A Brief History is a recurring feature that offers a crash course on some sliver of music or film history. Today, we look at actors playing multiple roles in a movie.
The great Tom Hardy is playing two roles in the forthcoming Legend, which is absolutely not a remake of the Ridley Scott cult classic Legend. It’s based on the true story of twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, gangsters who ran London’s East End in the ‘60s. Again, not based on the true story of a young boy, a kidnapped girl, a unicorn, and a demon named Darkness.
Title aside, we decided to take a look back on many performers over the years that had the task of taking on two roles in one movie. The key word here is “two”. Because of this stipulation, excluded from the feature are Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor films because he plays more than just two characters. We couldn’t even include Coming to America! Seek that one out if you haven’t already. (Spoiler: Murphy still appears within our feature.)
We’ve got representatives from different eras and genres, of different backgrounds and characterizations. Not everyone here plays a twin to the other — there were some interesting twists we found along the way. Enjoy, and to all the twins and clones out there: We salute you!
The Parent Trap (1961)
Kudos to Hayley Mills, the famous Disney child star from the ‘60s who managed to convince audiences she was actually a set of twins. By “audiences,” I refer to a young me who used to watch The Parent Trap on The Disney Channel. Regardless, the young actress plays twins who were separated at birth, meet each other at summer camp, and conspire to get their parents back together.
One twin is a fast-shootin’ tomboy while the other is a “princess.” Not a literal princess, which is why I used the quotation marks, but a spoiled brat. Do they get their parents back together in the end? Of course! Do I feel bad for spoiling that? Of course not! The original Parent Trap led to three sequels in the ‘80s and ‘90s as well as a Lindsay Lohan remake.
Best Performance? I’d like to think Mills’ performance as a pair of twins who have to pretend to be the other for long stretches of the movie inspired Tatiana Maslany’s complex clone performances in Orphan Black. I’d like to, but it’s probably not true. As for whom Mills played best: It’s a push!
Cat Ballou (1965)
Tim Strawn is a wicked hitman in the wild wild west, a bad boy cowboy with a silver nose and a deadly shot. Ouch. Kid Shelleen is Gene Wilder’s Waco Kid nine years earlier, a once-proud and gifted gunslinger who’s been living in a bottle for years.
Lee Marvin was both men and won a Best Actor Academy Award for his two-fisted portrait of cowboy archetypes in Elliot Silverstein’s Western Comedy Cat Ballou. While the movie’s become a little forgotten, the image of Marvin as Shelleen hunkered over on a leaning and probably drunk horse is the stuff of Hollywood legend — an iconic comic image. During Marvin’s acceptance speech, he said he owed half of his Oscar to “a horse out in the Valley somewhere.”
Best Performance? Kid Shelleen by a country Western mile. Marvin has never been this silly or this soused on screen. The bonafide badass got to have such a good time playing a town drunk gunslinger, and Marvin’s whiskey bottle of a man was Cat Ballou’s calling card.
The Great Race (1965)
Jack Lemmon must have had the time of his life on Blake Edwards’ The Great Race. He was playing two of the campiest, cornballiest crazies in film history. Mind you, The Great Race was Edwards coming off of the loopy world of Inspector Clouseau, so his 1965 mega-budget screwball epic demanded characters of a cartoonish quality. The famed director had Lemmon playing both a Snidely Whiplash-like villain and a foppish cad of a prince. Now that’s a wig party that Mortdecai should’ve borrowed from.
Lemmon’s Professor Fate was a bushy-browed baddie. Cacklin’ and schemin’ and plottin’ and what haves ya’, looking to get into explosive trouble any way he could with Wile E. Coyote-brand projects, with Peter Falk as his Igor-style sidekick. As Crown Prince Frederick Hoepnick (feel that rich European blue blood), Lemmon got to preen and pout as a wealthy man-boy who elicited the best kind of cheap laughs. Lemmon looks like he’s having a ball going crazy with both these two doofuses.
Best Performance? Oh boy. Lemmon is way too good in both roles, but we have to give it to Fate. The guy has a drooping, brapping Mancini theme after all.
Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin
Big Business (1988)
Director Jim Abrahams had just co-directed Bette Midler in the successful Ruthless People when the chance to work with The Divine Miss M came up again two years later. In Big Business, Midler and Lily Tomlin play sisters who actually aren’t — they discover that they each have twins from whom they were separated at birth. In an expected move by the writers, the Shelton sisters grew up rich while the Ratliffs grew up poor.
