Representations of CEO narcissism in films by Ethan and Joel Coen

and Jeffrey Adams

Abstract

Business executives are stock characters in the film narratives of the Coen brothers. In nearly every Coen brothers film we find a business executive of some type, from small business owners to corporate CEOs. These characters are men of wealth and power, typically corrupt, often criminal, and always antagonistic to the endeavors of the story’s protagonist. Drawing on recent research in business and organizational management science focused on the narcissistic aspects of contemporary corporate leadership, this article explores CEO narcissism and applies it to characters in Coen brothers movies. Blood simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The big Lebowski, and The Hudsucker proxy satirize business moguls as “blustering titans,” possessed of an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority, a willingness to manipulate others for personal gain, and a constant demand for self-validation.

1 Nabobs and blustering titans

The film narratives of Joel and Ethan Coen typically feature stock characters that William Preston Robertson called “blustering titans” (1998: 17) – figures of wealth and power, usually antagonistic to the endeavors of the story’s protagonist. A prime example of this type is the millionaire big shot Jeffrey Lebowski in The Big Lebowski (1998). The Coen brothers describe him as a “nabob” (a man of great wealth and influence), inspired by characters in Raymond Chandler’s pulp fiction. “You find him in [Chandler’s] The big sleep, and also in The high window,” says Ethan Coen. “He’s a recurrent character, the dominating, all-powerful figure who becomes a catalyst. [...] He represents Money. He appears in [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown, [where] he has contributed to the construction of Los Angeles. He symbolizes an old order, which in the end you discover is all a sham” (Ciment and Niogret 2006: 106).

First seen sitting behind a large desk in his palatial mansion in Pasadena, Jeffrey “the Big” Lebowski (David Huddleston) projects the image of a powerful business executive, and a true believer in the American dream of free enterprise capitalism. The walls of his office display images of his capitalist idols – several photographs showing him to be a personal friend of Hollywood film star Charlton Heston, an active supporter of Ronald Reagan’s Republican presidential campaigns in the 1980 s. Prominently placed among these images is a photo of himself greeting President Reagan and First Lady, Nancy, evidence that the Big Lebowski, like his celebrity buddy Heston, endorses Reagan’s neo-conservative politics.

Not surprisingly, the Big Jeffrey Lebowski instinctively despises and scorns the lack of ambition and achievement he perceives in the movie’s other Jeffrey Lebowski, a lazy hippie slacker who is chronically unemployed, doesn’t know what day it is, and likes to be called “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges). Despite the physical handicap that confines him to a wheelchair, the Big Lebowski claims that he has achieved great success: “I’ve accomplished more than most men,” he tells the Dude, “and without the use of my legs.” As his fawning assistant Brandt points out, the Big Jeffrey Lebowski has been named “Man of the Year” by Time magazine. Later, it is revealed that the Big Lebowski’s self-aggrandizing claims to achievement are bogus, that he has inherited his wealth, not earned it by personal enterprise, and that not he, but his daughter, is the executor of the family fortune. Driven by feelings of impotence, visually reinforced by his wheelchair, he manipulates the Dude to assist him in a criminal plot to defraud his own charity foundation so that he can finance the façade of wealth and power he is desperate to preserve. When his fake kidnapping scheme starts to unravel, the Big Lebowski is exposed as a little man frustrated by his powerlessness. He is not the great “achiever” he pretends to be.

It is not coincidental that the millionaire tycoon of The Big Lebowski reminds us of Orson Welles’ depiction of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941). The Coens have openly discussed their conception of the Big Lebowski in relation to Welles’ portrayal of Kane as a rich and powerful media mogul whose great fortune could not buy the love he needed. As production designer Rick Heinrichs reports, when he and the Coens designed the so-called “great room scene” in the Big Lebowski’s Pasadena mansion, they agreed that they wanted to evoke a “Citizen Kane feeling, to make a strong statement about this pitiful guy in a wheelchair with all this magnificent artwork staring down at him” (Robertson 1998: 127). Presumably, the filmmakers were aware of the psychological implications of Welles’ Kane, whose personality mirrors that of Jeffrey the Big Lebowski, especially when it comes to narcissistic tendencies.

Long before the term “narcissistic personality disorder” entered psychiatric discourses, Citizen Kane rendered a probing character study of the narcissistic personality and its destructive effects on human relationships. The film’s retrospective narrative puts heavy emphasis on Kane’s relationships with significant others – parents, wives, friends, business associates – and how these relationships are repeatedly compromised and damaged by Kane’s narcissism. In his marriages and close friendships, Kane either dictates the terms of love, or uses his charm and great wealth to acquire affection – always in a vain attempt to exert dominance over others who are expected to supply him with attention and validation. Kane’s narcissism is reflected in his obsessive collecting of statues, signifying his will to mastery over others whom he uses as instruments of self-gratification. Kane’s immense material wealth also gives him the power to acquire large and influential business operations. He installs himself as CEO of a major national newspaper and exploits this media empire to sway, and in some cases, dictate national and international politics, much like media mogul William Randolph Hearst, the real-life model for the fictional Charles Foster Kane.

In various forms, some version of this narcissistic Kane character is reiterated in nearly every Coen film by a big man behind a big desk – an image of wealth and power, but also a signifier of the arrogance, greed, and corruption business executives need to get there. In an early scene in the Coens’ debut, Blood simple (1984), Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), owner and manager of a bar in small-town Texas, is seen sitting behind a large desk as he coldly plots the murder of his wife, Abby, and her lover, one of Marty’s employees. As the narrative makes clear, Marty’s jealousy and possessiveness are driven by narcissistic rage at the wound inflicted to his self-esteem by his wife’s infidelity. His feelings for Abby are shaped by his capitalist business sense: she is his private property; when she seeks to escape his possessive grasp, he hires a hit man to dispose of her, like damaged goods. Robertson calls Julian Marty the “prototype of the blustery titan” (1998: 17).

