This week, Dominic Cooper plays both Saddam’s son Uday Hussein and his body double Latif Yahia in The Devil’s Double. In recognition of this feat, the Weekly Listicle pays tribute to those actors who have played more than one role in the same movie.
Charlie Chaplin’s satirical tour de force The Great Dictator is one of the most notable examples of this gimmick. There, the erstwhile Tramp plays A Jewish Barber and Hynkel, a not-too-subtle homage to Hitler, and the 1940 film continues to serve as a prime example of how the dual role could work. One of the first Hollywood productions to condemn the Fuhrer, the movie was also notable as it represented the first time that Chaplin, one of the biggest stars in history, actually spoke on film.
Even television gets into double duty, from the sexually suggestive theme of The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966) to Sarah Michelle Gellar dealing with rich people scandals in the CW’s upcoming Ringer. And that’s not to mention every evil clone, alternate dimension replica, and long lost cousin that emerges for an episode to temporarily screw up things for our heroes.
Plus a myriad of comedy troupes and variety shows. But, this article focuses on films. In particular, films where talented/formerly talented comedic stars don’t don fat suits. so let’s get started.
Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (dir. David Cronenberg, 1988)
Still a most exciting director, David Cronenberg’s 1988 Dead Ringers remains one of the director’s most psychologically fascinating and tormented movies. In it, Jeremy Irons plays Elliot and Beverly Mantle, identical twin gynecologists. Elliot’s a confident lady’s man, while Beverly is the meek one. The two share an unhealthy life, one in which they share women (well, Beverly gets Elliot’s sloppy seconds) without their partner ever being aware. However, when an actress named Claire (Geneviève Bujold) catches Beverly’s eye, it shatters the carefully isolated world established by the Mantle Twins.
While the story might sound obvious, the characters are anything but. Dead Ringers is not a tale of “Good Twin” v. “Bad Twin.” Both Elliot and Beverly are complex human beings, and their respective confidence and meekness only serve as minor traits in their overall characters. Beverly becomes just as depraved and nasty (if not more so) as his cooler brother. Alternatively, Elliot shows himself truly concerned and caring for his brother, willing to sacrifice everything for his soul mate.
Furthermore, the movie is not about the love of a good woman fixing a man’s (or men’s) problems. Claire cannot save either of them, nor does she fully understand the depths she has entered; the main relationship of the film always remains the one between the two brothers. Beyond that, a big part of Beverly’s attraction to her probably lies because she too is a mutant due to her incredibly rare trifurcated uterus, for which Beverly creates special gynecological devices.
Most of all, Dead Ringers is about co-dependence and obsession. The relationship Irons creates between the two brothers is amazingly complicated and impressive, especially considering how he’s usually the only person in the scene. The experience definitely impacted Irons, who thanked Cronenberg several years later when he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Reversal of Fortune.
Nicolas Cage in Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze, 1988)
Sometimes Nicolas Cage doesn’t suck. It’s rare, but occasionally he turns in a genuinely good and non-ironic performance.
Arguably, Cage’s best performance(s) came in 2002’s Adaptation, the second collaboration between genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and genius director Spike Jonze. In the film, Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald Kaufman. Set during the filming of Being John Malkovich, the panicky, miserable, and depressed Charlie is commissioned to write the script for The Orchid Thief, a non-fiction book about a group of Seminoles poaching rare flowers. Unable to figure out how to adapt the book, Charlie grows more neurotic while being increasingly trapped by writer’s block.
Meanwhile, his more charming and far happier brother Donald moves in with him. Donald, a hack writer and disciple of “screenwriting guru” Robert McKee (Brian Cox), sells his own script for over a million dollars. This psychological thriller entitled The 3 was later turned into 2003’s Identity starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet.
Adaptation is a self-referential film (as Charlie is essentially writing the script for Adaptation), but Kaufman pulls this off in an intelligent and creative fashion, rather than the annoying “meta” way overly typical in today’s fiction. In the third act, the brain behind Adaptation switches from Charlie’s to Donald’s, as the film goes “Hollywood” (shoot outs, hiding in swamps, alligators) in a way only the real Charlie Kaufman could create. Charlie and Donald start investigating the truth behind The Orchid Thief and learn that its author, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), only wanted the flower for its drug properties. At this point, Susan and her cohort Laroche (Chris Cooper in an Academy Award-winning performance) try to kill both Charlie and Donald to prevent them from telling the world the truth.
