We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
One of my favorite techniques is when an actor gets to tackle more than one role in the same film. There is something about seeing an actor double, triple, or even octuple up on roles that I adore… so long as they are doing more than simply hiding behind makeup and wigs. The one thing my favorite multi-role performances have in common is the way the performer manages to make the characters they are playing all feel different.
The latest actor to try this hand at this is Adam Sandler, who plays twin siblings in Jack and Jill. Something tells me his dual performance isn’t going to be appearing on a list like this anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a perfect excuse to celebrate the actors who have excelled at doing so. There were loads of possibilities, and I had a tough time whittling it down, but in the end these are the seven – or should I say 22? – performances that I feel stand above the rest.
7. Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger (1999)
Recap: A struggling movie producer (Steve Martin) reads what he thinks is the screenplay that will finally bring him success. When superstar Kit Ramsey (Murphy) doesn’t want to star, he decides he’s going to make the movie anyway – by filming Ramsey without his knowledge. In order to complete the rest of the scenes, he enlists the help of Ramsey’s nerdy twin brother Jiff (also Murphy).
Reason: Playing more than one role in a movie is a trick Eddie Murphy has done a number of times with varying degrees of success – Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, um, Norbit – but if you ask me he’s never done it better than he did in Frank Oz’s Bowfinger. He’s not playing as many characters as he did in The Nutty Professor, nor is he donning a fat suit and hiding behind loads of makeup, but he still excels at playing two very different, very funny characters. Murphy is equally hilarious as both the paranoid Kit Ramsey, mocking his persona in the process, and the nerdy Jiff. Other than maybe Dreamgirls, I haven’t liked Murphy anywhere near as much in a film since Bowfinger was released.
6. Miranda Richardson in Spider (2002)
Recap: A schizophrenic man (Ralph Fiennes) moves into a halfway house after years of living in a mental institution. He subsequently begins reliving a traumatic experience from his childhood involving his father (Gabriel Byrne), his mother (Richardson), and a promiscuous, rotten-toothed local woman (also Richardson).
Reason: The criminally underseen Spider is one of my favorite films of its year. Directed by David Cronenberg, this film’s fractured narrative gives a fascinating look at schizophrenia and is effectively creepy. Ralph Fiennes is fantastic as the film’s schizophrenic lead, nicknamed Spider, but he’s matched by Miranda Richardson’s exceptional multi-role turn. She occasionally appears to Spider as the halfway house’s landlady (usually played by Lynn Redgrave), but it’s as his mother and the local hussy his father was having an affair with where Richardson shines. She’s so successful at creating three distinct characters that it took a while before I realized it was her in all the roles. I love Spider for a lot of reasons, but it’s Richardson’s performance(s) that I look back on most fondly.
5. Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1950)
Recap: After his mother – who was shunned by her aristocratic family for eloping with an Italian commoner – dies, a son plots to avenge her death by becoming the Duke of the D’Ascoynes family. To achieve this he must kill the eight D’Ascoynes (all played by Guinness) who stand in his way.
Reason: Long before he was Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Alec Guinness gave one of his finest performances in the classic black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. Guinness plays not two, not three, but eight roles in the film. Sure, some of them have very little screen time, but Guinness makes the most of each and every one. It’s difficult to pick out which of his D’Ascoynes is my favorite, but it probably comes down to Lady Agatha and her hot air balloon or the “obstinate to the last” Admiral. Wigs and makeup help, but the most impressive aspect of the performance is the subtle way Guinness differentiates each of the D’Ascoynes through simple body language. Looking back on the career Guinness had it’s not surprising he had a set of performances such as this in him, but that he played three generations – and members of both sexes – while in his thirties is truly impressive.
4. Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. (2002)
Recap: A neurotic screenwriter (Cage) in the midst of a mid-life crisis struggles as he works on adapting a non-fiction book called “The Orchid Thief.” His naïve, yet more confident twin brother (also Cage) doesn’t help matters when he decides he’s going to try his hand at screenwriting as well.
Reason: Nicolas Cage catches a lot of flak these days, but when he’s on he is capable of delivering excellent work. Such is the case with his performance in 2002’s Adaptation. This is one of the more unique films of the past decade, in large part thanks to Charlie Kaufman’s semi-autobiographical screenplay and a bevy of great performances. But it’s Cage as a version of Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald that helps put this one over the top into greatness. Cage succeeds at handling a lot of ups and downs with the self-loathing Charlie, while many of the film’s laughs come courtesy his good-natured Donald – especially whenever he’s discussing his own screenplay, The 3. “Mom called it ‘psychologically taut’,” never fails to crack me up.
3. Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940)
Recap: Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin), the ruthless dictator of Tomania, has aspirations of ruling the world. Meanwhile, a Jewish barber (also Chaplin) suffering from memory loss – who happens to bare an uncanny resemblance to Hynkel – plots to overthrow his regime with the help of an ex-member of Hynkel’s high command and others.
Reason: This was Charlie Chaplin’s first true talking film, but more impressive is the way in which he went after Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. This was especially bold because it was released before the United States really became involved with WWII. A film touching on taboos like this seems like it should be somber, but not in the hands of Chaplin. Amazingly he condemns the whole affair and the results are often funny, while still managing to instill a powerful message by film’s end. The film is packed with great moments, but the two most memorable are connected by the use of Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” The first instance is when Hynkel performs a ballet with a balloon globe in his office. It pops up again at the end of the film when, as the Jewish barber, Chaplin essentially steps out of character and delivers an incredibly powerful speech that still resonates today.
2. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988)
Recap: Twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot (both played by Irons) have always shared everything – women included. An actress finding out about their game leads to a downward spiral that threatens their relationships and their very lives.
Reason: I don’t want you to quote me on this, but Dead Ringers may be my favorite film on David Cronenberg’s very impressive resume. As with Spider, the other Cronenberg film on the list, there are a lot of reasons why I’m a fan of this movie, but none more so than Jeremy Iron’s fantastic dual performance as the aggressive Elliot and the more passive Beverly. He’s excellent as both brothers, but the way he handles Bev’s breakdown in the second half of the film is simply stunning. This is one of those performances that I still have trouble believing wasn’t recognized by the Academy Awards. But that says far more about the Academy than it does about what Irons accomplished.
1. Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Recap: An insane United States general (Sterling Hayden) initiates a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. As the bomb approaches its destination, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers), Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (also Sellers), former Nazi weapons expert Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once more), and others all do their part to prevent the extinction of life on Earth.
Reason: There are quite a few lists I could make where Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove would fill the top slot. It happens to be my favorite film of all time, and Peter Sellers gives what I consider to be my favorite performance, full stop. That’s why it was an easy decision as to what would be number one on this list. He excels in all three roles, managing to create a distinct personality for each, but my favorite has always been President Merkin Muffley. The phone conversation between Muffley and the Soviet Premiere is quite possibly my favorite cinematic phone call, and it has me in stitches every time I watch the film. Sellers proved time and time again that he was a tremendously talented actor, even playing multiple roles a handful of times throughout his career – see The Mouse That Roared for another great example – but its Dr. Strangelove that should rightly go down as his finest hour.