The Coens’ follow-up to Blood simple, Raising Arizona (1987), features a blustery titan named Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), owner and CEO of “Unpainted Arizona,” the largest chain of unfinished furniture in the American southwest. From the moment he first enters the narrative as a loud-mouthed, self-aggrandizing businessman promoting his merchandize in a cheaply produced local TV commercial, Nathan Arizona’s attention-seeking narcissism is on full display.

At the workplace he berates his employees as incompetent fools and treats them with undisguised arrogance and hostility. When asked by an FBI agent investigating his son’s kidnapping if the perpetrator might be a disgruntled employee, Arizona scoffs: “Don’t make me laugh. Without my say-so they don’t piss with their pants on fire.” His tyrannical relationship with his employees is best summarized in his oft-repeated motto: “It’s my way or watch your butt!” Because this business tycoon not only enjoys a surplus of financial wealth but also a superabundance of progeny, he is targeted by the film’s Bonnie-and-Clyde protagonists, Hi and Ed McDunnough. They justify their kidnapping of one of Arizona’s recently born quintuplets with the rationale, “It seems unfair that some should have so many, when others have so few,” echoing the Marxist axiom: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

Another overbearing boss is Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) of Fargo (1996), owner and chief executive of a large car dealership, in which he employs his son-in-law, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), as a lower-echelon salesman. Wade Gustafson is a successful businessman, what the Big Lebowski would call an “achiever.” Like the Big Lebowski, Wade frowns on underachievers, like his timid, insecure son-in-law, of whom he openly disapproves. In one telling scene, Wade sits behind a big desk in his executive office considering a business plan Jerry has brought to him. He refuses to finance the deal Jerry has put together and, offering only a paltry “finder’s fee,” declares that he will “move independently” on Jerry’s clearly profitable plan.

The rejection drives the frustrated son-in-law to organize the kidnapping of his own wife, both to raise the money he needs to achieve financial success and take revenge on his antagonistic father-in-law. When the kidnappers Jerry has hired demand a million-dollar ransom, Wade insists on delivering the money himself, shouting, “It’s my money, I’ll deliver it,” and, “It’s my show here. That’s that.” Then, in an act of grandiose arrogance, Wade forces a shoot-out with one of the kidnappers. It is foolishly self-centered impulse that ends with Wade’s death.

The man who wasn’t there (2001) gives us a blustering business executive named “Big Dave” Brewster (James Gandolfini), a boastful, swaggering department store manager. His narcissistic need for achievement drives him to contrive an embezzlement scheme to make possible his American dream of buying his own store. Like Wade Gustafson, Big Dave meets an untimely death, caused by his own arrogance and greed. Posthumously, he is also exposed as a liar by a sharp lawyer. He reveals that Big Dave’s war stories, in which he, as the lawyer puts it, “practically liberated the Pacific all by himself,” are total fabrications. In truth, he spent the war sitting behind a desk in a boatyard in San Diego, whose records show he served in a “clerical capacity” from 1942 to 1945. Following the pattern of Chandler’s narratives, the “nabob,” the big man behind the big desk, is exposed as a fraud and a criminal.

Barton Fink (1994) features a movie studio executive named Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), CEO of a fictional Hollywood studio called “Capitol Pictures.” A caricature of the “mogul” executive producer in the old Hollywood studio system of the 1930 s and 1940 s, Lipnick runs his movie studio like an industrial manufacturing plant. In the studio system of old Hollywood, the term mogul was commonly used to designate studio bosses like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, and Harry Cohn, of whom the fictional Jack Lipnick is an unflattering composite.

In his 1995 essay, “Writers in Hollywood,” Raymond Chandler humorously described the moguls of major Hollywood studios as “low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine, and the manners of a floor-walker with delusions of grandeur” (Chandler 1995: 997). Chandler describes the movie-making process as “an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything more than credit stealing and self-promotion” (1995: 993). Chandler had good reason to be upset with studio executives. Like many celebrated literary authors of his generation, Chandler occasionally made his living as a Hollywood screenwriter. He had first-hand experience of these power-hungry, self-promoting moguls who arrogantly boasted to him about their exploitation of America’s finest literary talents to produce Hollywood kitsch. “The studio system can only destroy the talent,” Chandler concludes (1995: 994).

We first see Jack Lipnick in his Hollywood studio office. Sitting behind a large desk, he discourses on the business of movie making and his management style. “I run this dump and I don’t know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it?” he asks the scriptwriter Barton Barton. “I’ve got horse sense, goddamit. Showmanship!” Moreover, brags Lipnick, “I’m bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town.” His prideful, bombastic manner gives voice to the hyper-inflated sense of self-importance characteristic of the autocratic moguls of the old studio system. Later, when Barton delivers a fatally flawed screenplay for the “wrestling picture” he was commissioned to write, Lipnick renders his judgment with unambiguous emphasis on necessity of producing profitable commercial entertainment:

First of all: This is a wrestling picture; the audience wants to see action, drama, wrestling and plenty of it. They don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his soul – well, all right, a little bit, for the critics – but you make it the carrot that wags the dog. Too much of it and they head for the exits and I don’t blame them.

Then he informs Barton: “You’re under contract and you’re gonna stay that way. Anything you write will be the property of Capitol Pictures. And Capitol Pictures will not produce anything you write. Not until you grow up a little. You ain’t no writer, Fink – you’re a goddamn write-off!” Speechless, Barton can only respond to Lipnick’s tirade with, in Georg Seeßlen’s phrase, “the disturbed gaze at the authoritarian man” (Nathan 2012: 74).

According to Seeßlen, “evil” exists in Coen films in several forms, the first and most important of which is “the very real form of power, power that is generally in the hands of fat, older men, power which is deeply rooted within society and whose continuation is guaranteed by capitalist exploitation” (Nathan 2012: 74). Thus, Barton Fink renders a picture of old Hollywood run by greedy, self-promoting capitalists. America’s finest writers labor as indentured servants in a “dream factory” geared for the mass-production of entertainment products, and with little regard for the moral or artistic integrity of its commodities.

2 “It’s all about me!”