Mistaken identities, family business (hey, big business!), love stories, and inevitable run-ins ensue. Tomlin and Midler are icons in the comedy and musical arenas, so while the movie isn’t a classic by any means, it’s tough to disregard completely. It’s one of those event movies in that the two actresses had not worked with each other prior, nor have they worked together since. Can’t recommend it wholeheartedly, but I will say that the great Fred Ward is in it. And a young Seth Green!
Best Performance Midler usually plays diva-like characters and plays them well, but her performance as the soft-spoken, hopeful Sadie Ratliff was a nice change of pace for the actress.
Dead Ringers (1988)
Jeremy Irons 100% deserved a Best Actor Oscar for Reversal of Fortune. The English actor was incapable of shying away from frankly weird, villainous, ambiguous, and, at times, kinky personas. As Klaus Von Bulow, Irons showed his depth and willies-inducing intensity. He made good money vamping for studio fare like The Lion King and Die Hard with a Vengeance, but to this day, in the freaky fold of Jeremy Irons performances, nothing tops his double dose of devilish fun: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.
As Beverly and Elliot Mantle, identical twin gynecologists in Toronto, Irons tapped into two specific kinds of creepy. Elliot is a womanizer, clinical, cold, and cynical. When he grows weary of a woman, she’s handed off like scraps to the complicit and shy Beverly. Irons took identical presences and turned these brothers into distinctly spooky characterizations. Beverly and Elliot are jaded, disinterested in contributing to anything remotely decent, and manipulate people to selfish and self-pleasing ends. It’s a pair of terrifically nuanced and deeply troubled roles for Irons.
Best Performance? Oh God, how do you pick a winning performance between two men whose sole MO was playing games by swapping places with each other to emotionally manipulate women? We’ll just say Beverly, because Irons embraced clinical depression and a certain manic ennui for that half of the Toronto twinsies.
Thomas F. Wilson
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Boy, oh boy, did Back to the Future Part II let Thomas F. Wilson have fun or what? In addition to letting Wilson reprise 1955 Biff (the original and best Biff, if we’re being honest), it also let him don old age makeup to play a Donald Trump-ified version of Middle-Aged Biff and then don even more old age makeup to play Grandpa Biff — quite possibly, in my opinion, the most evil of all Biffs.
And then there’s Griff Tannen, a descendant of Biff’s who shows while the apple may not fall far from the tree, it will, for some reason, begin wearing a muffin tin on its head. Doubling up on roles is typically a way for actors to show their range, but Wilson’s not trying to wow the Academy here. If anything, he’s having a riot giving this run-of-the-mill bully his own supervillain origin story.
Fun fact: Michael J. Fox also plays two roles: Marty McFly and his future daughter, Marlene. That’s pretty heavy.
Best Performance? Nothing beats Classic Biff. The scene where he steals a kid’s basketball and throws it on a nearby roof is bullying at its most hilarious.
Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson
Dead Again (1991)
Dead Again is an under-appreciated Hitchcockian thriller that focuses on reincarnation, second chances, and love, sweet love. Director Kenneth Branagh was hot off the success of his Henry V film adaptation and decided to scale back considerably for his follow-up set in LA. He plays two roles: a famous German composer (Roman) in the flashback sequences and a down-on-his-luck detective (Mike) in the modern setting. There is a twist, and it’s a fun one.
Joining him in his dual roles is Emma Thompson as a pianist (Margaret) in the flashbacks and a woman with amnesia (Amanda) in the present. While the movie is a take on reincarnation, all is not what it appears to be. The British Branagh goes German and American while the just-as-British Thompson takes on American as well. The results of their attempted accents are mixed, but the chemistry between the two, no matter the era, is undeniable (they were married at the time).
Best Performance? Branagh’s Mike has a wonky American accent, but is the more effective of the two roles. Thompson has a lot more to work with as Amanda than the long-suffering wife to Roman, Margaret. Basically, color wins and black-and-white loses.
Ivan Reitman’s Dave is a cutesy, idealistic sort of political farce (Kevin Kline, while pretending to be the American President, drags in Charles Grodin to cut the budget a little. Ha). But Kline, ever the charmer, sold the hell out of this 1993 dramedy about a blue-collar schmo stuck in what’s basically the hardest job in the entire U.S. of A.
