I’m supposed to be writing this pop culture column, but all I can think about is megalomaniacs. I’m not sure why, but it has been happening on and off for the past three years and it’s particularly bad this past week. I apologize in advance. This space is meant for droll or pointed ruminations on movies, television shows, music, Internet memes. The lighter side of things; the places we go to in order to escape the real world or have it explained.
Only sometimes the real world presses in especially hard, and nattering about entertainment feels like just that: nattering. A further lulling to sleep at a time when we need to be wide awake. That’s when I start thinking about megalomaniacs. I lie in bed and chew up my stomach lining over fatuous bullies and authoritarian egotists — delusional autocrats with the power to visit destruction on people at home and abroad. Men whose narcissistic self-image blinds them to other human beings and to reality itself.
I haven’t the foggiest idea why I obsess about such people nowadays, but maybe you’re in the same boat. The op-ed columnists, the writers who are paid for taking this stuff seriously, they can probably explain. I’m just going to sit back here and think about how popular culture mulches megalomania into entertainment — how bully-boys (and girls) exert a fascination on audiences until the stories we tell about them force a reckoning. Why else are you watching “Succession”?
Usually it’s fate or some Achilles’ heel of pride that brings about a final, overdue fall from (dis)grace in our popular narratives. But maybe that’s just a way of letting an audience off the hook. Maybe we tell ourselves these stories because we’re afraid to admit that it’s up to us to do the pushing.
Anyway, here are some of the more legendary self-absorbed monsters of the movies, TV, literature, and elsewhere. They’re useful to think about if only to remember how small the real-world versions actually are.
Charles Foster Kane, “Citizen Kane” The Logan Roy of classic cinema? Rupert Murdoch decades ahead of schedule? Or just Orson Welles’s hit job on press baron William Randolph Hearst, the Murdoch of his day? “Rosebud” explains everything and nothing; what Welles nailed was the shriveled soul at the center of an empty castle. Dialogue that still resonates today: “People will think —” “What I tell them to think.”
Captain Ahab, “Moby Dick” The original Horrible Boss, yes, but also the monomaniacal head of a literal ship of state, forsaking the intended mission (acquire whale blubber) for a personal vendetta against a quarry that mostly lives in his head. Stopping foreign ships to ask “Have ye seen the white whale?” That sounds like grounds for impeachment.
Captain Queeg, “The Caine Mutiny” Ahab’s descendant and the modern template for a leader whose paranoia, control-freak tendencies, and detachment from reality ultimately have to get the better of him. “Ah, but the e-mails. That’s where I had them.”
Joffrey Baratheon, “Game of Thrones” What happens when a world-class narcissist gets a chance to be king? He sees society as an extension of his own urges, needs, and insecurities, and he acts accordingly. Westeros had more than its share of power-hungry megalomaniacs — that was the point, really — but none so spoiled, so small-minded, and so cruel.
Commodus, “Gladiator” Joaquin Phoenix played the capricious young Roman emperor in the 2000 movie, but what about the real Commodus? Under his rule (180-192), Rome declined “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust,” in the words of one onlooker, and Commodus’s time on the throne was marked by conspiracies, battles with the Senate, favorites who lost their heads, and a raging god complex. He threw a bath attendant into an oven because the water was lukewarm. Eventually his own officers had him assassinated.
Miss Trunchbull, “Matilda” The schoolteacher as tyrant, a petty Mussolini who uses her position and bulk to terrorize her pupils into submission. Author Roald Dahl knew from horrible people (some say he was one), and his books are full of human gargoyles who beg for and receive delicious comeuppances. This is probably why they call it fiction.
General Jack D. Ripper, “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” A mid-level lunatic; the sort of bureaucratic functionary who brings on nuclear Armageddon simply because a spring in his brain has come loose and he’s convinced fluoride in the water is a Communist plot to sap the “precious bodily fluids” of American men. He’d fit right in with the alt-right bros and their soy-boy conspiracy theories.
Norma Desmond, “Sunset Blvd.” Beware the celebrity who comes to believe in her own fame, especially when she’s armed and paranoid. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” As played (brilliantly) by Gloria Swanson, Norma illustrates what denial of reality looks like in its end stages. Can you imagine the rallies she’d order up if she were president?
Aguirre, “Aguirre, Wrath of God” This 1972 Werner Herzog classic, about a conquistador lost in the thickets of South America and his own derangement, gives Klaus Kinski a chance to go gloriously bug-eyed as he imagines himself the emperor of the New World. The last we see of Aguirre, he’s drifting down river on a raft, overrun by monkeys and ranting to the last. One can dream.
Richard Nixon, “Secret Honor” There’s the Richard Nixon of history, and there’s Richard Nixon as Philip Baker Hall plays him in Robert Altman’s too-little-seen 1984 film, a 90-minute one-man show of bile, self-pity, delusional grandiosity, and Scotch. In other words, here’s the scabrous underside of presidential pomp, a foul-mouthed id that sees itself as a victim and lashes out at a perceived army of tormentors. The sequel could be called “Not-So-Secret Dishonor,” and it’s available on your Twitter feed.