The narcissistic attributes we observe in the Coens’ “nabobs” and “blustering titans” – an inflated sense of self-importance and arrogant superiority, a willingness to manipulate and exploit others for personal gain, and a constant demand for self-validation – have become the focus of recent research in management and organizational theory. Researchers in the field of “executive narcissism” (cf. Schmidt in this volume) have begun to measure and study behavioral phenomena relating to narcissism in corporate executives, identifying its characteristics and charting its effects on business organizations.

In an article entitled “It’s all about me: Narcissistic CEOs and their effects on company strategy and performance,” Arijit Chatterjee and Donald C. Hambrick present findings on the organizational impact of corporate executives. These managers narcissistic style of leadership can “engender extreme and volatile organizational performance” (2007: 352) and pose a potential risk to the wellbeing of the organization. Among other things, their research shows that narcissistic leadership generates mistrust and animosity toward business executives, creating low employee morale and diminished productivity.

The telling characteristics of narcissistic executives include a lack remorse for exploiting others in the workplace to advance the executive’s self-interest. Lacking empathy, corporate executives view co-workers and employees as pawns to be manipulated in a game of self-advancement – a character trait consistent with the psychiatric profile of narcissistic personality disorder.

Another distinguishing trait of narcissistic leaders is their demand for affirmation and adulation – not simply a normal need for social validation, but a more urgent, pathological demand for self-validation and for recognition of their superior job performance. To satiate their need for attention and approbation, narcissistic business leaders will often take extreme actions that endanger the organization, embarking on risky enterprises or introducing radical new business practices, especially when such actions are likely to be visible to an audience of peer executives.

The research on executive narcissism also shows that the narcissistic personality has long been a fixture of the corporate world. Studies dating back to the 1970 s have demonstrated that narcissism is common among top executives. Measures like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, created by Raskin and Hall in 1979, have shown consistently that high- or over-achieving individuals found in top leadership positions exhibit excessively narcissistic dispositions. Although CEO narcissism is typically understood as a risk factor, some recent research supports the idea that certain forms of narcissism can produce favorable outcomes in the corporate sphere.

In certain cases, executive narcissists can play a beneficial role as “visionary” innovators with the ability to adapt quickly in periods of rapid, disruptive change, a trait that enables the executive narcissist to become an effective leader in times of transition. There is ample evidence that a CEO’s narcissism “may provide the requisite force for overcoming inertia in the face of a technological shift” because “a narcissistic CEO’s self-admiration will buoy the executive’s conviction that he or she can succeed with the new direction, while a less narcissistic CEO will see the new technology as too risky” (Gerstner et al. 2013: 259). By taking such risks, narcissistic executives attract attention and thus supply their constant need for admiration and social validation.

This ambivalent attitude toward executive narcissism – it can be negative and positive – conflicts with the standard psychiatric denotation of narcissism. The clinical definition of narcissism classifies it as a pathological condition with a predictable etiology – childhood emotional trauma, resulting in an impoverished ego, and chronic low self-esteem in adulthood. As a result of traumatic empathic failures by parents or primary caregivers during the early stages of personality development, narcissistic individuals cannot develop the inner resources of healthy self-esteem or positive self-image. Because narcissistic adults cannot provide themselves with the self-approval that was withheld from them as children, they constantly seek praise from others or they try to exercise dominance over others. They tend to experience other people as objects that they try to control, rather than as real people with whom they should be able to empathize.

Chatterjee and Hambrick define narcissists more broadly as “those who have very inflated self-views, and who are preoccupied with having those self-views continuously reinforced” (2007: 355). For their purposes, Chatterjee and Hambrick consider narcissism a personality dimension, rather than as a pathology. In this broader definition, narcissism is posited as a universal psychological attribute common to all, but more exaggerated in some than others. Everyone is situated somewhere on a wide spectrum of narcissism, making narcissism a normative aspect of human personality rather than a pathology. A reasonable degree of self-love is ego-syntonic and necessary for healthy social functioning; it is pathological when it occurs in surplus, or in excess of what is considered the healthy norm.

Building on recent studies of narcissism in management science, others have addressed the pathology of corporate culture at a systemic level. In his study The sociopathic society: A people’s sociology of the United States (2013), Charles Derber argues that corporate capitalism is the root of a destructive disease, a “sociopathy” afflicting contemporary America. “Sociopathy,” as Derber defines it, is “antisocial behavior by an individual or institution that typically advances self-interest, such as making money while harming others and attacking the fabric of society” (2013: 3–4). The psychiatric definition of sociopathy focuses on individuals with a personality disorder manifesting itself in antisocial behavior and the absence of empathy or conscience. But Derber expands the meaning of sociopath from the individual to the collective to develop the concept of a “sociopathic society” caused by the political and economic system of capitalism. Derber sees evidence of systemic sociopathy in every facet of an American society. It is controlled by a powerful corporate elite that exploits the media to mask and perpetuate “the sociopathic DNA of our corporate society” (2013: xi). In such a society, the dominant social norms are constructed by a capitalist elite and do not represent the values or true interests of the majority. Offering the promise of the “American Dream,” corporate capitalism legalizes private ownership and sanctions the accumulation of vast wealth and power, enabling a super-rich minority to exploit the majority population for enormous personal profit. The subculture of executive narcissism studied by management researchers is only one symptom of a larger cultural sociopathy driven by capitalism.

Derber’s analysis establishes a link between sociopathic and narcissistic personalities, noting that sociopaths and narcissists share a key trait – a lack of genuine empathy in interpersonal relationships. Both types share a common perception of other people not as fellow humans deserving respect, but as objects to be used for personal advantage. Viewed in these terms, the sociopathic narcissism inherent in capitalism is self-apparent. Capitalism celebrates and rewards individual achievement rather than collective effort by fostering an economy of deregulated competition. It greatly diminishes productive cooperation and reduces empathy for co-workers and subordinates, who are treated as disposable or interchangeable assets. In sociopathic societies, narcissists can appear normal, in the sense that they accept and conform to a dominant value system that is, in Derber’s view, “antisocial” or harmful to a society’s general well-being. In a sociopathic society, the narcissist is a natural leader, and most likely to succeed in the corporate world.

