11 Unforgettable Performances Actors Playing Twins

This Friday, “Legend,” the new crime film directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Tom Hardy and, ahem, Tom Hardy as the Kray Twins, hits theaters stateside. Based on real events that occurred in the East End of London in the ’50s and ’60s, “Legend” joins a long list of films that have identical twins at the center of the story, but it’s one of the few that sets the story in the world of true crime. The critical consensus has thus far been a bit ho-hum on the film: the praise has been reserved mostly for Hardy’s dual performance (or, as in Oli’s review, at least one half of it).

So it’s not uncommon that films employing the twin concept often fall short of the mark as a whole, with the performance of the actor charged with the hefty task of juggling two similar-yet-significantly-different personalities often rising well above everything else. Sometimes, the brilliance of the performance is matched by the equally brilliant imagination of the writer and director. In others, the narrative concept is executed with horrendous results, with the central performance often ending up adding to the self-destruction. Whatever the case may be, playing identical twins must clearly be a great challenge for any actor, and it’s fascinating to explore how certain actors handled the material, what they focused on and how they played into the film’s genre and intentions. As you’ll see, the concept has been widespread across multiple genres, exploring its uses in comedies, dramas, thrillers, and hybrid mixes of all three.

For better or for worse, certain twin-centric performances will always stick out and inevitably stay lodged in your head once you see them. And if one were to make a list of all actors who played both on-screen twins, the 11 names below would be written with a permanent marker (although one particular case is decidedly more of a stain than a mark of distinction). So in honor of Hardy’s Reggie/Ronnie addition to the colorful history of on-screen twins, here is a sample of some of the most unforgettable double performances.

Danny Kaye in “Wonder Man” (1945)
The identical twin notion is still a breath of fresh air in “Wonder Man,” a musical-cum-ghost story, 70 years later. Danny Kaye is pushed to his limit as an all around showman —dancing, singing, pantomiming, impersonating and acting his guts out— in the dual role of flamboyant night-club performer Buster Dingle and the tamer, double-pencil wielding Edwin. The two couldn’t be more different or more estranged, but when Buster is murdered after being a witness to a crime, he begins to haunt Edwin as a ghost that only the latter can see and hear. If Kaye’s rapid-fire delivery wasn’t entertaining enough (it totally is), the real fun starts when Buster asks Edwin to bring the murderers to justice and impersonate him until after the criminal trial is over. Considering its age, “Wonder Man” is equal wonder of special effects (it won an Oscar as such) and Kaye’s physicality, most hilariously exemplified in facial contortions and the plucks of his vocal chords. The infamous example, and one of Kaye’s career-highlights, is Edwin as Buster forced to sing ‘Ochi Chernye’ while staving off sudden urges of allergic sneezes to a nearby vase of flowers. Kaye would go on to perfect the double-duty roleplaying in “On The Riviera” (1951) and “On The Double” (1961), but “Wonder Man” is the springboard; the essential example of how much of a delightful jack-of-all-trades entertainer he was. 

Olivia de Havilland in “The Dark Mirror” (1946)

Before the mid ‘40s, Olivia de Havilland was famous for “Gone With The Wind” (1939) and a gamut of Errol Flynn films (including playing his Robin Hood’s Maid Marian). “The Dark Mirror” came along to show what a double-edged talent de Havilland really was. It’s a silly little psychological whodunit and quite forgettable by all counts, except when it comes to her performance. She sinks her teeth into the dual role of twin sisters Ruth and Terry, one of which committed a murder. On one hand, she’s seductively coy with glints of craziness as the cold and calculating Terry, and on the other, she’s the genuinely shy, fragile and easily manipulated Ruth. Thanks to a painfully stilted screenplay by Nunnally Johnson  —Vladimir Pozner‘s original story, as opposed to Johnson’s adapted screenplay, was nominated for an Oscar, which tells you everything— an unbelievable romantic subplot, and Dimitri Tiomkin‘s incessant score, “The Dark Mirror” loses stature among de Havilland’s more prestigious pictures. But when she’s with herself onscreen (considering it’s 1946, the vfx are top notch here), all the picture’s flaws dissipate. All of de Havilland’s Terry manipulation scenes, whether succeeding with Ruth or failing gracefully with the doctor, are a devilish joy to behold. Watching the facade of sibling support crumble away to reveal the jealous, mad rivalry within is about a thousand times more compelling than anything else in “The Dark Mirror,” including the predictable murder mystery at its center. OK, fine, Terry Mitchell‘s expressive eyebrows as the detective on the case are a bushy exception.

