When executed properly, few things are more exciting than a cinematic dual role. Watching an actor expertly play two (or, in the case of a few performances below, several) characters never fails to amuse. The dual role concept is routinely impressive from a technical standpoint, while often boasting the finest aspects of a great performer. I hope you enjoy my picks, and do feel free to share yours as well!
Buster Keaton in The Playhouse (1921)
The Playhouse is an amusing short film best known for its opening sequence, in which director/star Buster Keaton plays every single part of a stage variety show. As is the case with most of Keaton’s work, The Playhouse is a revelatory example of technical prowess.
10. Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996)
Playing multiple roles in the same film is Eddie Murphy’s thing. Popularized initially with his four roles in Coming to America, the magnum opus of his duality came via The Nutty Professor. While The Nutty Professor may not be the most sophisticated comedy in Murphy’s oeuvre (its dependency on toilet humor doesn’t age well), the complexity of Murphy’s participation is not to be overlooked. Murphy inhabited seven different characters in the film, most of them members of the Klump family. Rick Baker and David LeoRoy Anderson’s Oscar-winning makeup greatly contributes to Murphy’s work, but that trickery would be lost if the performances weren’t there. From a filmmaking perspective, it’s simply impossible to not be impressed by Murphy’s work in this film.
9. Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981)
Isabelle Adjani won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her bravado, wholly diverse dual work in Possession. Her primary character is Anna, an adulterous wife and neglectful mother slowly losing her grip on reality. It’s a horrifying, frenzied performance (her hysterical breakdown in a subway tunnel is something you can’t unsee). The inverse of Anna is Helen, a calm and innocent teacher with miraculous green eyes. While Anna and Helen’s appearances are somewhat different, sole credit belongs to Adjani for making the audience forget that Anna and Helen are indeed played by the same actress.
8. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988)
Jeremy Irons’ two roles in Dead Ringers is an example of a blended dual role, meaning, the impact of the performances are based in not being able to tell the characters apart. Elliot and Beverly Mantle like to share. As identical twin gynecologists, they share a profession, a business practice, looks, style, and, most significantly, women. Elliot is the more outgoing of the two, constantly picking up women and passing them to Beverly when he’s finished. The brothers keep their swap a secret from the ladies, until a suspecting actress finally calls them out on their misdeeds. As Dead Ringers progresses, the identical sensibilities of Elliot and Beverly begin to unravel, making for, arguably, the two best performances of Irons’ career.
7. Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965)
Lee Marvin won an Oscar for playing former gunfighter-turned pathetic drunk, Kid Shelleen in Cat Ballou. Kid is a role reversal bound to draw attention; a far cry from the tough guy persona Marvin based his career on. What doesn’t get enough mention is Marvin’s other role in the film, Tim Strawn, a villainous gunfighter Kid is hired to fight off. Tim Strawn is Lee Marvin playing into Lee Marvin. Kid Shelleen is Lee Marvin doing something completely different. It’s a testament to Marvin’s craft that both performances are equally compelling.
6. Irène Jacob in The Double Life of Véronique (1991)
The opening section The Double Life of Véronique concerns itself with Weronika (Irène Jacob), a Polish singer with a curious eye for life. Weronika feels pleasantly odd, as if someone or something is always with her. After Weronika’s sudden death, a young woman in Paris, Véronique (Jacob again), is overcome with inexplicable sadness. She can’t place why she feels the way she does, nor can she think of how to absolve her depression. The random and unexplained connection between Weronika and Véronique helps establish The Double Life of Véronique as the most beautiful and poetic film ever made about emotional and physical duality.
5. Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy (2014)
When I reviewed Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy in March, I warned readers that this blog would be home to fervent Enemy praise for the next several months. And here we are again, this time discussing the subtle brilliance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances as Adam, a bumbling college professor, and Anthony, a cocky wanna-be actor. The differences between Adam and Anthony, while understated, are essential to Enemy’s unique tension. Adam looks like the guy who gave up on himself: few pounds overweight, unattractive beard, loose clothes, and so on. Anthony is the kind of guy who wants women to notice him: trendy haircut, fashionable clothes, confident demeanor. However, the beauty of the film is not in Adam and Anthony’s physical difference, but how their personalities seem to slowly fuse together (or completely swap), as the film progresses. The result? Jake Gyllenhaal’s finest performance(s), by far. I still can’t get this head trip of a film out of my brain.