A prominent symptom of capitalist sociopathy is the emergence of the American consumer society in early twentieth century. Describing what he calls the “therapeutic ethos” of early corporate advertising, T. J. Jackson Lears (1980) discusses the advent of a major shift in marketing strategy that reframed consumer products as goods that could rejuvenate, revitalize, or in some way contribute to the buyer’s well-being, physically, psychologically, or socially. Early twentieth-century advertising shifted the emphasis from mere descriptions of a product’s utilitarian value to offering the consumer the promise of self-betterment. The success of this corporate reorientation had much to do with the philosophical tenor of an era that had begun to question the Enlightenment presupposition of autonomous selfhood. As a result, it was increasingly haunted by feelings of inner emptiness and existential alienation. According to David Riesman, the declining belief in autonomous selfhood can be gauged by early twentieth-century self-improvement manuals. They prescribed what Riesman calls “modes of manipulating the self in order to manipulate others” (Riesman 1969: 21). In psychological terms, the older, inner-directed model of the autonomous ego was being replaced by an other-directed “personality,” narcissistically dependent on the attention and responses of others.

According to this historical narrative, Americans’ anxious concern with regenerating impoverished selfhood created a new manufacturing paradigm for the coming era of corporate capitalism. Quickly, consumer products became objects of narcissistic self-affirmation, products that functioned as a defense against the loss of genuinely autonomous selfhood. Indeed, the ensuing decades, particularly the immediate post-World War II years, were a time when, as Derber puts it, “Americans learned to think of consuming as the only freedom that really mattered” (Derber 2013: 207). The post-war economic expansion of the 1950 s and the population explosion dubbed “the baby boom” combined to create an unprecedented demand for consumer products. In the decades that followed, however, American consumerism became self-destructive and unsustainable, blindly promoted by “the antisocial social programming” (Derber 2013: 4) prescribed by corporate capitalism. By the 1960 s, the signs of widespread commodity fetishism were apparent to social theorists. As Herbert Marcuse said:

The consumer society and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man that ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares, even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a biological need. (Derber 2013: 15)

Industrial capitalism had learned how to utilize mass-media advertising to create a society with a “biological need” for consumer goods, especially those driven by trendy fads. The latter drove seemingly endless demand for gadgets and toys like Hula-Hoops and Frisbees – consumer fads of the 1950 s and key icons in the Coen brothers’ Hudsucker proxy.

The Hudsucker proxy

The Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker proxy (1994) is set in the late 1950 s, a time of transition in the American economy from industrial manufacturing to consumer-based models of production. Set in New York City, the mecca of capitalist corporate culture, The Hudsucker proxy offers a satirical view of the post-WWII manufacturing industry and the dramatic rise of large corporations geared for mass consumption.

Most of the film’s narrative is staged in the corporate environs of Hudsucker Industries, a large manufacturing corporation headquartered in an imposing skyscraper overlooking Manhattan. A large cast of characters, working at various levels of the corporate structure, carries out the operations of Hudsucker Industries. The early scenes introduce both the highest and lowest of these levels. At the top of the corporate power pyramid is Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), founder and Chief Executive Officer of Hudsucker Industries.

Initially portrayed as a man of great wealth and success, Waring Hudsucker is ultimately revealed to be a tragic loser. His tragi-comic end comes at the outset of the film when, in highly dramatic fashion, he dives to his death from the 44th floor of the Hudsucker skyscraper. As we learn at the end of the narrative, he took his life because, despite great success in business, he had failed in love.

This is a familiar theme in the history of American cinema, reflected in Hollywood movies of the 1950 s. The sweet smell of success (1957) is a story about a ruthlessly ambitious, self-absorbed journalist named J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). He climbs to the top of his profession, but ends up contemplating a death leap from a skyscraper. The similarity of the name Hunsecker with Hudsucker suggests a kinship between The Hudsucker proxy and The sweet smell of success – although the screenplay for the earlier film (written by Clifford Odets) was clearly intended as a sober critique American big business, while the intentions of The Hudsucker proxy are less transparent. Nevertheless, both films depict the damaging effects of narcissism in the corporate workplace.

Another movie of this era with similar concerns is Robert Wise’s 1954 drama Executive suite, a cynical tale that opens with the death of a chief executive, which, as in The Hudsucker proxy, initiates a battle for control of the company. One of contenders for the vacant top job schemes to profit from his boss’s death by selling a large share of his stock to destabilize the company, and push its stock price down so that he can later buy back in at exaggeratedly low prices.

A similar scheme is hatched in The Hudsucker proxy by Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman), a top company executive. He hires Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a mailroom clerk, to be president of Hudsucker Industries. Mussberger hopes the incompetence of the “proxy” will shake the confidence of investors and drive down the price of company stock, allowing Mussberger and Hudsucker’s board of directors to buy stock at bargain rates and gain full control of the corporation. In both Executive suite and The sweet smell of success, the moral of the story is clear, and meant to be taken seriously: Business executives who value career and material success above all else, even personal relationships, are fated to live empty lives and ultimately doomed to suffer suicidal despair. This is also the fate of Waring Hudsucker. Although we know little about him in his capacity as CEO of Hudsucker Industries, we can infer that he ruled his corporation with a ruthlessness typical of narcissistic executives. As R. Barton Palmer writes:

True to the American myth of the “robber baron,” the founder of Hudsucker Industries has built this company through the ruthless pursuit of profit. Those at the top exploit underlings with the unconcern of the factory owners in Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s horrifying vision of end-stage capitalism, which seems to have provided the Coens with a model both architectural and ideological. Seldom has the gulf between management and labor loomed wider than in the depiction of modern economic relations featured in The Hudsucker proxy. (Palmer 2004: 138)

In Lang’s 1927 science-fiction masterpiece, mastermind Joh Frederson rules a futuristic mega-city from a control center at the top of a towering skyscraper. Armies of regimented, robot-like workers toil below in miserable underground factories. The gulf between management and labor is portrayed in The Hudsucker proxy in similarly hyperbolic terms. Waring Hudsucker stands at the top of the corporate power structure, presiding over a large board of directors. It meets on the 44th floor of the Hudsucker skyscraper, where its members gloat over record-breaking profits.

