Monday, April 14, 2014

Top 10 Dual Roles

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!

Honorable Mention
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.

49 comments:

  1. Great list! Love the double whammy of Adjani and Irons, but they are so low!!! I can't disagree with your #1. I'd probably also have listed Guinness for 'Kind Hearts and Coronets'. He was the first Eddie Murphy!

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    1. Thanks man! I know Adjani and Irons are low on this Top 10, but that definitely isn't meant to take away from their work in those films. This was actually a really tough list to create - so many excellent dual roles to choose from. I watched Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Scapegoat while researching this post. Dug them both a lot. But, alas, there can only be 10!

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  2. The whole time I was thinking "Where's The Prestige? Where's The Prestige?" ha. Thanks for the note.

    Of course, The Social Network is my favorite, so I would have had the Winklevi ranked pretty high. I'm having a hard time thinking of any others, so kudos to you for coming up with such an exhaustive list!

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    1. Yeah I felt it was important to add that note at the end there. But really, I've never considered that a dual performance, if that makes sense.

      Hammer isn't given enough credit for his work in The Social Network. He created two guys who are so very similar, but still unique in their own individual way. The more I watch that film, the more I'm able to distinguish the two twins. It's definitely a performance that reveals more to you the more you watch it.

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  3. Wow, so many brilliant performances! When I saw the title, the first performance(s) that came to my mind was Sellers, who would also definitely top my own list as well. Seeing Jeffrey Wright in your Ten More list makes me so happy, he was so brilliant in Angels in America, as were the rest of the cast. Also, I still can't get Enemy out of my head. Just, wow.

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    1. I LOVE that you're a fan of Wright's work in AinA. I thought that whole miniseries was pretty much perfect, and Wright was (arguably) my favorite part of it. He's definitely one of my all-time favorite actors. So good.

      Also great to hear that Sellers would top your list too. What amazing work there.

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  4. That is great. Watts' performance in Mulholland Dr. deserves the mentions as does Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove as they are my favorite in that list. Possession is a film I'm planning to see for October as it's the one that I really want to check out.

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    1. Glad you dig the list man. I think you'll really like Possession. It is so fucked up and bizarre. I fell in love with it instantly.

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  5. I'm not sure if it's been released in the US, but I caught Ayoade's new film The Double this week and Jesse Eisenberg is definitely deserving of a place on this list. One of his characters is playing off that nervous anxious character which he has been lambasted for playing in so many of his roles, but the other character is actually...cool. Eisenberg is really impressive I've got to say.

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    1. You know, I have trouble with Eisenberg, mainly because he only seems to play that first type of character you mentioned. But that's the beauty of dual roles, it gives an actor a chance to try something new, while still be familiar. I'll definitely track that one down when it comes out here.

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  6. What? No Double Impact? Just kidding. I do love that movie for it's early 90's cheesiness though.

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    1. Double Impact RULES! I used to love that movie as a kid, but I think Hard Target will always be my favorite JCVD. Tough call.

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    2. This might be very off topic, but did you ever watch the movie JCVD? Who knew Van Damme could deliver such a raw and powerful performance. I would say it was awards worthy. But of course the Academy was never gonna recognize The Muscles from Brussels.

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    3. I JCVD in JCVD. Really, I thought that was such a ballsy meta role, and he absolutely killed it. I'd love to watch that film again, in fact.

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  7. Have you seen "Everybody Has a Plan" with Viggo Mortensen?

    It's dual-role themed, and this post reminds me to watch it (however bad it's 5.5 IMDB rating is and its 34% Tomatometer).

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    1. I've never even heard of that film! Kind of looks like one of those direct-to-DVD thriller types. Let me know if it's any good!

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  8. "Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!"

    ... is my favourite final line of any film I've ever seen. I love Peter Sellers, especially in this film and in Lolita.

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    1. Hell yeah! Whatta line. He's great in Lolita as well. I LOVE his chatty "policeman" character - the highlight of that film for me.

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  9. Eddie Murphy was brilliant in The Nutty Professor and Coming to America. In the latter, Arsenio Hall was damn good in his several roles, as well. And for a guilty pleasure, let's go with Jet Li in The One.

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    1. You know, sadly, The One has passed me by. Double Jet Li though... could be pretty badass.

      And I agree, Hall did fine and hilarious work in Coming to America.

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  10. Amazing list! I was not expecting that number 1 but god, that is perfect! The first movie I thought of was Veronique though so I'm glad that it made in!
    Man, Bollywood is FULL of double role movies. So many that I've forgotten that they don't need to be a comedy trope.

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    1. Thanks! In my research, I found that the dual role theme is a major part of so many Bollywood films. I often feel bad for neglecting those films, but I honestly wouldn't even know where to begin!

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  11. Some really interesting choices! The Double Life of Véronique is my amazing. The Playhouse is not my favorite Buster Keaton, but an extraordinary technical achievement for 1921. Your top 10 reminds me how many great movies exist with dual roles, it works so well cinematically, using the same actor.

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    1. Thanks Chris! It is pretty cool to realize that so many great films have used this technique. And I agree, The Playhouse is far from my favorite Keaton, but what an amazing thing to pull off. Those guys were changing the game movie-to-movie. It's just amazing.

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  12. Good call on the top pick, Alex. Sellers is one of the highlights from a cast filled with over-the-top performances in Dr. Strangelove. I have some reservations about Adaptation, but none of them are with Nicolas Cage.

    No Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Impact?

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    1. Thanks Dan! Double Impact is a trashy action '90s classic. I love that flick. Sadly, it just missed the cut here. Ha.

