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10 Films In Which Actors Play Multiple Roles

10 Films In Which Actors Play Multiple Roles

This week, in celebration of the release of Richard Ayoade’s “The Double,” a film we loved at TIFF (here’s Kevin’s A- grade review), what we really ought to be doing is a feature on films about doubles. Except, whoops, we just did one, for the release of the similarly themed, but very differently executed “Enemy” from Denis Villeneuve (which we also loved at TIFF, here’s Rodrigo’s A grade take). And so we’re honing in on a different, but related aspect of Ayoade’s film, namely that lead Jesse Eisenberg takes a dual role here, and so adds his name to the roster of actors who’ve played more than one character within a single film.

However, while it may be deviating somewhat from the film that inspires it, in order to ensure we wouldn’t simply be running over the same old ground of Doubles/Doppelgangers, and also because it feels like a more interesting angle to take, we’ve chosen to focus our selection on those films in which an actor in fact plays more than two characters—a much less common phenomenon. Often used for comic effect, the reasons behind casting one actor in several roles can differ: sometimes it’s simply to capitalize on a performer’s popularity and to give audiences the added kick of seeing an actor interact with him/herself. Sometimes it’s because the script calls for it, as when multiple characters as related to each other and/or bear a marked physical resemblance. And on occasion, arguably in the most successful and intriguing efforts, seeing the same face crop up in different personas has us drawing conscious or unconscious lines within the narrative, and making connections that we otherwise might not. And then there are the times it’s simply a 100% show-offy move, and often just as entertaining for it. So here goes: 10 films, 23-odd actors and around 97 roles, just let us take off our compere’s hat, run off stage right and pull up the curtain, then jump down into the orchestra pit to start conducting…

Kind Hearts & Coronets” (1949)
Actor: Alec Guinness
Characters: Ethelred D’Ascoyne, Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne, General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne, Admiral Lord Horation D’Ascoyne, Young Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Young Henry D’Ascoyne and Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne
Of all the remake bullets we’ve dodged over the years, “Kind Hearts & Coronets” might be the one that we’re happiest never came together: Mike Nichols planned a version with Will Smith as the straight man and Robin Williams playing multiple characters, but it thankfully stalled in development. We say thankfully, because it’s almost impossible to imagine a version working without Alec Guinness‘ tour-de-force performance(s). The jet-black 1949 Ealing original sees disowned aristocrat Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) seeking out vengeance on the family that spurned his mother by bumping them off one by one and ascending to the title. But in a stroke of genius, member of the D’Ascoyne family is played by Guinness, from Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, who gets Louis fired in the final straw, to hot-air-ballooning suffragette Lady Agatha. Some of the eight roles he takes are more substantial than others, with a few serving as mere sight gags, but Guinness, aided by make-up and costume that still impresses today, makes almost all of them fully drawn without being caricatures, and there’s even some pathos coming from the less dastardly of them. The film’s pleasures go way beyond the various D’Ascoynes—the central love triangle, the bleakly brilliant performance by Price, the perfectly modulated tone, the savage depiction of the British class system—but Guinness is certainly the most obvious of those pleasures, and what the film’s remembered for over sixty years on.

Coming To America”(1988)
Actors: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall
Characters: Prince Akeem; Clarence; Randy; Saul (Murphy) and Semmi; Woman on date; Morris; Reverend Brown
John Landis’ 1988 comedy never really got critical props, but in retrospect now, with all the nostalgia that the intervening years have brought with endless TV repeats and with the knowledge of how far Murphy’s career would slide in the ’90s and ’00s (hey, he plays multiple roles in “Norbit” too but there’s a reason we’re not featuring that one), this riotously dumb fish-out-of-water comedy occupies a very soft spot in our hearts. And a lot of what makes it such gleeful fun is that it’s Murphy pioneering his take on the multiple-role schtick that would come to characterize a lot of his later output. But here, playing several characters (one of whom is the elderly white Jewish Saul) under heavy Rick Baker make-up, in addition to the central role of the sweet-natured Prince Akeem fleeing an arranged marriage to find true love in New York City, he’s matched in the doubling-up stakes by sidekick Arsenio Hall. Hall even attains the multiple-role Holy Grail of cross-dressing, albeit briefly, and since the actual plot revolves around the two of them pretending to be people they’re not anyway, things could get confusing fast. But the utter predictability of the story, coupled with some inspired riffing from both actors in all parts, means that is never an issue, and instead we get to watch a who’s-who of black Hollywood pop up in the few roles neither Hall nor Murphy occupy—James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Frankie Faison and Cuba Gooding Jr. (in his debut). Oh, and if Shari Headley’s beauty in that ridiculous Crystal Barbie wedding dress at the end doesn’t kinda stop your heart, you may be made of stone. 