The soaring heights of their financial success are contrasted with the depths of near-slavery in which dehumanized Hudsucker employees toil long hours in the lower echelons for little pay. The early scenes of the movie, set in the cavernous Hudsucker mailroom where Norville Barnes begins his meteoric rise to success, depict a nightmarish workplace reminiscent of the prison-like workplaces in Metropolis.

The mailroom, information hub for the sprawling Hudsucker bureaucracy, is housed in the bottom floor of the Hudsucker Building, where multitudes of workers sort and deliver towering stacks of mail via an antiquated, labyrinthine communications network. The sheer scale of the mailroom is designed to overpower the workers visually, and draw attention to their insignificance as individuals. On the highest floors of the skyscraper, the imposing offices of the top executives are also extravagantly spacious. But in contrast to the mailroom, their supersized dimensions are designed to reflect the narcissistic grandiosity of those who occupy them. Production designer Dennis Gassner compared the office of Sid Mussberger with the headquarters of fascist Italian dictator Mussolini (Robson 2007: 140).

These early mailroom sequences also reflect the steampunk surrealism of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), a film that conjures a horrific Kafkaesque vision of totalitarianism as a vast, soul-crushing bureaucracy. Like Brazil and Metropolis, The Hudsucker proxy presents the corporate bureaucracy as a rigid structure enforcing hierarchy, and suppressing independent thinking and initiative in the name of rationality and order. The massive clock that crowns the Hudsucker Building echoes a similar icon in Lang’s Metropolis, associated in both films with the mechanized, clockwork routines that dehumanize the workers. In both films, time is used to tyrannize and subordinate the labor force. In one melodramatic scene of Metropolis, a factory worker is chained to a clock-shaped instrument panel in a painful posture that unambiguously depicts a crucifixion. In The Hudsucker proxy, this point is made more humorously by the mailroom supervisor, who rudely bellows instructions at Norville:

You punch in at 8:30 every morning, except you punch in at 7:30 following a business holiday, unless it’s Monday and then you punch in at 8:00. You punch in at 7:45 whenever we work extended day, and you punch out at the regular time, unless you’ve worked through lunch!

PUNCH IN LATE – AND THEY DOCK YA!

To reinforce the Hudsucker axiom that “time is money,” workers are forced to observe a minute of silence after Waring Hudsucker’s death, but are then informed that the time will be deducted from their pay.

In both films, the clock is emblematic for instrumental reason, a form of rationality which views the world as a resource to be quantified, exploited, and controlled for human benefit. Instrumental reason is concerned exclusively with efficiency in achieving a specific end, producing a specific product, regardless of the value of that end or product. In the scientific sense, instrumental reason is technology used to harness and exploit the natural world for human advantage, regardless of ecological outcomes. In economic terms, instrumental reason is a tool of oppression used by industrial capitalism to subordinate and control the workforce, regardless of ethical ramifications. As in Metropolis, the Hudsucker workers are forced to conform to the dehumanizing principles of instrumental rationality. This is reflected not only in the hierarchical division of labor and management, but also in the myriad bureaucratic regulations that govern the workforce to ensure maximum efficiency and profit for capitalist owners.

In The Hudsucker proxy the narcissistic executives in the corporate bureaucracy are represented most vividly in the character of Sidney J. Mussberger. He is an arrogant, ruthless, and self-obsessed corporate functionary whom Waring Hudsucker describes as “a balls-to-the-wall businessman,” adding, “He’ll beat you any way he can. Straight for the jugular. Very effective.” Mussberger’s aggressive business tactics are consonant with his pronounced lack of empathy, a narcissistic trait Mussberger displays only moments after Waring Hudsucker has leaped to his death. Mussberger coolly takes charge, quickly dismissing the board members’ shock and admonishing them to get back to business: “Sure, sure, he was a swell fellow, but when the president, chairman of the board, and holder of eighty-seven per cent of the company’s stock drops forty-four floors, then the company too has a problem.”

The bold and risky proxy scheme Mussberger then proposes also fits the profile of executive narcissism. Insisting that a daring gambit is necessary to maintain control of Hudsucker Industries, Sidney persuades the board of directors to go along with his plot to hire an incompetent dupe as chief executive officer. After Norville’s unexpected success of the Hula Hoop, Mussberger schemes to discredit Hudsucker Industries’ new boss, who has become a dangerous rival after starting as a “chump.” Mussberger has a psychiatrist attest to Norville’s ostensible mental disorder (manic/depressive), a diagnosis that would render him incompetent to lead the company and allow Mussberger to take control. In the end, however, Mussberger suffers a dramatic reversal of fortune. He, not Norville, is ultimately driven crazy by the revelation that, miraculously, Norville has been named permanent CEO of Hudsucker Industries, a position Mussberger was certain would eventually be his. After attempting to leap to his death from the 44th floor of the Hudsucker skyscraper, it is Mussberger who is carted off to the “booby hatch.”

Mussberger’s risky financial manipulations, and devious attempted power grabs are symptomatic of an underlying narcissistic sense of entitlement and superiority. This is evident in his dealings with subordinates, whom he routinely subjects to rude, dismissive, and demeaning treatment. The following exchange exemplifies Mussberger’s crudely disrespectful interactions with underlings:

Mussberger (speaking into one of two telephones he is using simultaneously):

“Yeah, maybe you’re the company’s biggest moron. We can’t use Morris, he’s been with us too long, nice guy, too many friends. Matter of fact, why don’t you fire him? No – scratch that; I’ll fire him.”

Mussberger (now speaking into the second telephone):

“Look, chump, either you find me a grade-A ding-dong or you can tender your key to the executive washroom.”

In the arrogant manner of movie mogul Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink, Mussberger wields his executive power capriciously, firing a long-time employee on a whim and threatening to terminate another if his orders are not carried out. Ironically, Mussberger’s greed and inflated sense of self-importance blind him to the commercial potential of Norville’s invention, which Mussberger mistakes for evidence of simple-mindedness rather than profitable innovation.

