Words: J. Wood
Brian Helgeland’s Legend is released this week starring Tom Hardy playing both Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Previously the similar looking Kemp brothers were used to play the East London gangsters but finally we get to see the twins played by a single actor. This got me thinking, what have been the best performances by a single actor playing two roles in a film? By that I do not mean an Eddie Murphy style dress-up-athon like Norbit or The Nutty Professor but a film in which an actor is required to play two characters alike in appearance but nothing else. Quite often the editing and special effects team gets a lot of praise for the technical side of such an achievement but an actor, playing two similar roles in the same frame is often fascinating. I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing Tom Hardy tackle this challenge in Legend, but until then, here are my favourite dual performances.
5: Armie Hammer in The Social Network (2010)
The Social Network was a surprisingly excellent film about the founding of Facebook, which on paper sounded rather dull. While Jesse Eisenberg was Oscar nominated and Andrew Garfield was supposedly snubbed, very little attention went to Armie Hammer playing the Winkelvoss twins (referred to brilliantly as The Winkelvii). They are really very little more than self-entitled Ivy League jocks, and the film neither presses to make them into anything more or challenges Hammer’s performance particularly. What he does is very effectively create two characters with an identical goal and reason to be aggrieved but creates a conflict between them as to how to act upon this. These are the two most similar characters on this list and they are not the most exciting, but without Hammer’s clever nuances could have been deathly dull.
4: Jesse Eisenberg in The Double (2014)
Richard Ayoade made his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Double, about a man usurped by a doppelganger without anybody noticing, as a kind of Orwellian post-industrial nightmare. Much like Denis Villeneuve’s similarly premised Jake Gyllenhaal starring Enemy, the film’s stylistic flair comes at the undoing of narrative clarity. The Double is the better of the two films thanks to Jesse Eisenberg’s performance. This is the role(s) that Eisenberg was born to play, for it allows him to utilise his two on screen personas to great effect. The original Simon James is a mass of neuroses and tics while his usurper, James Simon, is a charming yet creepy character who gets under the audience’s skin while being the apple of the film characters’ eyes. I would have loved for Ayoade to have made a better film of a fine novel, but at least what he brought to screen allowed Eisenberg a rare opportunity to fully show his whole range, and prove himself one of the most underrated young actors working today.
3: Dominic Cooper in The Devil’s Double (2011)
The most unique film on this list sees Dominic Cooper give the best performance of his career as Uday Hussein, psychotic son of Saddam, and Latif, the soldier forced to become Uday’s double. Not one to pass up an opportunity afforded to few actors Cooper is simply sensational in the role of a lifetime. While Latif is initially a dull, boring, honourable character with morals Uday offers Cooper the chance to let rip with his crazed, murderous personality and rabid dog actions. From the voices, to the mannerisms it is clear to see which of the characters is which at any one time, and it is clear to see how much fun Cooper is having away from his usual restraint as Uday. One scene sees Latif, as Uday, rallying the troops in the midst of the US invasion of Iraq. Cooper’s performance is such that you can easily tell that this is Latif doing an impression of Uday, that all the fervour and savagery is just an act, and that he maintains his revulsion of his charge’s lifestyle. While The Devil’s Double is certainly a flawed film, there is an intelligent central idea held together by a committed central performance.
2: Nicolas Cage in Adaptation (2002)
Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s follow up to Being John Malkovich is a film guilty of trying to be too clever but succeeding in its central casting. Playing both a fictionalised version of the film’s writer, and a fictional twin of the writer, in a fictional film about his actual writers block adapting an actual novel to screen, Nicolas Cage gives what could be his last great performance before his descent into B-Movie schlock as The Kaufmans, one at odds with both the adaptation of an unfilmable book and the success both professionally and personally of his brother. The divide between the characters is fairly straightforward and typical for characters like these, one a confident braggart while the other is a more successful, yet insecure soul. If you ever want a reminder as to just how great Cage can be when he puts his mind to it just make a point of watching this, and see how he overcomes some of the most self-indulgent writing in recent Hollywood history to give a tour-de-force of acting. He manages to make you hate to love the feeble moaner Charlie paints himself as, while also making you love to hate the narcissistic Donald. While both Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper offer great support this film belongs to Cage and Cage alone.
1: Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988)
Jeremy Irons is simply stunning in one of David Cronenberg’s many masterpieces, this one marking the tipping point where he evolved from being a body horror expert to someone who made thoughtful, cerebral psychologically challenging movies. Irons plays Beverly and Elliot Mantle, twin gynaecologists, at the forefront of their field whose twin based bond sends them into an incredibly dark spiral. Once again exploring the two sides of the coin personality traits, the film’s drama centres around Genevieve Bujold’s Claire, an actress charmed, seduced and conned by the suave Elliot to set up the more reserved Beverly. The film is filled to the brim with typical Cronenbergian weirdness, the sense of which is exacerbated by never being quite sure which twin is which for much of the running time. The cleverness of Irons’ performance is the subtle differences he imbibes his characters with, just enough to vaguely differentiate yet not enough to make it obvious. This is a film in which the audience is made to work and to think in order to get the most from the characters and the drama. The final scene is one of the finest pieces of acting I have ever come across on screen, one that will live long in my memory and one that cements Irons’ place amongst the greats.