Kline played Dave Kovic, a temp agency runner in DC who moonlights as a body double for a lame, amorous president, Bill Mitchell. As Mitchell, Kline yucked it up as a lame duck politician more interested in having affairs and showing up at car dealerships than actually legislating. But when Mitchell has a stroke, Kovic becomes a long-term alternative, faking president.
To everybody’s surprise, Kovic does a really nice job and actually makes a difference while meeting up with glorified cameos like Oliver Stone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Paul Simon. It’s the ultimate outsider dream (co-opted by dumb-dumb political hopefuls everywhere): sometimes, it’s the outsider than can get things done. Kline actually seemed to be a likable leader of the people here.
Best Performance? Sure, you’re supposed to like Dave and his Capra-esque presidential goodness, but come on. As cowboy prez Bill Mitchell, Kevin Kline gets to be a yahoo that rides a pig like an elected jackass! It is way more fun to abuse power, right?
Bowfinger was the last movie I saw with my friends before heading out to college.
Nostalgia aside, how about the hype surrounding this movie? It appeared to be another step towards the “adult” comedies of Eddie Murphy’s youth while maintaining his knack for playing multiple roles. Bowfinger wasn’t the hit either he or co-star/writer Steve Martin hoped it would be, but it isn’t without its merits. Murphy’s portrayal of Jiff, look-alike of a movie star also played by Murphy, is all nerd without becoming stereotype. Watch his audition and try not to laugh. It’s impossible.
What gets in the way of Bowfinger is a weak stab at Scientology through the film’s MindHead cult and a plot that wears thin before the halfway point. Perhaps if Jiff received more screen time we would have received a different kind of movie and, more importantly, a funnier one.
Best Performance Jiff all the way. Murphy’s Kit Ramsey isn’t much fun, despite the actor’s portrayal of the paranoid, brainwashed character.
Nicolas Cage masterfully delineated each side of a person’s brain through his two-part performance as scribe brothers, Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
On one side, you have respected head-gamer script whiz Charlie Kaufman. His hair’s thinning, his inner monologue is desperately tangential, and he’s in a rut over how to cope with the impossible task of writing a screenplay based on a book about, well, orchid flowers. He is panic, he is logic, he is human worry and the day-to-day struggle of just being. By default, Charlie’s kind of a left brainer, completely aware of himself, rationalizing fears.
On the right side, somewhat, is Donald. Dopey, pot-bellied Donald Kaufman. He’s going to be a screenwriter, too, guys! He promises. Actually, he’s kind of falling into writing, but what a spec script he’s got in his arms: It’s got chases on horseback, twists, and could be stupid lucrative to a studio looking to produce a low-budget (low-brow) thriller. He’s just kind of in a constant state of play — sweetly naïve, coasting, but loveably cheerful.
Cage embraced and embodied (with a small arsenal of prosthetics and wigs) the brothers Kaufman, creating two highly insightful performances that represented two sides of thinking, on well, everything. The Kaufmans aren’t just two diametrically opposed writer brothers; they show us how to balance fantasy and reality in the everyday.
Best Performance? Yeah, yeah, everybody loves Donald. Everybody always loves a party-boy brother, a well-intentioned oaf, but he’s frankly the less complicated half of the brothers Kaufman. Cage’s Charlie Kaufman, dribbled in sweat and creative, existential angst got Cage his incredibly well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Ocean’s 12 (2003)
Ricky Gervais’ Extras had yet to popularize celebrity self-mockery, but 2003’s Ocean’s 12 foretold it with the film’s most enduring set piece. In it, Julia Roberts’ Tess switches places with the actual Julia Roberts, giving Danny Ocean and his team access to the film’s MacGuffin.
Instead of painting the actual Roberts as nasty or self-absorbed, as Gervais’ celebs often did, Ocean’s 12 has more fun playing with the public’s perception of Roberts. It’s more of a gimmick than a dual role for Roberts, but the pronounced Southern twang we hear from Roberts over the phone draws a sharp distinction between her and the fastidious, sharp-edged Tess.
A funny, subtle bit of performance.
Best Performance? Tess’ complete disinterest in Roberts, as well as her baffled reaction to the type of hats and outfits she favors, never comes across as overly cheeky. Smartly, Roberts lets her co-stars wink at the audience.
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale
The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige is the best kind of magician movie. The tricks aren’t just in the script, but hiding in the very fabric of the film itself. Of course, the film’s greatest twist is the reveal that Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden and his mysterious, bearded sidekick Fallon are actually identical twins, a secret they used to help create their greatest illusions.