Unlike the cast of otherwise one-dimensional narcissists that surround him, Norville Barnes proves to be a multi-faceted, transformative character. A naïvely aspiring young business school graduate from Muncie, Indiana, Norville arrives in New York City seeking honest work. But when his surprisingly bestowed executive power goes to his head, he soon proves to be little better than his unsympathetic antagonist, Sid Mussberger. After he is promoted to CEO, Norville quickly gets used to the privileges of the executive elite. He leads a life of princely luxury in his penthouse office, while ordering big layoffs in the Hudsucker workforce to boost already fat profits. His narcissistic disregard for the rights and feelings of others comes to full expression when Norville steals the idea for a new product, the bendable straw, from a low-level employee, and then fires the worker out of jealousy.

Like the protagonists of similar stories, especially in the films of Frank Capra, Norville’s narrative arc takes him to the heights of success, then plunges him into the depths of a depression, pushing him, like his predecessor Waring Hudsucker, to the brink of suicide. As the “common man” who goes up against a powerful establishment, Norville Barnes recalls Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the protagonist of Capra’s Mr. Smith goes to Washington (1939). Like Norville, Jefferson Smith journeys from small-town America to the big city, where he is chosen by scheming leaders to a serve as their puppet. In the moral dilemma that ensues, Smith emerges as a beacon of integrity in the corrupt world of politics and big money. Like Mr. Smith, Norville ultimately triumphs over the powers of greed and corruption, but not in the name of democracy and moral virtue.

The only ideal Norville seems to cherish is success in business, which he achieves more as the result of chance than of his own ambition and effort. Throughout most of the story, his only interest seems to be self-interest. In the end, of course, Norville is redeemed in a Capraesque way and we are assured that his small-town values have been restored, indeed, that he will go on to “reign” over the Hudsucker industrial empire with “wisdom and compassion.” We are asked to believe that Norville has achieved some kind of enlightenment, that he will rule benevolently, not just in his own interest.

But the film’s conclusion – Norville cheerfully presiding as CEO of Hudsucker Industries – could also give the impression that he will remain a loyal servant of consumer capitalism. As the narrative reaches its conclusion, we are left to imagine that, under Norville’s benevolent rule, Hudsucker Industries will continue successfully mass-producing frivolous leisure items like the Hula-Hoop and the Frisbee. It will continue to supply the docile conformists of the “Silent Generation,” whose demand for mindless entertainment helped fuel the post-war consumer boom.

An underlying trust in the ultimate good of capitalism seems to inform the conclusion of The Hudsucker proxy. This is comically reinforced when the deceased Waring Hudsucker descends from heaven to intercede as Norville’s guardian angel (a reference to Capra’s It’s a wonderful life) – despite his life of iniquity as a ruthless, self-obsessed corporate executive, Waring Hudsucker gained entry to the Kingdom of Heaven. Apparently, in such a Capraesque vision of the eternal afterlife, the consumer fetishism of earthly capitalism also reigns in the celestial realm. At least that is what Waring suggests when he points to his glowing halo and says: “How d’ya like this thing? They’re all wearin’ them upstairs. It’s a fad.” Even the heavenly angels are slaves to consumer trends.

At best, Norville appears to exemplify the “positive” potential of CEO narcissism – a visionary business leader who can adapt quickly to change, and proves to be the best leader in times of transition. Certainly, Norville qualifies as visionary. In The Hudsucker proxy, we see him invent the Hula Hoop, a toy actually born in the late 1950 s that became a wildly popular and enormously profitable product. And, in the movie’s final scene, we see him invents the Frisbee, a plaything that became a pop-culture icon of the 1960 s. This suggests Norville’s innovations will guide Hudsucker Industries successfully into the consumer society of the coming decades.

4 Squares and circles

Although their satirical depictions of the blustery titans of business and industry clearly mock the executive narcissists of corporate capitalism, the Coen brothers dismiss the idea that any of their films comment seriously on socio-political realities.

When asked about the “moral” of The Hudsucker proxy, the Coens insist it is not a critique of capitalism, just a “modern-day fairy tale” (Romney 1994: 2). Compared to earlier social-problem dramas of the 1950 s like The sweet smell of success and Executive suite, which confront the evils of corporate capitalism earnestly and directly, The Hudsucker proxy assumes a more ambivalent stance. On one hand, it satirizes the narcissistic follies of corporate leaders; on the other hand, it eschews any explicit systemic critique of capitalist ideology. Paul Coughlin argues that at least part of the film’s agenda is concerned with socially significant issues, including New Deal politics, the myth of small-town America as the source of cultural values, and the evils of corporate culture (2009: 209). Taken as a whole, it is difficult to say that The Hudsucker proxy delivers a cogent critique of American capitalism. But, despite its fairy-tale narrative and screwball humor, Hudsucker’s portrayal of corporate capitalism’s sociopathy presents, at the very least, a skeptical vision of America in 1958, as that society entered the late stages of capitalism.

Hudsucker’s story and characters are archetypal, drawn partly from the screwball comedies of Capra and Preston Sturges, and partly from a boilerplate version of the Arthurian legend – the good king who dies at the beginning (Waring Hudsucker), the evil regent (Sidney Mussberger), and the callow youth (Norville Barnes), who is destined to replace the dying king. The story and characters work very explicitly to expose and ridicule the nature and necessity of executive narcissism in any capitalist system. But closer scrutiny is required to discern a design, unobtrusively embedded in the filmic text, articulating an almost hidden polemic of subversion. It discreetly addresses the corrupting power of material success and the inequities caused by sociopathic capitalism.

It is in the subtle details of the film’s production design, in the iconography of circles and squares dominating the film’s mise en scène, that The Hudsucker proxy generates its most compelling commentary. More than background for story and characters, the film’s graphic design wordlessly comments on the tension between the narcissistic materialism of Western capitalism and the selfless, anti-materialism of the Eastern religions, admired by the 1950 s beatniks, to whom Norville Barnes refers several times, and with whom he seems to share certain beliefs.