This movie could have easily fit in last week’s Listicle (as could have many others, and I am legitimately sorry about not including Sunset Boulevard), but it suits this category just as well.
Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, and several others in the Back To The Future Trilogy (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985, 1989, 1990)
Whether you travel into the future or into the past, you’re going to run into some relative who looks remarkably like you, or some older/younger version of yourself. It’s inevitable. And, in the BTTF trilogy, several actors play their parents, great-grandparents, sons, and daughters along with future/past selves.
As protagonist Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox doesn’t receive multiple roles until the second film. In the follow-up, he plays five characters: three Marty McFlys, as well as his own children Marty McFly Jr. and Marlene McFly. The three Martys are Marty Prime (the one we follow throughout the film), 2015 Marty (the older, parental version of Marty McFly), and Original Marty from BTTF. (When Marty Prime returns to 1955 for a second time, he watches himself play his history-changing version of Johnny B. Goode at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance.) Later, in the misbegotten Back to the Future, Part III (why so much time in the West?), Marty encounters his older relative Seamus McFly.
In the first film, Marty’s mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) plays Original 1985 Lorraine, Second 1985 Lorraine, and the Making-You-Question-Laws-Against-Incest 1955 Lorraine. In the second film, Second 1985 Lorraine remains, plus a version of 2015 Lorraine where not-Crispin Glover has some sort of hovershoes or belt, plus Third 1985 Lorraine as Biff’s concubine. Back in the 1800s, as Maggie McFly, she married a version of Marty named Seamus.
However, the best of the multiple characters is Thomas F. Wilson as several Biffs, son Griff Tannen, and Wild West counterpart Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen. Although mostly played for laughs, the Tannens are truly dangerous men, and Biff is the worst of the bunch.
Griff is a juvenile delinquent, Mad Dog is a product of his times, but Biff goes beyond “bully” into attempted rapist and murderer. When he loses against George McFly in Second 1955, he holds that grudge for 60 years. In Second 1985, Biff might come across as a passive, wimpy nothing waxing George’s car for scraps, but he has spent years anxiously awaiting for a chance to get revenge against that family, which he accomplishes four years from now.
After 2015 Biff gives 1955 Biff Grey’s Sports Almanac, we see what a man like him would do with unlimited wealth and power. Hill Valley is a land of decadence, vice, and sin, and we know he is forcing himself on Lorraine any chance he gets. Sure, she might have hitched her wagon to him to “protect” and fund her children, but the drunken abuse that goes on behind those close doors would probably be shocking.
Michael Showalter in Wet Hot American Summer (dir. David Wain, 2001)
One of the funniest films of the last decade, Wet Hot American Summer features so many “absurdist” and satirical moments that it would be senseless to list them all. Set on the last day of summer camp in 1981, the movie stars many former cast members of The State, as well as people-who-will-become huge such as Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and even Bradley Cooper (as the homosexual partner of/bottom to “I Love The..” stalwart Michael Ian Black).
The film’s co-writer Michael Showalter spends most of the film as Gerald ‘Coop’ Cooperberg, the loser camp counselor pathetically seeking love from fellow counselor Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who prefers the company of sexy dickhead Andy (Rudd).
Showalter plays his second role during the film’s climax, a talent show that takes place as Sputnik is about to crash into Earth. Here, he becomes the host of the evening’s festivities, Alan Shemper, beloved vaudeville comedian ladies and germs.
Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard Of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)
Dorothy calls them like she sees them. “You wicked old witch!” she yells at mean-spirited busybody Miss Gulch, who aims to take away her beloved little dog Toto. Talk about foreshadowing. As all the world (hopefully) knows, Dorothy is about to have a very strange dream featuring quite a wicked witch indeed. Margaret Hamilton’s double role in The Wizard Of Oz – as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch Of The West – is not the only one in the film. In fact, the dual role trend applies to most of the story’s important characters, but Hamilton is certainly the most memorable.
