He is also the cause of several other strange happenings that make her question her sanity.
This psychological thriller is the perfect example of how manipulation can affect a person’s mind. Thanks to this movie, the term gaslighting has become synonymous with manipulative, narcissistic behavior.
As I watched this movie, the manipulation resonated with me. I remember times when my narcissistic mother would tell me something that I knew wasn’t true, and it was so surrealistic that I sometimes wondered if there was something wrong with me!
3. Mean Girls
This 2004 movie stars Lindsay Lohan as naive Cady, a young girl who had been homeschooled by her parents when they were doing research in Africa. After returning to Evanston, Illinois, Cady’s parents enroll her in the local high school.
There she meets the Plastics, a popular clique whose leader, Regina (played by Rachel McAdams), is a manipulative narcissist. She demands admiration from her followers, but Cady is unwilling to comply. This film is an excellent example of the bullying tactics that narcissists use to manipulate and control everyone around them.
As I was watching this movie, I was struck by how bullying is definitely a favorite tactic of the narcissist. There were so many times when my mother would verbally berate me in much the same condescending manner as the mean girls in this movie. It’s such an effective tactic for the narcissist, and they use it frequently.
This 1996 Roald Dahl adaptation has become a classic. It is a story about a sweet, young child who develops telekinetic powers. Her narcissistic parents refuse to take her to school, they leave her alone all the time, and they belittle everything she does.
They are the perfect example of narcissistic parents and how their abuse affects their children. Luckily for Matilda, she has powers that help her deal with them and her cruel, abusive school principal.
I often wished that I had similar powers growing up. It felt so good to see this sweet child fight back. I found myself wishing that every child with an abusive parent could do the same.
In both the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film and the 2020 remake, this movie tells the story of a narcissistic wife who is even willing to use her own unavoidable death to ruin her husband. Rebecca is the missing first wife of Maxim de Winter. When de Winter remarries, his new wife must live in Rebecca’s shadow.
Through the course of the movie, it is revealed that Rebecca was so self-absorbed that she goes to extreme lengths to try to manipulate Maxim into killing her. As the new Mrs. de Winter strives to create a loving marriage, she must contend with the housekeeper, also a toxic individual, who was overly attached to de Winter’s first wife. The movie depicts not only the hazards of a narcissistic spouse, but also the damage done by an enabling codependent supporter of the narcissist.
What really resonated with me in this movie was the enabling on the part of the housekeeper. I remember thinking about my father’s codependency with my narcissistic mother. It’s unfortunate that enablers can’t see the damage they are causing by failing to stop the abuse.
This 2000 horror film starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer tells the tale of a successful college professor and his wife who are empty nesters. The couple moves into Norman’s (played by Ford) old house where supernatural events soon ensue. Pfeiffer’s character, Claire, is the one who experiences increasingly intense supernatural experiences, but Norman continues to insist it’s all in her imagination.
His gaslighting continues until the real reason for his behavior and the supernatural events is exposed. This movie is a great example of both the manipulative behavior of a narcissistic spouse as well as the lengths to which a narcissist will go to protect his carefully crafted image.
Harrison Ford’s character really says it all when he talks about doing what he did to preserve his image. That’s what it was all about for my mother, preserving her image as the perfect parent. She was far from that.
This 2016 psychological thriller depicts just how insidious narcissistic gaslighting can be. The alcoholic ex-wife of a narcissist learns the hard way just how far he will go to undermine her confidence in her own intuition. The story revolves around Tom (played by Justin Theroux) and his ex-wife Rachel, played by Emily Blunt.
We are led to believe that Rachel’s alcoholism is responsible for Tom losing his job and their subsequent divorce. As the movie goes on, however, we find that, like Rachel, we have been duped by Tom’s manipulative gaslighting. He even goes to the extreme length of planting false memories while Rachel is drunk. It’s a masterful depiction of just how far a narcissist will go to control the people around them.
I couldn’t help but think that this is why many narcissists want vulnerable, addicted partners. It makes it easier for them to manipulate and control. I was not an addict, but my mother’s gaslighting often had me questioning my own memories. How much more effective her tactics would have been if my judgment had been clouded by substance abuse.
This 1998 movie stars Jessica Lange as the narcissistic, child-obsessed mother who goes to extreme lengths to take over raising her grandson. When the young couple, Helen and Jackson, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Johnathon Schaech, move in with Jackson’s mother, Martha, the narcissistic mother begins to immediately manipulate the couple.
She goes to increasingly extreme lengths to try to get custody of the child’s baby. She evens attempts to kill her own son’s wife. It turns out, it’s not the first time she has gone that far. This is a great depiction of just how self-absorbed a narcissist can be. They will obsessively pursue the object of their desire without regard for the consequences of their actions.
As I watched this movie, I was struck by the similarities between Martha and my mother. My narcissistic mother did everything she could to interfere in my marriage. I am so grateful I had found a way to strengthen my boundaries so I could stop her before she could do more damage.
You might be surprised to see a Disney movie on the list of movies that depict narcissists, but it wouldn’t be the first time. We’ve seen narcissistic mothers depicted before in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, so this is not all that different. The culprit in this 2010 animated movie also depicts a narcissistic mother as the antagonist.