Hayley Mills in “The Parent Trap” (1961)
In 1961, the patented all-family-friendly Disney formula was bottled into a picture about Mills’ identical twin sisters Susan and Sharon, who after being split apart at an early age when their parents get a divorce coincidentally meet at the same summer camp. After realizing they’re sisters, they come up with the classic twin scheme; swap places so that one could live with their father Mitch (Brian Keith) and the other can see what she’s been missing with their mom Maggie (Maureen O’Hara, the redhead who ruled them all, ). The grand plan is to get Mitch and Maggie back together so that they could all live together again as one big happy family. There’s a even a song in the midway point with Sharon on piano and Susan on guitar (or was it the other way around?) literally called ‘Let’s Get Together.’ Ah, good ol’, ever- subtle Disney. It’s tough watching the unabashedly earnest ‘Parent Trap’ as anything but a product of its time, but Mills’ performance (she was 15 years old at time of release) is a punchy mix of ebullience and sass that’s still contagious all these years later. That song-and-dance number is a grand example, but from the moment the twins hatch their plan, Mills uses the different Susan/Sharon nuances (prim, proper and piano-playing Sharon vs. unrefined ragamuffin Susan) to create a finely textured performance that’ll thaw the hearts of even the most Disney=phobic. The performance helped the formula succeed, since the film spawned three(!) made-for-TV sequels with Mills reprising her role(s), and a 1998 remake starring a very innocent Lindsay Lohan.

Bette Davis in “Dead Ringer” (1964)
There aren’t many things in the history of fantastic screen performances that can quite compare to the widening eyes of Bette Davis; a lenticular mix of fear, anger, and surprise that transcends the screen and seemingly uncovers your deepest, darkest secrets. Her natural flair for the melodramatic is utilized by Paul Henreid in “Dead Ringer” to fantastic effect, making an otherwise simplistic story of one twin sister assuming the identity of the other sparkle with synergy, anchored by the hardships of paying attention to anything or anyone else when Davis is onscreen. Her Margaret DeLorca is the spoiled sister who marries into wealth and in the process steals the great love of her sister Edith’s life. As the “good” twin, Edith is meek and submissively middle-class, but seeing her sister’s lavish lifestyle inspires evil impulses, and she decides to take her life, literally and figuratively. Most of the film is Edith roleplaying as Margaret, and all the complications that brings: remembering safe combinations, forging signatures, learning to drink Bloody Mary’s, that sorta thing. Needless to say, the swapped identity so common with the twins concept in cinema is a marvel of entertainment with Davis in the driver’s seat, and would be enough to warrant this entry alone. The two early scenes the legendary actress conducts via those two roles, however, make it a must. “Dead Ringer” is the second time Davis played twins, after portraying both sisters in “A Stolen Life” (1946), and while both films are recommended, it’s “Dead Ringer” that comes out as the more darkly entertaining and attractive of the two.

Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers” (1989)
The twins concept becomes altogether different when it’s moulded and manipulated to fit into singular milieus of cinematic visionaries. There’ll be another example coming up when we get into the early aughts, but first comes the dark, psychologically fucked-up world of David Cronenberg. In this case, it’s the story of identical twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle, eerily portrayed by Jeremy Irons. We first see the Mantle twins as two inseparable boys interested in experimenting with girls in bathtubs, growing up with their identities blurring into one another (‘Two Bodies, Two Minds, One Soul’ reads the poster’s tagline), and eventually playing into the film’s grotesque climaxes. Switching between sexual partners as soon as the more smoother Eliot tires of them, the Mantles start to break at the seams through signature Cronenbergian body-horror madness when Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) enters their lives. Remember those prescription-drugged dreams and bone-chillingly unforgettable “gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women?” You may not want to, but of course you do. Irons is magnificent as both twins, trenchant as the detached Elliot and an unravelling ball of nerves as the fragile Beverly; inseparable but fundamentally different. “Dead Ringers” surgically transplants all twin and double gimmicks and not only displays one of the greatest performances by a single actor in the role of identical twins, but indeed one of the greatest films to deal with the subject, period.

Jean-Claude Van Damme in “Double Impact” (1991)
If you start to think of the marks left by onscreen twins in movies and its widespread use across a spectrum of genres, your mind will inevitably get roundhouse kicked to this classic Van Damme actioner, probably by the strength of its spectacular B-movie title alone. “Double Impact” starts off with a wonderfully terrible slo-mo shootout, leaving baby twin brothers Chad and Alex parentless after a Triad hit squad kills them. The boys, saved by their bodyguard, are taken to a Hong Kong orphanage, and 25 years later we meet Chad (Van Damme) in an L.A. martial arts class. What can you say about a Van Damme movie where one of his first lines is: “Because of my big legs and karate, I can do the splits, no problem,” which he proceeds to demonstrate while wearing turquoise tights? Just sit back, take zero of its ludicrous plotting and characterization seriously, and enjoy not one, but two comic Van Damme “performances.” Oh yes, and that wardrobe. Good God that wardrobe: Van Damme in pink shorts, that is all. Chad and his father-figure Frank (Geoffrey Lewis) travel back to Hong Kong to meet up with the brother Chad never knew he had. The gelled bad-boy Alex doesn’t like to mince his words half as much as he likes to chew on his cigar, and the two brothers inevitably team up against the Triads and Bolo Yeung‘s scarred badass Moon (on a serious note though, the choreography of the fights is pretty sweet). Try to ignore the rampant homophobia and misogyny, and you’ll get an essential staple in Van Damme’s career that’s funny for all the wrong reasons and adds an admittedly memorable so-bad-it’s-good addition to the long history of the twin gimmick. FEEL THE IMPACT.