Forerunners of the hippie counterculture of the 1960 s, the beatniks rejected the traditional values and conventions of established society, especially the consumerist materialism of capitalism. Instead, the 1950 s beatniks sought spiritual enlightenment in artistic self-expression and in Eastern religions. Hinduism, for example, places value on compassion, cooperation, and liberation from the worldly desire, rather than on individuality, competition, and material wealth, as capitalism does. Rejecting the idea of individual ego and promoting a philosophy of selflessness, Hinduism presents a challenge, and an alternative, to the narcissistic materialism of Western capitalism.

In the parlance of beatnik slang, “square” refers to those who are enslaved by their attachment to the material world and by their obsession with acquiring wealth and power. The “squares” want to order the world according to the logic of instrumental reason. Squares exist exclusively on a material plane, their behavior governed by principles of pragmatism and efficiency, without regard for spiritual values. Sid Mussberger is a model for the square businessman, but his mentor, Waring Hudsucker, is also a prime example. The difference between them is that Waring finally sees the error of his narcissistic greed, although only in retrospect, through the lens of the afterlife.

The square mentality of the corporate world is visually articulated throughout The Hudsucker proxy by the rectilinear composition of Manhattan’s urban cityscape, a crowded grid of monolithic steel-and-glass skyscrapers designed in accordance with the rationalist principles of modernist architecture. Similarly, the interior design in Sidney Mussberger’s palatial but sterile penthouse office brings to mind the rectilinear modernism of Joh Fredersen’s control room in Metropolis. Executive offices and the Hudsucker boardroom are monuments to the “square” aesthetics of angularity, furnished in a minimalist Bauhaus style that contrasts with and emphasizes the enormity of their spatial dimensions. The monumental angularity of mise en scène serves the same function in The Hudsucker proxy as in Metropolis: to aggrandize and accentuate the wealth and power of those who sit atop the economic pyramid.

In contrast to the square businessmen of the corporate world, those considered “cool” or “hip” by the beatniks have surrendered their attachment to the material world and choose not to adhere to the linear, rule-bound thinking of the square establishment. Norville Barnes, a business school graduate from a small Mid-West town seeking success in the corporate world, seems more of a square than a beatnik. But he still seems to embrace the philosophy of the Beat Generation. On one occasion, he talks at length about the beatniks and their affiliation with Eastern religions, and, in particular, the Hindu principle of karma as part of “the great circle of life, death, and rebirth.” Norville calls it “a great wheel that gives us each what we deserve.” Here Norville alludes to the Hindu belief in the cycle of reincarnation called samsara, correlated with the cause-and-effect morality of karma. In Hindu belief, the ultimate goal of human life is liberation from the circle of samsara and the merger of an individual soul with the infinite cosmic spirit, Brahman.

The iconography of squares is counterbalanced in Hudsucker’s visual design by an iconography of circles, the significance of which is signaled by the circular shapes of Norville’s inventions – the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee. Indeed, Norville is closely associated and identified with the circular images that accompany his every appearance. When Norville is in the shot, the set décor surrounds him with circular objects: light fixtures, furniture, ashtrays, dishes, coffee cups. In one scene, Norville is seen wearing a scarf patterned with white circles against a dark background, creating the visual impression of luminous globes. In the same scene, Sid Mussberger wears a pin-striped suit, its long, straight vertical lines contrasting with Norville’s circle-infused attire. Norville’s executive desk has an oval shape, instead of the standard rectangular form. Indeed, almost everything in his office has rounded edges, including the rounded pillars that frame the doorway.

Deep in the background of one shot, we see in the hallway outside Norville’s office what appears to be an abstract expressionist painting that depicts several oddly circular flower-like shapes. Even when Norville is absent from the scene but discussed by others, the circle motif is continued, for instance, in the office of the chief editor of the Manhattan Argus newspaper. Surrounded by an interior décor of distinctly circular-shaped lamps, ashtrays, chairs, he challenges his reporters – who wear fedora hats with distinctly rounded brims – to get the inside story on the mysterious new CEO of Hudsucker Industries. The immediate impact such quotidian objects make on the viewer is minimal. But their constant, if unobtrusive, presence gradually gathers thematic weight. Inscribing its commentary wordlessly, The Hudsucker proxy endorses Eastern philosophies of selflessness and liberation from material desire as an alternative to the narcissistic consumerism of Western capitalism.

In its thematic function, Hudsucker’s circular design pattern correlates with the Hindu cycle of samsara and the reciprocal law of karma. Thus, when Norville is seduced by the temptations of materialism made possible by his elite executive status, the karmic wheel spins him toward suicidal despair. When the narrative closes its circular arc and Norville is redeemed, the great karmic wheel is brought back into balance. According to common wisdom, what goes around, comes around, as is the case with Sidney Mussberger, whose sudden reversal of fortune is clearly the result of karmic justice.

In Hudsucker’s metaphorical iconography, the circle functions as a symbolic correlate to the Hindu mandala (Sanskrit for ‘circle’), a sacred symbol of selfless merger with the infinite, signifying the transcendence of the rectilinear “square” logic of instrumental rationality. In its function as a visual leitmotif for Norville Barnes, the circle imagery implies that Norville’s underlying philosophy of life has much in common with the fundamental goals of Hinduism: renunciation of earthly desires, disavowal of ego, and compassionate interaction with fellow humans.

As Norville’s story comes to an end, we should not be surprised to discover that Norville is not really the “organization man” of corporate capitalism he seemed to be. He is, instead, a visionary leader whose true interests are symbolically linked with his invention, the Hula Hoop, which one character says, “would be a thing that brought everybody in America together.” This intimates that Norville could, after all, become a compassionate and heroic leader in the populist style of Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith, a boss puts who the interests and well-being of the common people, his employees, before his own.

References

Books and Articles

  • Chandler, Raymond. 1995. Later novels and other writings. New York: Library of America.

  • Chatterjee, Arijit & Donald C. Hambrick. 2007. It’s all about me: Narcissistic CEOs and their effects on company strategy and performance. Administrative Science Quarterly 52(3). 351–386.