When we first meet Dorothy, she lives in a world outside her control. She is a poor girl living on a Kansas farm, and despite the loving care of her kindly aunt and uncle, she must face the fact that life is simply not fair. Miss Gulch represents a very everyday kind of evil – those who are mean and cruel simply because they have nothing better to do. The trouble is that they often get the better of kind, honest people. Rather than surrender her beloved pet to a sharp tongue and a cruel whim, she does what any sensible child would do. She runs away, and this is what sticks her out in the open when a tornado decides to carry the house away.
Having run herself farther away than she ever meant to – all the way to Oz – Dorothy spends the rest of her time trying to get back to Kansas. Along the way she meets her famous friends, several of whom bear a striking resemblance to people she once knew. Standing in her way is the Wicked Witch, whose sole purpose is to spread terror and treat the innocent with cruelty. Like Miss Gulch, she accuses Dorothy of wronging her and vows petty revenge. Granted, Dorothy’s house fell on the Witch’s sister, but Dorothy had no more to do with that accident than with Toto’s alleged biting incident. Twice, Dorothy finds herself charged with accidents of nature, but the Wicked Witch’s power is much more conventionally frightening than Miss Gulch’s cowardly nastiness. Her promise to get Dorothy “and her little dog too” (what a brilliant touch) is the ticking clock that hurries Dorothy along to beg help of the mysterious wizard of Oz.
The parallel between Dorothy’s fear and hatred of Miss Gulch, and the nightmare of being pursued by the Witch, is a wonderful illustration of a child’s perspective on evil in the world. And Margaret Hamilton brings both characters vividly to life. Miss Gulch is cold, terse, and stodgy. The Witch is everything Miss Gulch would be if the constraints of her real world did not apply – strident, omnipresent, supremely powerful, and nightmarish to behold. For her, inspiring fear and exercising control would be effortless. And yet, the simple courage of a good child might be enough to overcome her. To have power over a nightmare, just enough to keep it from harming you, is the ultimate fantasy of the good-hearted. If only that worked as well in the real world, Kansas or elsewhere.
Sir Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts And Coronets (dir. Robert Hamer, 1949)
This gleefully grim comedy is one of the most famous from Britain’s Ealing Studios. It is very nearly my favorite, though Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955), also starring Alec Guinness, narrowly tops it. Dennis Price stars as Louis, the outcast relative of the noble d’Ascoyne family. In order to avenge their shabby treatment of his late mother, who married a commoner for love and paid for it the rest of her life, Louis determines to inherit the family title for himself. His only obstacle is the continued survival of eight or nine d’Ascoynes ahead of him in the line of succession.
Louis cleverly insinuates himself into the lives of each of his estranged relatives, arranging a tragic “accident” to befall one after the other. Sir Alec Guinness plays each of the blustery d’Ascoynes, and so has the privilege of dying more deaths in the same film than anyone else I can recall. By the way, the film’s narration comes from Louis himself on the eve of his execution, so that we know a slip will come eventually. But as his reflective memoir piles body upon body, the mystery of where he went wrong narrows down to a fatalistic twist that not even the most calculating of minds could predict.
Meanwhile, Louis has a secondary ambition – to secure the love of his childhood friend Sibella (Joan Greenwood). Sibella has grown up pretty enough and privileged enough that she feels no obligation to anyone but herself. Her regard for Louis is evident, but she constantly dangles herself just out of his reach, driving his cold ambition through the roof in order to prove himself a worthy match for her. Their relationship is rather like a light opera version of Dangerous Liaisons, without any singing. Their cheerfully poisonous banter keeps the quiet parts of the movie going, but Guinness is undoubtedly the true star of the picture.
In its execution, Kind Hearts And Coronets hearkens to Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921), in which the slapstick master plays numerous members of a variety show simultaneously. Guinness has the opportunity not only to look the part but also speak in the voices of an entire family of bluebloods, from the windy old clergyman to the chummy playboy to the tight-lipped suffragette. Their insular, detached attitudes toward the world outside their own immediate circles makes them frightfully easy to exploit and target.