Eddie Murphy in “Bowfinger” (1999)
Frank Oz‘ picture, working off of Steve Martin‘s screenplay, is a lot of things, chief among them a scathing, often ludicrous critique of stardom and the squeaky wheelings and dealings of Hollywood’s film business. Through its colorful array of characters, namely Heather Graham (the early SNL sketch version of Naomi Watts‘ Diana in “Mulholland Drive“), Terence Stamp, the wonderful Christine Baranski, and Martin’s titular Z-movie producer, “Bowfinger” paints a lurid caricature of Tinseltown. In hindsight, the film has proven to be something perhaps even greater: the last truly great comedic Eddie Murphy performance. For almost an hour into the running time, we see Murphy as the demanding, paranoid, mentally unstable A-list star Kit Ramsey, which would’ve been enough to remind those watching in 2015 of what a comedic force this man was (he’s still in there somewhere, one hopes). But as soon as his twin, the timid, shy and supremely nerdy Jiff enters the picture, Murphy’s uncanny knack for hysterical accents and grimaces knocks it out of the park scene after scene. His delivery as Jiff of “Oh Gosh, I’m really hoping to get a career running errands, that’d be a huge boost for me” is the kind of pure gold that’s been sorely missed from his filmography since the turn of the century. As the paranoid Kit, he’s sensational in ranting about why he still didn’t get an Oscar nomination, while as the cowardly Jiff, he is the human pinnacle of awkwardness, and while “Bowfinger” has other things going for it (including a pretty funny Martin), it’s fondly remembered as the last time when Murphy didn’t need fat-suits and buckets of makeup to be funny.

Nicholas Cage in “Adaptation” (2002)
The second essential film whenever the discussion of onscreen twins is brought up, “Adaptation” is the magnificent confluence of two imaginative powerhouses, director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman. It’s a blisteringly unique dramedy that —along with a plethora of ruminations on the creative process, sibling rivalry, rules vs. intuition, and desire to inject adventure into the mundane— gives Nicolas Cage the stage to deliver one of the great performances of his career. The film is replete with concepts of doubles and identity switches, set off by Cage portraying a struggling screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman and brilliantly conceived in the idea of Donald Kaufman, Charlie’s identical twin who is less tortured and less talented than Charlie, but of course is more successful. The film is a microcosm of complex emotional intelligence and is labyrinthian in structure as it tells parallel stories of Meryl Streep’s Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper‘s John Laroche, but it’s Cage’s dual performance as the self-doubting Charlie and the id-driven dilettante Donny that elevates the film’s notion of synthesis and creative collaboration. His performance as the Kaufman twins is masterfully differentiated through the subtlest of tweaks; delivery, gesture, and the zen-like calmness of Donny pitted against Charlie’s existential anxiousness. For an actor who is precariously close these days to being better recognized as a meme generator than an Oscar-winner, this is one of the best showcases of Cage’s acting talent that surfaces when the right material comes along.

Freddie Highmore in “The Spiderwick Chronicles” (2008)
The twin concept sprawled into the fantasy genre with this adaptation of Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi‘s popular children’s book “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” While the overall result didn’t do much to sustain the popularity of fantasy films, one lasting quality did come out of the whole affair: Freddie Highmore’s dual performance as central twin bros Simon and Jared Grace. Simon is the quiet one that doesn’t “do conflict,” while Jared is the more petulant of the two, prone to hitting stuff when he gets angry and giving their poor mom (Mary-Louise Parker) the silent treatment when they move into the Spiderwick Estate, their grand-aunt’s house. Soon enough, Jared finds a magical book that opens up a whole new world of faeries, brownies, goblins and griffins. Worlds collide in a hodgepodge of questionable special effects, and there’s solid work from Nick Nolte as evil ogre Mulgarath and Seth Rogen (in voice form) as a revenge-seeking hobgoblin, but it’s really Highmore’s show. 16 years old at the time of release and having already melted hearts in “Finding Neverland,” Highmore balances the two differing personalities of naughty and nice remarkably well. Amidst the cliches of twin switcheroos and good vs. evil fairytale hijinks, Highmore’s determined performance —whether freaking-out, being heroic or exchanging verbal sibling attacks with himself or older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger)— is what keeps “The Spiderwick Chronicles” from being completely forgotten.

