I’ve got a soft spot for dual roles in the movies as early as Rudolf Valentino’s dual casting in the sequel to his career-defining performance as The Sheik. The matinee idol is credited in George Fitz Maurice’s The Son of the Sheik (1925) as both “Ahmed” and his now middle-aged father, “The Sheik.” The early use of split screen permits the flamboyant confrontation of the two Valentinos: Father Valentino bends an iron pipe and throws it to the ground to show his dominance; standing beside him, son Valentino stares him down, retrieves the pipe, and bends it back straight again to show his defiance. Figuring the mechanics of an actor in dual roles is fun. But I didn’t have any fun figuring the twins in Dead Ringers.
I don’t mean figuring the twins in Dead Ringer (1964)…figuring the twins in that movie is all sorts of fun right out of the gate. Estranged for many years, twin sisters Edith Philips (Bette Davis) and Margaret de Lorca (Bette Davis) are reunited at the funeral of Margaret’s husband Frank, the man they both loved. When Edith finds out Margaret lied about being pregnant back in the day, the vicious split screen fun begins…what I meant is that I didn’t have any fun figuring the twins in Dead Ringers (1988), starring Jeremy Irons.
Irons became a star playing Charles Ryder in all 11 episodes of the monumental BBC adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (1981 UK & 1982 USA) in tandem with scoring his first major feature movie credit as “Charles Henry Smithson” and “Mike,” dual leading roles, in Harold Pinter’s esoteric adaptation of John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1982). Since this incendiary double launch thirty-five years ago, Irons has played just about everyone from author F. Scott Fitzgerald to literary character Humbert Humbert and done everything from the English-language voice-over narration of his performance in phonetic Polish for Jerzy Skolimowski’s political drama, Moonlighting, to voicing villain “Scar” in a Shakespearean feline take on Hamlet’s murderous Uncle Claudius for the Disney animation, The Lion King.
Irons was not the first actor offered the roles of Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Irons remembers two actors asked before him—an interviewer at a recent Cronenberg retrospective claims 30 actors said no.) Symbiotic twin gynecologists who go mad and commit murder/suicide are already discomforting characters. The Mantle twins also design and brandish Kenyanthropus platyops era Gynecological tools—including the “Mantle Retractor”—for surgery on their “mutant” patients.
Dead Ringers was shot in the late 1980s in the infancy of CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery), so it was a technological pioneer. Cronenberg had the capability to record his tracking shots on the computer. The director replicated the exact camera movement used to shoot Irons walking and talking when he later shot the “other” Irons walking with and answering him. More impressive than Cronenberg’s “twinning shots” technology is their artistic discretion. There are only 8 “twining shots” in the film because Cronenberg wisely determined that superfluous “two shots” of the twins would merely be camera tricks at the expense of Irons’s characterizations and Cronenberg’s story. No fun trying to figure out the split screen legerdemain because Cronenberg avoided reliance on camera tricks to shoot his twins. How?
The two performances by Irons are so good, you forget one actor is playing both unsavory characters. Cronenberg and his crew agreed that the creation of two Mantle brothers was rooted in Irons’s acting. Irons already had two characterizations for the brothers precisely drawn by the pre-production tests. However, the actor merged the separate wardrobes he had purchased for each twin as well as combined the separate dressing rooms he had negotiated when playing each one after he saw the rushes. Once Irons saw his performances on screen, he realized he had to re-imagine his creation of two completely different characters because twin brothers, albeit different, would demonstrate overlapping similarities. So Irons made both his characterizations different but subtly akin. In the movie, when one Mantle twin poses as the other, (this is the classic dual-role acting scene) you are following the plot—not cataloging the nuances of Irons acting an impersonation of an imitation. A master of continuity, Irons joked that while he never knows what he should do as the actor in a take, he always knows exactly what every other actor should be doing—so playing two roles in Dead Ringers gave him an acting advantage.
Jeremy Irons’s Dead Ringers performances should have won him two Oscars. Now if Irons would just bring Philadelphia’s Emlen Etting to the screen…let’s see, Elliot and Beverly Mantle…Charles Henry Smithson and Mike…perhaps Etting could have an alter ego, his identical cousin, “…who’s lived most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Barclay [sic] Square…”