4. Nicolas Cage in Adaptation (2002)
Every time I watch Adaptation, I forget that Nicolas Cage is playing Donald Kaufman. I’m always aware of Cage’s work as Charlie Kaufman, the shy, creatively blocked screenwriter incapable of adapting a best seller, but for a portion of the film’s running time, I consistently forget that he’s playing Charlie’s twin brother, Donald, as well. Charlie is the star of the film, and thereby is given more screen time, but Donald is the more fun role. Eager to please, crass, moronic, there’s nothing about Donald that doesn’t work. Same could be said for Charlie, albeit for entirely different reasons.
3. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Looking at the set of stills that open this post, or the ones embedded directly above, are reason enough for Watts’ inclusion here. The inexplicable shift in identity that replaces Betty – in all her idealistic charm and innocence – with the drunkenly enraged, chronically depressed Diane, is one of the best slights of hand David Lynch has ever attempted. Watts landed a few supporting gigs prior to 2001, but when she appeared on screen as Betty, it was as if she was appearing as herself: a young, enchanted actress ready to take Hollywood by storm. It’s a gentle throwback performance, one that, on first viewing, seems a little too safe for its own good. Then we meet Diane, and we realize that Watts has been fucking with us the entire time. This is an actress of tremendous range and limitless depth. Watts’ work in Mulholland Dr. was a star making turn that asserted her as one of the best actresses in the game. A title she, thankfully, still maintains.
2. Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940)
Just think about this for a moment. In the middle of World War II, years after the inception of Jewish concentration camps, a short statured English fellow made a movie that openly mocked the most dangerous and repulsive man who has ever lived, during the height of said man’s power. In The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin plays A Jewish Barber (as he is only known) who lives in the ghetto and rebels against Tomainia stormtroopers (read: German Nazis). This gains the attention of Tomainian dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin), who has made it his life goal to persecute Jews in “his” country. The Great Dictator isn’t the best film Charlie Chaplin made, but it is certainly one of the most audacious films ever made. I’m still in awe of its fearlessness.
1. Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Peter Sellers’ work in Dr. Strangelove is the be-all end-all of dual performances. It simply doesn’t (and seemingly, won’t) get any better. Two of Sellers’ performances in the film are mostly played straight: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (who’s an amusing source of calm to Sterling Hayden’s paranoid character), and Merkin Muffley, the U.S. President weakened by a slight cold. Both roles are Sellers at his most restrained, which ultimately prove to be a great juxtaposition to the finest character of Sellers’ career, Dr. Strangelove himself. Strangelove – with his whacked-out sensibilities, unruly right hand and nonsensical thought pattern – is a cinematic icon that will endure forever.
Ten More I Love
Ben Affleck as Holden McNeil and Ben Affleck in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
Mel Brooks as Governor William J. LePetomaine, a Yiddish Indian chief and a World War I aviator in Blazing Saddles (1974)
John Cleese as Sir Lancelot the Brave, The Black Knight, Tim the Enchanter, Second Swallow-Savvy Guard, Peasant #3 and Taunting French Guard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, Marty McFly, Jr. and Marlene McFly in Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Armie Hammer as Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss in The Social Network (2010)
Cheech Marin as a Border Guard, Chet Pussy, and Carlos in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Frank Morgan as Professor Marvel, The Gatekeeper, The Carriage Driver, The Guard, and The Wizard of Oz in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell(s) in Moon (2009)
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero (1993)
Jeffrey Wright as Mr. Lies, Norman “Belize” Ariaga, Homeless man, The Angel Europa in Angels in America (2003)
Note: Perhaps the biggest exclusion from this list is a hidden dual performance at the core of a Christopher Nolan film. I excluded that one because, while impressive, it is never distinctly the work of two separate characters. Which, of course, was Nolan’s intent.