“The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981)
Actor: Lily Tomlin
Characters: Pat Kramer; Judith Beasely; Ernestine; Edith Ann (only in TV versions)
Directed with a characteristic lack of subtlety by Joel Schumacher, this early ’80s comedy (and my how the effects make us feel its age) really relies on its leading lady to carry us through the extended joke-drought patches of the would-be satirical screenplay. Thankfully, that leading lady is the eternally watchable Lily Tomlin, here mostly in a dual role as the titular shrinking woman and her busybody neighbor, but also cropping up briefly in two cameos. Charles Grodin does solid work in support as Pat’s beleaguered husband and reliable comic performer Ned Beatty too, but really it’s Tomlin’s show and aside from some nice production design, on the conformo-pastel suburban home that is Pat’s domestic domain, she’s largely underserved, not so much by the potentially inventive material, as by the plodding pace and unimaginatively staged draggy sections. And even Tomlin’s talents can’t quite land the barbed social critique of the role of women in society, which appears at times to have been the intention of the writer. That intention, and the fact that Richard Matheson’s “The Shrinking Man” novel is credited as a source (and it deals largely in a deconstruction of masculinity), makes us think there is probably a much smarter take in here somewhere, and Tomlin would have been perfect for that movie, but instead we got this tin-eared and rather tedious dud. 

Cloud Atlas” (2012)
Actor: Almost all of the principal cast take multiple roles. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Hugh Grant all feature in all six of the film’s storylines as different characters in each, while Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi and Susan Sarandon play at least three each.
Characters: They’re a pretty diverse bunch of roles: Hanks goes from a mad ginger-bearded doctor to a poorly-accented Irish hoodlum, Broadbent is both a sea captain and a Korean musician, and Weaving plays sinister devil figure Old Georgie and a female, Nurse Ratchet-esque villain.
Cloud Atlas” was always going to be one of the most ambitious films of recent memory: the adaptation of David Mitchell‘s bestseller had three directors, in Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, it had a sprawling cast, a story that spanned thousands of years and multiple genres, and a three-hour running time. So it’s no surprise that it’s one of the most divisive: when it premiered two years ago, it was hailed simultaneously as both a masterpiece and a train wreck. The truth, as with so many cases, lies somewhere in between. The film is occasionally rubbish, and inconsistently acted (if Jim Sturgess has never been particularly good at playing one character, why would he be better as six?), and adds a slightly sappy destined-to-be-together subtext onto the novel. But it’s also bold, beautifully made, incredibly well acted, consistently surprising, and always hugely engaging. The film does attempt to make its multi-cast form its substance, to some degree, but particularly given Lana Wachowski’s involvement, making a film about how our bodies don’t define our souls feels deeply felt and very personal. A bit of a mess, then, but a hugely compelling one.

Joe Versus The Volcano” (1990)
Actor: Meg Ryan
Characters: Dede, Angelica, Patricia
It was loving writer/director John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” as much as we did that made us go back and relook at his only other directorial feature, the seemingly-couldn’t-be-more-different famed flop “Joe Versus the Volcano.” And while we’re hardly going to go as far as some revisionist critics in claiming it as neglected genius or anything, it certainly is a whole lot better that its initial reputation suggested. It starts very promisingly too, with a stylized, “Brazil”-esque imagining of the dehumanizing effects of wage slavery, before the titular Joe discovers he’s dying and finds a novel way to commit suicide, meeting three women successively along the way, all played by Ryan. Ironically for the purposes of this feature, one of the issues with the film seems to be its miscasting, which contributes to the unsettled tone of the endeavor which tries and fails to meld the sappy romance we’d expect of a Hanks/Ryan film from this era, with the fairly caustic and pessimistic wit of Shanley’s script. And Ryan, certainly at this stage more a light comedienne than an actress of great range or depth, struggles to convince in her triple role, with both of the early characters coming across as rather one note until the more rounded Patricia (still rather too odd and prickly a character to sit comfortably with the actress) takes over as primary love interest. By no means an unqualified success, the film’s ambition and hidden intelligence, along with an unusually philosophical bent, make it about ten times more interesting than the standard Hollywood romcom that it was marketed as, and isn’t. 