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  13. This is really interesting! Props for including Eddie Murphy, he's seriously impressive. I watched all his films when I was smaller, most of them more than once. :D The Nolan film you're speaking about -- would've been an interesting addition. Damn, Nolan's a genius. I want to rewatch it now. But I think I'll watch The Double Life of Véronique first -- sounds so fascinating!

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    1. Thanks so much! Oh, you MUST watch Véronique as soon as possible. That film is like a dream - a visual poem unlike any other. But yeah, Nolan is a true genius, no doubt. Love that you're an Eddie Murphy fan as well!

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  14. Mulholland, Adaptation and Enemy are among my favourite movies of all time. Thank you for recommending Enemy, I wouldn't have watched it otherwise!

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    1. My pleasure! Honestly, that gives me so much joy, just knowing that my praise of a film can motivate someone to watch it. Probably what I love most about blogging. So thanks!

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  15. Great list! Sadly I haven't watched Dr. Strangelove nor The Great Dictator, but I've seen enough Chaplin and Sellers films to guess that they did a great job there. So my favorite has to be your third one 'cause I love Watts and that film. Her Diane/Betty performance it's one of my favorites ever. I still can't believe how she didn't get major awards for that.

    I also like a lot Adjani, Irons, Marvin, Cage and Jacob. I haven't watched Enemy yet but I can't wait for it, it looks like something I'd like and I think Gyllenhaal is a great actor.

    Other dual roles that I like are the ones played by Julie Christie in Fahrenheit 451 and Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway.

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    1. Ps: I've just seen your comment about Bret Easton Ellis on my post about writing. He had to be there 'cause he's also my favorite. I'd never forget the feeling after reading Less than Zero and Rules of the Attraction. I thought: this is what I want to do. He influenced me a lot.

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    2. Thanks! Considering Lynch's Best Director Oscar nom, I am stunned that Watts didn't get recognized for that role. Nothing would've stopped Halle Berry that year, but still, Watts more than deserved a nomination.

      Per your BEE comment... wow, I like you even more now. I feel the same exact way about his work. I got connected to his prose via my interest in the American Psycho film. I read that book and immediately bought all of his books. I reread all of them every few years, to see how they're different. Of course, they're the same, it's me who has changed. I love that.

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  16. Whoa, whoa. Whoa. No Van Dammage? I'm pretty sure there was a ten-year period where he was contractually obligated to play two people, one having a scar on his face.

    Oh, wait, you meant 'good' dual roles. My bad.

    Seriously, I love the inclusion of Eddie Murphy here, in addition to Nic Cage in Adaptation. I would mention the others....yeesh...had I actually seen any of those movies. To be fair, Imy eyes have seen Mulholland Dr....my brain was, um, late to the party.

    Great post, as always!

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    1. Ha, thanks man! You gotta love the JCVD dual role. I mean... Jesus, one of that guy is enough, but when it's multiplied, look out.

      As for the other flicks, I gotta admit, I'd love to read one of your posts on Possession. I'm not sure you'd like it, but you'd have some great things to say about it.

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  17. Great list, so glad to see Watts here, it's my favorite performance of all time. Adjani looks so different in Possession playing those two characters, when I first saw the film the green eyes were so insane I wasn't even sure it's the same actress.

    If I find some time this weekend I may finally see Enemy :)

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    1. Thanks! Adjani's transformation in Possession is so insane, isn't it? I just love her in that film. Ohhh, I hope you enjoy Enemy. It's a total mindfuck, so it could go either way.

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  18. Fantastic idea for a list here Alex, wish I had seen more on the list. But out of the ones I've seen, totally agree w/ Nic Cage and Peter Sellers. I've been meaning to see Dead Ringers, love Jeremy Irons, especially TWO of him in a film :D

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    1. Thanks Ruth! If you like Irons, you're gonna love Dead Ringers. He's so good in that film, twice. Trippy little flick too - Cronenberg knows no bounds.

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  19. Nice list man! Other than Sam Rockwell missing the top 10, I can't complain. (Though, I need to see Possession and Enemy.) My top 5 would be similar, except I might replace Chaplin and Gyllenhaal with Rockwell and Jacob.

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    1. Thanks buddy! Moon was the one I tossed around a lot. It was definitely a hard call there, because Rockwell did it all in that film. In fact, I need to give that flick another watch. It's been years.

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  20. This is a great list, man, and no doubt Peter Sellers had to be #1. I'm *really* curious to see Enemy, and I'm bummed I missed its short theatrical run here. Will be hitting that up on VOD/DVD, whichever comes first.

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    1. Thanks Eric! I hope Enemy makes it to VOD/DVD soon. It really got a shit limited release, which is such a shame. There is most definitely an audience for that film, but you have to give that audience a chance to see the damn thing!

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  21. Excellent post, I always love to see an actor or actress essay a dual role, it always seems so interesting.

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    1. Thanks man! I agree, if done right, a dual role is endlessly interesting.

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  22. Given that Nicolas Cage continually disappoints me, it comes as some surprise that my favorite performance by him is the one in which we get TWO Cage for the price of ONE! :) Glad to see Adaptation so high on this list Alex.

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    1. Haha, that's awesome. So funny how that works. I really love him in that film. And a question: have you seen Leaving Las Vegas. For me, that's the performance that earns Cage a career pass. Flawless.

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  23. I recently saw the film Cloud Atlas and loved it. There were many performers inhabiting multiple characters in this one, with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and several others. And having seen the film as a child and fallen in love with it, I will always hold a place in my heart for the original The Parent Trap with Hayley Mills.

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    1. I respect the hell out of those actors who contributed multiple roles in Cloud Atlas - certainly no easy feat - but I just couldn't fully get into that film. Again, I appreciated it, but as a whole, it just wasn't quite for me.

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