Historical Circuit: Dead Ringers (****)

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Jeremy Irons gave one of my favorite Oscar acceptance speeches.  Upon winning Best Actor for his shrewd performance as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, he gave a very special penultimate acknowledgement: “Thank you also, and some of you may understand why…thank you David Cronenberg.”  Those who had seen Dead Ringers just two years earlier understood exactly why he had thanked the director, as his dual performance as twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle is – without exaggeration – one for the ages.

Irons plays both twins with such specificity that after only a few minutes it becomes obvious which one is Elliot and which one is Beverly, even when one of them is pretending to be the other.  Both deeply nuanced portrayals of these characters draw out two sides of what amounts to essentially the same person – men who complete each other yet are undone by their own unbearable closeness.

In 1975, Doctors Stewart and Cyril Marcus were found dead together in a Manhattan apartment.  The cause of death was determined to be barbiturate addiction withdrawal.  This event shocked both the medical community and the country, and a young horror filmmaker believed that the medical, psychological and social implications of this tragedy were so immense that it was only a matter of time before someone would turn it into a film.  But although a novel was published based on the incident (Twins), a film had not been attempted, and so it was David Cronenberg who stepped up.

Despite just coming off of his biggest box office success with The Fly, he faced resistance with, of all things, his protagonists being gynecologists from potential backers.  Even actors were scared off by that element alone; the part of the Mantle Brothers had been rejected by almost twenty other actors (including Robert De Niro) simply because gynecology made them uncomfortable.  While it is a little silly in perspective – De Niro didn’t seem to feel uncomfortable playing psychopaths, gangsters and rapists – it does touch on Cronenberg’s affinity for what makes our skin crawl for unusual reasons.  What is it about doctors specializing in female fertility that is so off-putting?  Perhaps men are disturbed by the idea of another man being a part of his partner’s reproduction, or having such an intimate physiological knowledge of women in general.  Either way, there was of course no way that the twins could have any other profession, as this clinical expertise on females (gynecology comes from the Greek phrase “study of women”) served a necessary contrast to their inability to make a healthy emotional connection with one.

The operating room is temple in Dead Ringers, and Beverly/Elliot are the cardinals.

The whole film, in fact, is a study in contrasts – how an opposite person or environment effects another.  Take for example the twins themselves.  Elliot is the more confident and domineering of the two.  He is the one who dazzles at all the publicity events and initially seduces women before casually passing them off to his more sensitive and introverted brother Beverly (even the name is more feminine, as pointed out in the film).  They shared everything; women, accolades, even an alien-looking but elaborate apartment shot in haunting, cold  “bruise” colors (blues, deep purples, grays).  This twisted order of life is comfortable for both of them until Beverly falls in love with one of their “marks” – the B-movie actress Claire Niveau in a wonderful performance by Geneviève Bujold.  She is in every way a rejection of the world that the brothers have cocooned themselves in.  Her extreme sexual desires, obsession with procreating and sharp observation of human behavior opens up Beverly to feelings that he never explored before, and falls into a passionate relationship with her (including a kinky sex scene that is simultaneously the most unsettling and romantic portrayal of bondage I’ve seen).  But it’s only a matter of time before she discovers the dynamic of the two.  Her eventual rejection of it causes poor Bev to descend into drug addiction and madness…and as one brother goes so must the other.

Cronenberg was very careful in executing a film about twins.  Though “twinning” effects had existed for some time, he didn’t want to make such filmmaking tricks obvious, but make the whole experience seem organic as if the audience were really watching two people.  His restraint led to only eleven twinning shots in the entire film, using a combination of body doubles, acting doubles, and a very early attempt at computer-controlled moving-matte photography.  This was how the Mantles could “cross” into the other side of the frame, or, in a key phone call, a shot of one twin could refocus to the twin in the foreground without a single cut.  And keep in mind the whole goal of all these expensive and difficult techniques were to make the audience not ever notice them.

Irons did the rest.  The initial plan was to treat the characters as separate during filmmaking; giving them different clothes, hairstyles, etc.  But Irons quickly realized that the effect of having two physically identical people would be wasted if it was visually easy to tell them apart, so he demanded to be dressed and prepared as a single person, and allow his subtle Alexandrian techniques to do the rest.  The effect works; despite the exact same appearance one can pick up on the subtle differences between the two, since Elliot’s “energy point” is his forehead and walking on the balls of his feet while Beverly’s “energy point” was his Adam’s Apple and walked on his heels.  His accomplishments were substantial and numerous in this regard.  The scene where Beverly tearfully confides in his brother, for example, required separate takes for every. Single. Cut. He couldn’t just run through one character with his acting double as that would throw off the lighting, so he would have to switch between calm, reassuring Elliot and disheveled, hysterical Beverly between each take, and he was able to do this within a few minutes.  I assume it’s becoming obvious by now why the Academy was so quick to tacitly apologize for this egregious snub?

What's a Cronenberg film without a touch of body horror?

Twins are in a sense the perfect phenomenon for a man like Cronenberg to tackle in a film.  An artist like him being so obsessed with the relationship between the mind and body – in fact staunchly believing that there is no “mind” without body – would have probably invented twins in a science fiction film if they didn’t exist in the real world.  After all, the implications are far more profound than simply physiological.  If your corporeal makeup is a major part of who you are, what does it say about your individuality if you have a brother/sister with the exact same appearance as you?  What if you two were separated at birth but led similar lives, professions and even married women with the same names?  It’s a stunning and even somewhat terrifying insight into human identity, and that probably explains why – despite their undeniable strangeness – our hearts break for the tragedy of the Mantles.  Their close relationship, their bond, arguably the unique and defining part of their lives, was also their curse.  That unbearable closeness that I mentioned earlier was both something that they could not cope without or live on with, punctuated by its painful but inevitable final shot.  In a filmography featuring disease-spreading phallic stingers, mutations of technology with flesh, and a human fusing with a housefly, it is telling of Cronenberg’s penetrating thematic truths that the most heartbreaking downfall he ever depicted was catalyzed by a “monster” that was no more than a mirror image of another human.

Combine such rich thematic material (God, I didn’t even touch on the twists and turns of Claire Niveau!) with two astonishing, committed performances and superlative groundbreaking filmmaking technique and the result is the magnum opus of one of the most challenging and singular directors working today.

  • Have never cared for Irons work, but admittedly he was brilliant in Dead Ringers (1988) and deserved at the very least a nomination — My God he won the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor!! — other than this I find him chilly and remote, which worked perfectly for him as Scar in The Lion King and to a lesser extent (much lesser) in Reversal of Fortune (1990) — and to interview mhim?? Arrogance personified. A pompous ass.

  • koook160

    Excellent write-up. I love this film as well. If I could choose the Oscars, this would have taken Best Director and Best Actor hands down.