“The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp” (1943)
Actor: Deborah Kerr
Characters: Edith Hunter, Barbara Wynne, Angela “Johnny” Cannon
The first of Powell & Pressburger‘s multiple masterpieces (read more about them here), “The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp” is an extraordinary end-of-Empire masterpiece that follows Roger Livesey‘s army lifer Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy from his youth in the Boer War through the Great War, to old age and semi-retirement during the (then-still-ongoing) Second World War. The film is expansive and multi-faceted, primarily focused on the passing of time, of good soldiers and bad wars, and on the demise of England as past generations had known it, replaced by the birth of something new. But as ever, Powell & Pressburger have a romantic streak a mile wide, and that’s represented in the three roles played by Archers’ favorite Deborah Kerr here. The one that perpetually got away, she’s initially Edith, a British woman whom Clive falls for, but who becomes engaged to his German friend Theo (Anton Walbrook); then her doppelganger Barbara, a young nurse in the First World War (who dies offscreen in the 1930s); and then, in the then-present-day, a sparky young driver nicknamed Johnny. Kerr has no prosthetics or anything to distinguish the three, but subtly modulates each one so that they feel truly like women of their era, and few would blame Livesey’s character for being haunted by her. The heartbreaking reveal that she’s involved with his rival, Spud Wilson, near the end is one of the many ways that Powell & Pressburger show how the 1940s have brought a changing of the guard, with a brasher, more ruthless brand of soldier replacing the more gentlemanly Wynn-Candy. “The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp” is a film positively bursting with soul, but much of it comes from Kerr’s trio of performances.

The Nutty Professor” (1996)
Actor: Eddie Murphy
Characters: Professor Sherman Klump, Buddy Love, Cletus Klump, Mama Anna Klump, Grandma Klump, Ernie Klump Sr and Lance Perkins
His 1963 comedy “The Nutty Professor,” one of his best known starring vehicles, saw Jerry Lewis take on three roles, which made sense as the film was a light-hearted riff on the Jekyll & Hyde story. For Tom Shadyac‘s 1996 remake, star Eddie Murphy seemed to take that as a challenge: Murphy played not only obese Professor Sherman Klump and Buddy Love, his thin, brash alter ego, but also four members of Klump’s similarly waistbanded family and a white fitness instructor. Aside from a couple of brief appearances from a young Dave Chappelle, the film’s a pretty standard, turgid magic potion comedy carried along only by Murphy’s ever-present energy, but it really sings in the set-piece dinner sequence where Sherman, and at one point love interest Jada Pinkett, sit down with the rest of the family. It does have an overreliance on fart gags, but these scenes are otherwise among the highpoints of Murphy’s career: four equally funny performances colliding with each other, with Murphy’s sweet-natured straight man reacting against each other. It’s all the more impressive because Murphy was acting against thin air. The scenes pretty much single-handedly made the movie a giant hit, so obviously 2000’s sequel, directed by Peter Segal, saw their roles expanded. Unfortunately, it’s to much lesser effect; the follow-up was cruder, and much more charmless, dispersing much of the goodwill that came from the first (and earning a parody at the start of Ben Stiller‘s comedy “Tropic Thunder,” with Jack Black‘s crude comic star Jeff Portnoy playing multiple roles in a comedy called “The Fatties“).

The Mouse That Roared” (1959)
Actor: Peter Sellers
Characters: Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy, Tully Bascombe
Dr. Strangelove” (see below) is the most famous example of Peter Sellers playing multiple roles, and rightly so, but the comic star had already done a triple-header four years earlier, to less legendary effect, in 1959’s “The Mouse That Roared.” Based on the bestselling novel by Leonard Wibberley, the plot is a somewhat milder Cold War satire than Kubrick’s film, which sees a tiny European nation, Grand Fenwick, declaring war on the United States in an attempt to replenish their economy with foreign aid after they lose. Unexpectedly, however, the country’s bow-wielding invasion force win the war, and end up capturing a devastating, world threatening Q-bomb. Sellers plays three senior figures in Grand Fenwick: the Queen Victoria-esque Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert (a riff on Benjamin Disraeli, supposedly), and nerdish leader of the military forces, Tully Bascombe, with British character actor favorites like Leo McKern and William Hartnell (the original Doctor Who) as back up and Jean Seberg as Tully’s love interest. It’s fairly broad stuff, with Sellers’ performances, like the film in general, lacking the savagery or derangement of ‘Strangelove,’ and the romance with Seberg is ill-conceived by way of a bit creepy, but it has a certain charm, taking its cues more from Ealing films like “Passport To Pimlico” or “The Titchfield Thunderbolt” than anything else. It does land a few gentle satirical jabs nevertheless, and even in mild form, Sellers’ comic genius is enough to carry the film. It says something that, when the 1963 sequel “The Mouse On The Moon” rolled around without Sellers’ involvement (though directed by a just-pre-“A Hard Day’s NightRichard Lester), no single actor could replace him, with Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins playing the Duchess, the Prime Minister and Tully, respectively. 