Director Christopher Nolan uses a nice bit of misdirection, however, by introducing Root, a drunken actor who’s the spitting image of Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier. Played by Jackman, Root is an inelegant clown afflicted by an overbite and slurred speech, essentially the complete opposite of Jackman’s rakish showman. Jackman has great fun with Root, indulging in nearly every broad trait you’d associate with a 19th century British drunk. His broadness serves a purpose, though, a counterbalance to the subtleties Bale had to weave into his secret twins.
In The Prestige, Bale the actor’s greatest trick was creating two separate characters without tipping off the audience that he was doing so. It’s only in the reveal that we notice the subtle tics we previously chalked up to eccentricity and moodiness. That’s some acting.
Best Performance? Jackman’s Root is a blast, an example of how his talents naturally lend themselves to the broad theatrics of the stage rather than the subtleties of film. He just never quite convinces as Angier. As for Bale, it’s impossible to choose since the film’s entire reveal is in how the Borden twins essentially fused themselves into one central human being. That makes the rewatch that much more fun, as you try and determine who’s who within every scene.
The Social Network (2010)
Twins on film tend to be of the Jekyll & Hyde variety, with good and evil variations tapping into compelling themes of duality while simultaneously offering actors double the scene-chewing opportunities. Playing twins like the Winklevosses offers an altogether different kind of challenge: finding nuance within carbon copies. The real-life Winklevosses, charismatic and enterprising as they are, seem to share the very same musculature, speech patterns, and ambitions, making Hammer’s task of embodying both brothers that much more herculean.
Thankfully, he didn’t have to do it alone. Often uncredited for his work on The Social Network is Josh Pence, the actor who performed alongside Hammer when both twins were onscreen. Using the same visual effects he pioneered in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, director David Fincher was able to plaster Hammer’s face over Pence’s body. To help draw distinction between the characters, Hammer and Pence worked with an acting coach to develop identical movements. The difference is in the body language, though, not to mention the fun Hammer has with Sorkin’s script, which paints Tyler as the hothead to Cameron’s tactician.
Best Performance? Tyler, thanks in no small part to Hammer’s delivery of the endlessly quotable “I’m 6’5″, 220, and there’s two of me.”
Tron: Legacy (2010)
Damn, were we fanboys pumped for Tron: Legacy back in 2010. Truth be told, I couldn’t remember much about the original (love David Warner), but Jeff Bridges was back in the spotlight and special effects had improved, yada, yada, yada. What came out was a decent if mostly forgettable movie, albeit one with Bridges playing two unique roles.
The first character Bridges portrays is game programmer Kevin Flynn, who has been trapped in the very game he created. Alongside his son (Garrett Heglund) and program character Quorra (Olivia Wilde), the three of them must do battle against an evil program who looks a lot like Flynn from back in the original Tron. Thanks to the magic (?) of CGI, Bridges looks young when the character doesn’t have to emote. But like many mo-cap characters (see: Robert Zemeckis’ movies post-2000), the effect doesn’t quite convince.
Best Performance? It has to be Bridges as the older, wiser Flynn, if only by default. Whatever Bridges tries to convey as CGI-Flynn doesn’t land. It’s too bad they didn’t have the same effects Peyton Reed had for Michael Douglas in this year’s Ant-Man…
Jack and Jill (2011)
You know that high-pitched, Jewish granny voice Adam Sandler loves to dip into? Well, in the execrable Jack and Jill, he gave it a body, which, spoiler alert, looked a lot like Adam Sandler in a dress. Latter-day Sandler is defined by his laziness, but, if squinted at hard enough through Vaseline-smeared shades, Jack and Jill’s next-level lack of shits could be construed as a very comment upon that laziness, a satirical dig at the lengths one’s laziness can take them.
It’s not, though. It’s just really, really shitty. And the lack of depth or effort that Sandler brings to his own character — an advertising executive named Jack — only serves to intensify the purposeless shrieks and shouts he brings to twin sister Jill. With Jack, he’s a pillow made manifest; with Jill, he’s a middle-schooler’s idea of an Adam Sandler impression. *farts*
Best Performance? Uh. Jill? If only because Sandler’s doing something resembling acting? Honestly, the only reason to watch Jack and Jill is for that Al Pacino-starring Dunkin’ Donuts commercial, and you can watch that right here.