It is a matter of record that late in life, Guinness lamented his decision to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, because in the eyes of an entire generation the role (and its dialogue which he categorically detested) eclipsed his long and distinguished career as a character actor. There is definitely something to this complaint, leaving aside the joy he brought to geeks the world over. Through the recent re-release of classic Ealing comedies, and the timeless popularity of David Lean’s films, he will always be remembered by many, but his career tends toward the criminally under-recognized with respect to how much, and how well, he accomplished.
Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
The point has almost certainly come up before, but Dr. Strangelove remains my favorite film of all time. Director Stanley Kubrick was blessed with a superlative sense of visual style, and his stark Cold War backdrops only heighten the lunacy of the script by contrast. With co-writer Terry Southern and a spirited cast of oddballs, Kubrick mined everything that was conceivably funny about world destruction, bureaucratic failure, sexual insecurity, inept diplomacy, and the general horror of war.
A crazed general in the United States Air Force (Sterling Hayden) has decided to give the all-out nuclear strike order on Russia, for his own “private” reasons. As a result, Slim Pickens and his Strategic Air Command bomber crew find themselves on the run they hoped they would never have to make. Meanwhile, the top brass must assemble in the Pentagon’s War Room to determine their best option. All the safeguards intended to prevent such a catastrophe now work against their attempts to correct it.
This film deserves pages and pages of writing, but the focus of this entry is to highlight the brilliant comic work of Peter Sellers, in not one but three roles. He appears most famously in the title role, as a creepy ex-Nazi military advisor to the President. The character is ostensibly a spoof of Wernher von Braun, with madcap mannerisms worthy of Monty Python or The Goon Show, filtered through a lens of German expressionism. His contingency plans for saving the human race are nothing short of unsettling, and constant struggling with his murderous “alien hand” does little to instill confidence. Though the rest of him appears to have defected loyally to America, his rogue hand appears to retain Nazi sympathies. In short, he must be seen to be believed.
Across the War Room table, Sellers puts in another tour de force as the befuddled, panic-prone President Of The United States, with the unfortunate name of Merkin Muffley. In interviews about the film, Sellers remarked that he and Kubrick developed the character as “Adlai Stevenston with a very bad cold.” His constant attempts to maintain order and assert authority are in vain. The situation is out of his control, leading to one of the movie’s most ludicrous and quotable lines. “Gentlemen!” he scolds his top general, locked in a scuffle with the Russian ambassador, “You can’t fight in here; this is the War Room!”
Highlighting his performance is a series of one-sided phone calls with the drunken Russian premier. Sellers has impeccable timing and brings his unheard rival vividly to life. As the situation becomes more desperate, the President must double his efforts to remain calm and appropriately condescending. However, he looks as though the pressure might kill him at any moment.
Finally, Sellers plays RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a very proper sort of airman acting as liaison to the USAF under General Ripper, who as we recall gave the doomsday order to begin with. He spends practically the entire film locked in General Ripper’s office, trying to talk the maniac down and restore order before full-scale war breaks out. Like the President, he must fight hard to keep his dignity and composure in an increasingly desperate situation.
As an unwilling accomplice in Ripper’s last stand, he is understandably at the end of his rope by the time the Army arrives to relieve Ripper of command. Mandrake’s irritable exchange with a hard-headed colonel, played by Keenan Wynn, crowns this section of the film.
Sellers was originally meant to play a fourth role, as the Air Force major leading the bomb crew, but that would have been a waste considering the fine work Slim Pickens eventually did in his place. Sellers pulled out of that role on his own, presumably overworked and less than confident about his ability to play a convincing cowboy. Nonetheless he was one of the greatest for this kind of work, and is better remembered for it than Guinness. He had done similar multi-role character work for Kubrick before, in Lolita, prior to his legendary work in the Pink Panther movies and beyond. However, he never did anything as quite unique and bizarre as Dr. Strangelove again.
Peace on earth. Purity Of Essence.
Due to Internet problems, here’s what Julia would have picked.
Everyone in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (dir. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975)
Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss Twins (the Winklevi) in The Social Network (dir. David Fincher, 2010)
Edward Norton as the Kincaid Twins in Leaves of Grass (dir. Tim Blake Nelson, 2009)
Jack Nicholson as President James Dale and Art Land in Mars Attacks! (dir. Tim Burton, 1996)
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