Back to the Future II” (1989)
Actor: Michael J Fox
Characters: Marty McFly, Marty Jr., Marlene
It happens two or three times per year that “Back to the Future II” crops up as a subject for discussion in Playlist HQ, and though we’d love to say that distinction were reserved for some early Rossellini movie or an obscure Murnau, it’s this Robert Zemeckis sequel that inevitably reveals the deepest, bitterest rift within our ranks. This writer, however, is firmly in the “avidly pro” camp, and often jumps on the grenade of writing about it just to skewer the perception of the Playlist’s POV being that it’s a misunderstood minor masterpiece, because that’s what it is. Fine, that’s hyperbole, but still ‘BTTF2’ is a terrifically ambitious and imaginative movie attempting the much more difficult trick of visiting an unknown future (the unfeasibly distant 2015, where’s my goddamn hoverboard?) than remaining in the past, like the other installments, and along the way giving Michael J. Fox (and to a lesser extent Thomas J. Wilson, who plays Biff and Griff Tannen) the opportunity to have a little fun playing his character’s son and daughter, while also playing the aged-up version of Marty himself. It’s hardly the most taxing of the multiple roles we have in this list, as it’s really reserved for a couple of cameo-level scenes, but Fox certainly seems to have a blast interacting with the other versions of himself, all whom display varying levels of obnoxiousness, and he makes a remarkably pretty Marlene to boot.   

“Dr. Strangelove” (1964)
Actor: Peter Sellers
Characters: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley; Dr Strangelove
While Eddie Murphy might have become synonymous with the phenomenon in recent years, leading to his double-inclusion on this list, if this feature has a patron saint, it’s probably Peter Sellers, and this film, along with Alec Guinness’ multi-turn in “Kind Hearts & Coronets,” has to stand as the pinnacle of excellence in this specific field. A brilliantly caustic and intelligent satire from little-known journeyman Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove” would have no doubt been a great film even without Sellers’ treble—it’s that tightly scripted and has that blazing a talent behind the camera. And Sellers’ three performances were actually a contractual mandate from the studio rather than an inspired piece of casting per se (he was actually signed for the Slim Pickens role too, but was reluctant and eventually bowed out of that due to a sprained ankle not allowing him to sit in the cockpit). Yet it stands as the definitive multi-role, with the actor delivering three separately brilliant performances that operate across every possible register, and that somehow, linked in this metatextual way add to the film’s incredibly specific, well-achieved tone: the dead-center bullseye where farcical exaggeration meets believably frightening lunacy. Kubrick can take the oceans of credit due for maintaining such a precarious tonal high-wire act throughout, but it’s hard to believe it would have had quite the same impact without Sellers, whether it’s his Mandrake not having enough change to call the President, or his soft-spoken Muffley talking to his Russian counterpart Dmitri on the phone, or most indelibly perhaps, his titular Strangelove trying to stop his rogue arm from throttling him. Utter genius from beginning to end, Sellers casts such a long shadow (or three) over the tradition, that it’s hard to imagine anyone tackling several roles in the one film will ever surpass this gold standard.

We also considered Jerry Lewis‘ “The Family Jewels” for inclusion here, in which he plays seven roles in a sweet-hearted family-film riff on the “Kind Hearts & Coronets” formula in which a young heiress must choose between her six uncles following the death of her father. And of course, skit-based comedy movies often rely on this sort of stunt casting so we could well have listed Monty Python films “Life of Brian” and “The Holy Grail” too, as most of the troupe plays three or four or more characters in each, as does Mel Brooks in both “The History of the World Part 1” and “Blazing Saddles,” both of which he also obviously directed. And while it’s not quite on brief as he does only play two roles, Lee Marvin‘s turn in comedy western “Cat Ballou” is worth a mention in that it won him the Best Actor Oscar, the only time, as far as we can make out, that an actor has won for a film in which he played multiple roles (Chaplin was nominated for “The Great Dictator” but lost to James Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story“; Nicolas Cage was nominated for “Adaptation” but lost to Adrien Brody for “The Pianist“; while Sellers was nominated for “Dr. Strangelove” the year before Marvin won, but lost to Rex Harrison. Now, we love “My Fair Lady” as much as the next guy, but come on). And finally, an extremely impressive early example was in the silent short “The Play House” in which Buster Keaton, in an extended opening sequence, plays every performer, audience member, stage hand and musician in what turns out to be a self-populated dream, predating “Being John Malkovich” ‘s similar scene by, oh, about eight decades. What did we miss that you miss? Tell us in the comments.  —Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton

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