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Article – Double Exposure – Is It A Good Idea To Play More Than One Part In A Movie?


Posted September 23, 2015 by

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Is It A Good Idea To Play More Than One Part In A Movie

Tom Hardy has scored a sizeable UK box office success hit playing Reggie and Ronnie Kray in the 1960’s London gangster flick, Legend. A £5.18 million opening weekend from 522 screens is nothing to be sniffed at. Hardy’s feat, not just to delineate the Kray twins – the glasses help – but make each as compelling as the other, reminds you that he continues to be the most exciting British actor working in cinema today. Just don’t mention This Means War.

But did Hardy really need to play both brothers? The spectacle of the actor squaring off against himself got me thinking about stars who play more than one role in a movie. When is it a good idea, and when is it just overkill?

Eddie Murphy just loves to have more than one role in his comedies. In The Nutty Professor and its sequel, he played just about everyone around that dinner table. Murphy was already giving a double performance as overweight scientist Sherman Klump who turns himself into Buddy Love, but then he thought, let’s play every darned part. The original was one of his biggest hits, if only for mealtime.

Other comedians have followed suit, from Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove – three roles – and Mike Myers in two roles in So I Married An Axe Murderer, three in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and four in Austin Powers in Goldmember. In each case, the characters Myers played were more outrageous than the last, though once Fat Bastard cried, ‘I ate a baby’, there was nowhere else to go.

There are classic narratives that require an actor to double up. Usually they are written by Alexandre Dumas – The Man in the Iron Mask and The Prisoner of Zenda. Here, one man is thrown in jail whilst his double lives his life. The drama is in reclaiming what has been taken away.

It’s not just comedians who have a habit of doubling up. Lindsay Lohan played twin roles in two movies, The Parent Trap and I Know Who Killed Me – yes, she did it to herself, one appalling career choice at a time. The films featuring women in twin roles generally follow one of four storylines. Either the woman appears to be a reincarnation of a past lost love (as played by Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, in which she has three roles). Or else she is the bad or naughty twin who is cured by discovering her other half (The Parent Trap). Or there is a comedy of mistaken identity – a character finds that they look like someone else and impersonates them (Selena Gomez in Monte Carlo). Or the actress is playing the artificial version of a real person, created in the image of the dead. In these cases, twinning is absolutely pivotal to the story, the means by which – in two out of four of those plots – we understand the male hero’s torment. This leads us to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the ‘is she real or is she a pod person’ as Donald Sutherland searches for the real Brooke Adams.

There are just as many films when playing two parts is just done for a bit of a laugh, for example Jack Nicholson’s double performance in Mars Attacks. But Woody Allen inspired a subset of the genre in The Purple Rose of Cairo, one of his finest films. In it, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) a character in a movie steps out of the screen. Gil Shepherd, the Hollywood star who plays Baxter, is deployed to get him back. In two films, Last Action Hero and Ocean’s Twelve, stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Julia Roberts play both a character and themselves. The absurdity of Roberts as Tess being mistaken for and pretending to be Julia Roberts was a joke that was too wearisome to be clever.

There is one example of two actresses playing one character, in Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. More recently, this feat was repeated to different effect in Love and Mercy with Paul Dano and John Cusack as young and older Brian Wilson, though never interchanged in the same time period. I’m Not There featured a whole bunch of actors playing Bob Dylan (including Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale) whilst Todd Solondz got into the act in Palindromes in which a twelve year old girl is played by eight different actors.

Very few of these films are classics; by the time we get to Cloud Atlas, in which actors play up to six different parts, the whole gimmick is self-defeating. Generally the comedies come off better. So there isn’t a drama when a star playing two parts has won an Oscar. Perhaps Hardy will break this duck. His double performance is the reason to see Legend, which is in many ways a collection of clichés. The most interesting thing about it is its treatment of sexuality. Because there is no homosexual sex on screen (involving Ronnie), there isn’t any heterosexual sex (with Reggie) either. But it didn’t take one man playing two parts to make this point. In Legend, the doubling up is dramatically redundant.


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Larry Oliver
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One Comment

    Rob Ormsby

    I wonder what the Monty Python cast would make of this article? They should have a mention

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