Mother Gothel is the narcissistic woman who steals a baby and makes her believe she is her real mother just to get her narcissistic supply. She keeps her alive, but in true narcissistic tradition, she isolates her and gaslights her to undermine Rapunzel’s self-confidence and intuition. Disney is truly the master of depicting the harmful effects of narcissistic mothers.
I have to admit there were many parts of this animated child’s film that had me trembling in fear. I could see Mother Gothel in my own narcissistic mother. She would have loved to have been as successful at isolating and gaslighting me. It’s the dream of every narcissist.
10. Wall Street
This 1987 movies depicts not one, but two narcissists. It stars Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas as Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko, two narcissists working as a stockbroker and corporate raider respectively. They are both clearly only concerned about their own desires, and they are willing to destroy anyone who gets in their way.
Bud’s greediness, a typical trait of narcissists, eventually destroys his own career and affects his father’s life. It’s a masterful depiction of narcissistic greed, manipulation, and grandiosity.
While my mother expressed her narcissism differently, I could see the same craven desire to have ultimate control over your world. My mother wanted that more than anything, much in the same way these characters sought to exercise complete control in their world.
11. Basic Instinct
This 1992 neo-noir thriller stars Michael Douglas as Detective Nick Curran. He’s investigating the murder of Johnny Boz (Bill Cable), and he suspect that Johnny’s girlfriend, Catherine (played seductively by Sharon Stone) is responsible. As with most narcissists, however, Catherine can be quite charming when she wants to be. She seduces the detective who allows his feelings to cloud his judgment.
This film is a classic depiction of how charming a narcissist can be. Many logical, capable, and extremely intelligent people have fallen for their seductive ways. It’s a chilling reminder that no one is immune to the charms of a narcissist.
This movie scared me so much I thought about not ever getting close to someone romantically. Catherine’s completely shameless arrogance reminded me so much of my mother, and I could see myself falling for a narcissist like her who would end up killing me. It was truly terrifying.
12. Cruel Intentions
This 1999 romantic drama stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe as Kathryn Merteuil and Sebastian Valmont, two step-siblings who are unusually close. Both also have narcissistic personality disorder as they cruelly manipulate the people around them. The rich teenagers make a bet.
If Sebastian loses, Kathryn gets his jaguar, but if she loses, he gets her. They go to extreme lengths to manipulate the other characters, and in the end, their dysfunctional love for one another is revealed. The movie highlights the cruelty that is typical of people with narcissistic personality disorder. Their lack of empathy prevents them from understanding the consequences of their behavior.
This movie made me think about the many ways that narcissistic personality disorder can lead people to do what healthy people would consider to be unspeakable things. The strength of this mental condition to shape people’s behavior is truly astounding and frightening.
On the lighter side, this 2001 movie about a male model (Ben Stiller) with narcissistic personality disorder who becomes the prey of an equally narcissistic and manipulative fashion designer, Jacobin Mugati, played by Will Ferrell. While it’s a comedic take on extreme narcissism, it highlights the manipulative capabilities of a narcissist.
Mugati is almost able to brainwash Zoolander into killing Malaysia’s prime minister. Despite the comic exaggeration of the traits of narcissists, the movie is a great example of how self-absorbed narcissists are and of how they care for little else than their own desires.
While this is a comedy, I didn’t find myself laughing too much because all I could see was my mother staring endlessly into a mirror making the same kind of faces as Zoolander. Her obsession with her looks was so extreme that I remember feeling disgusted by it. That kind of obsession explains why most narcissists are so fearful of aging.
Do These Movies Accurately Depict Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Though some of these movies exaggerate narcissistic behaviors for dramatic effect, all depict accurately the main characteristics of narcissists. Narcissists are, perhaps, best known for their lack of empathy. Because they are unable to understand the effects of their behavior, they have no moral compass to guide them.
That causes narcissists to engage in extreme behaviors as they seek to avoid their worst fear, that of having their true self exposed for the world to see. When a child is unable to fully develop a sense of self, they have no means to internally support their self-esteem. They can’t soothe themselves when they face difficulties in life, and they can’t prop up their own self-esteem.
That’s why they engage in manipulative behaviors, such as those shown in these movies, to control the people around them. What they want from those people is an almost constant supply of devotion and adoration. You see this trait most clearly in authoritarian politicians who revel in the adulation of their followers, no matter the extreme length they go to in order to receive that praise.
Thus, even the most cruel and sadistic behaviors depicted in the movies above represent factually the nature of the narcissist. This is a person who must be solely focused on their own grandiose self-image. They can’t support it without the help of the people around them, and if they are exposed as being the flawed self they truly believe they are, they face a devastating narcissistic collapse.
This is what motivates the narcissist to go to extreme lengths to get their needs met. What healthy people would never imagine doing, the narcissist is willing to try to avoid having to face their own internal demons. The results, even if not as extreme as in these movies, are frequently devastating.
If you have a narcissist in your life, you likely don’t need a movie to show you just how manipulative and self-absorbed they are, but it can help to know you’re not the only one who must suffer their abuse. One thing that holds true in these movies is that the victims of narcissistic abuse are frequently intelligent, successful, and capable individuals. Narcissists look for just that kind of person because it adds to their feeling of omniscience if they can control someone like that.
If you are involved with a narcissist in any way, it can help to see not only the types of behaviors they exhibit, but just how far they can rise in society. This article about 13 famous narcissists has valuable insights into how far they can go with their manipulative and controlling behaviors.
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