Edward Norton in “Leaves of Grass” (2010)
Good movies about twins are spread wide and thin, and this story of polar opposite twin brothers Bill and Brady Kincaid, written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, is probably the best recent example. Much like a few earlier examples on this list, it’s Norton’s diametrical performance that holds it all together, with a bit of a push-and-pull support from Nelson’s writing direction (‘uneven’ is an understatement). Bill is the erudite philosophy professor, teaching his students at Brown University about Plato’s dialogues, while Brady is his estranged pot-growing brother, creating a state of the art hydroponics marijuana system back in Oklahoma. It’s the straight-shooting thinker foiled against his grungy tattoo-bedecked brother, and of all the twins featured in this piece, it’s Norton’s that are the most easily distinguished; Brady’s Oklahoma drawl is diametrically opposed to Bill’s enunciated, academic verbiage. The plot, which involves Brady luring Bill back to Oklahoma so that he can handle a drug-lord politico (a feisty Richard Dreyfuss), is a bumpy ride to say the least, but supporting performances by Keri Russell and Josh Pais add enough to the romance and the comedy respectively to aid Norton in keeping “Leaves Of Grass” glued together. We are reminded of Norton’s capricious range, first seen in “Primal Fear” (1996) and all through “Death To Smoochy” (2002), as he juggles comedy and drama through Brady and Bill. Their conversations on the porch, in the blacklight bedroom, and one quietly powerful avalanche of a speech at the end, remain some of the best examples of the kind of fireworks one insanely talented actor can create when inspired by the twin concept.

Adam Sandler in “Jack And Jill” (2011)
Finally, there’s this piece of shit. Talking about Norton was all the more necessary, given that this last entry is the most unforgettable dual performance of recent times for the most vile reasons you can think of. This Adam Sandler atrocity is unforgettable, of course, only by those who’ve had the grave misfortune of wasting precious minutes on it. In a move that anticipated a record-sweep at the Razzies, Sandler portrays both twins, brother Jack and sister Jill, and as you might imagine (but if you haven’t seen it, don’t), it’s the latter that’s Sandler’s most annoying and obnoxious creation to date. The descent into a mind-numbing viewing experience begins right around the time Jill calls herself and her brother “wombmates.” Yeah. “Jack And Jill” manages to offend on multiple levels, and Sandler’s dire decision to portray both characters has permanently stained the twin concept. In doing so, it makes “Double Impact” look like “Dead Ringers,” and is the best example of what not to do when presented with this subject. The migraine-inducing narrative involves the successful Jack hosting his difficult sister Jill, while trying to get Al Pacino to do a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial. That the actual Al Pacino was convinced to appear in this drivel as himself (not to mention Johnny Depp, Katie Holmes, Norm MacDonald..), and follow a script that has him falling in love with Jill, begs to be examined and included in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. But we’re talking about a phenomenal catastrophe here folks. It’s been called one of the worst movies of all time, and currently holds 3% on the Tomatometer, but still managed to rake in 149 million dollars at the box-office. Boggles the mind.

Since this list is just a taste of the variety found with twin-sibling narratives, there are many films ranging from good to poor. Brian De Palma gleefully paid tribute to Alfred Hitchcock with the concept of Siamese twins in “Sisters” (1973) and Margot Kidder’s performance is sensational, but those who’ve seen it know why there’s no entry here. We can go all the way back to 1935 and Boris Karloff’s little-known “The Black Room” to find one of the early great uses of the concept in the realms of Gothic melodrama. Twin pairings were also dabbled with in “Start The Revolution Without Me” (1970) with Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland in dual roles, and “Big Business” (1988) with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin.

Then there’s that blemish in Leonardo DiCaprio’s filmography, “The Man In The Iron Mask” (1998) which still showcased Leo’s signature intensity and talent. Marion Cotillard played twins back when no one knew who she was, in “Pretty Things” (2001), and Ben Stiller portrayed brothers Sam and Stan Sweet in his (slightly misunderstood?) self-directed film “The Cable Guy” (1996). That last one’s especially noteworthy, because we get to catch a hilarious glimpse of Eric Roberts portraying Sam and Stan for a made-for-TV movie based on the Sweet trial.

Is there some seminal classic dual performance I missed out on? What are your thoughts about this whole twin concept, anyways? Why is it so hard to make a quality movie out of something that’s so full of potential in exploring the notion of identity? You know where to go with your comments and thoughts!

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