  • Ciment, Michel & Hubert Niogret. 2006. The logic of soft drugs. In William Rodney Allen (ed.), The Coen brothers: Interviews, 100–108. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

  • Coughlin, Paul. 2009. The past is now: History and The Hudsucker Proxy. In Mark T. Conard (ed.), The philosophy of the Coen brothers. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 195–209.

  • Derber, Charles. 2013. The sociopathic society: A people’s sociology of the United States. London & New York: Routledge.

  • Gerstner, Wolf-Christian, Andreas König, Albrecht Enders & Donald C. Hambrick. 2013. CEO narcissism, audience engagement, and organizational adoption of technological discontinuities. Administrative Science Quarterly 58(2). 257–291.

  • Lears, T. J. Jackson. 1980. From salvation to self-realization: Advertising and the therapeutic roots of the consumer culture. In Richard W. Fox & T. J. Jackson Lears (eds.), The culture of consumption: Critical essays in American history, 1880–1980, 1–38. New York: Pantheon.

  • Nathan, Ian. 2012. Ethan and Joel Coen. Paris: Cahiers du cinema.

  • Palmer, R. Barton. 2004. Joel and Ethan Coen. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois.

  • Raskin, Robert N. & Calvin S. Hall. 1979. A narcissistic personality inventory. Psychological Reports 45. 590.

  • Riesman, David. 1969. The lonely crowd: A study in the changing American character. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Robertson, William Preston. 1998. The Big Lebowski. The making of a Coen brothers film. New York: W. W. Norton.

  • Robson, Eddie. 2007. The Coen brothers. London: Virgin Books.

  • Romney, Jonathan. 1994. Interview with the Coens. The Guardian. August 25, 1994.

Films

  • Barton Fink. Dir. Joel Coen. Circle Films /Working Title. 1991.

  • Blood Simple. Dir. Joel Coen. River Road Productions. 1985.

  • Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Universal Pictures. 1985.

  • Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. RKO. 1941.

  • Executive Suite. Dir. Robert Wise. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 1954.

  • Fargo. Dir. Joel Coen. Polygram/Working Title. 1996.

  • It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Columbia Pictures. 1946.

  • Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. UFA. 1927.

  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Dir. Frank Capra. Columbia Pictures. 1939.

  • Raising Arizona. Dir. Joel Coen. Circle Films/20th Century Fox. 1987.

  • The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Coen. Polygram/Working Title. 1998.

  • The Hudsucker Proxy. Dir. Joel Coen. Warner Bros./Working Title. 1994.

  • The Man Who Wasn’t There. Dir. Joel Coen. Good Machine/Gramercy/Working Title/Mike Zoss Productions. 2001.

  • The Sweet Smell of Success. Dir. Alexander MacKendrick. United Artists. 1957.

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  • Chandler, Raymond. 1995. Later novels and other writings. New York: Library of America.

  • Chatterjee, Arijit & Donald C. Hambrick. 2007. It’s all about me: Narcissistic CEOs and their effects on company strategy and performance. Administrative Science Quarterly 52(3). 351–386.

  • Ciment, Michel & Hubert Niogret. 2006. The logic of soft drugs. In William Rodney Allen (ed.), The Coen brothers: Interviews, 100–108. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

  • Coughlin, Paul. 2009. The past is now: History and The Hudsucker Proxy. In Mark T. Conard (ed.), The philosophy of the Coen brothers. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 195–209.

  • Derber, Charles. 2013. The sociopathic society: A people’s sociology of the United States. London & New York: Routledge.

  • Gerstner, Wolf-Christian, Andreas König, Albrecht Enders & Donald C. Hambrick. 2013. CEO narcissism, audience engagement, and organizational adoption of technological discontinuities. Administrative Science Quarterly 58(2). 257–291.

  • Lears, T. J. Jackson. 1980. From salvation to self-realization: Advertising and the therapeutic roots of the consumer culture. In Richard W. Fox & T. J. Jackson Lears (eds.), The culture of consumption: Critical essays in American history, 1880–1980, 1–38. New York: Pantheon.

  • Nathan, Ian. 2012. Ethan and Joel Coen. Paris: Cahiers du cinema.

  • Palmer, R. Barton. 2004. Joel and Ethan Coen. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois.

  • Raskin, Robert N. & Calvin S. Hall. 1979. A narcissistic personality inventory. Psychological Reports 45. 590.

  • Riesman, David. 1969. The lonely crowd: A study in the changing American character. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Robertson, William Preston. 1998. The Big Lebowski. The making of a Coen brothers film. New York: W. W. Norton.

  • Robson, Eddie. 2007. The Coen brothers. London: Virgin Books.

  • Romney, Jonathan. 1994. Interview with the Coens. The Guardian. August 25, 1994.

  • Barton Fink. Dir. Joel Coen. Circle Films /Working Title. 1991.

  • Blood Simple. Dir. Joel Coen. River Road Productions. 1985.

  • Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Universal Pictures. 1985.

  • Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. RKO. 1941.

  • Executive Suite. Dir. Robert Wise. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 1954.

  • Fargo. Dir. Joel Coen. Polygram/Working Title. 1996.

  • It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Columbia Pictures. 1946.

  • Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. UFA. 1927.

  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Dir. Frank Capra. Columbia Pictures. 1939.

  • Raising Arizona. Dir. Joel Coen. Circle Films/20th Century Fox. 1987.

  • The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Coen. Polygram/Working Title. 1998.

  • The Hudsucker Proxy. Dir. Joel Coen. Warner Bros./Working Title. 1994.

  • The Man Who Wasn’t There. Dir. Joel Coen. Good Machine/Gramercy/Working Title/Mike Zoss Productions. 2001.

  • The Sweet Smell of Success. Dir. Alexander MacKendrick. United Artists. 1957.

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A peer-reviewed journal of international scope, Frontiers of Narrative Studies features articles reporting results of research in all branches of narrative studies, in-depth reviews of selected current literature in the field, and occasional guest editorials and reports. Its broad range of scholarship includes narratives across a variety of media, including literary writing, film and television, journalism, and graphic narratives.

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