The best films featuring actors in multiple roles exhibit performers at the height of their powers, showcasing an ability to immerse themselves in characters to such an extent they make us – the audience – forget we’re watching the same person play different roles.
Given the opportunity to perform in multiple roles within a single film must be a genuine joy for any good actor. One of my favourite multi-character performances actually appears across three films, not one, but they’re all part of the same world. I’m talking, of course, about Back To The Future.
Across this brilliant trilogy, Thomas F. Wilson plays a number of variations of his Biff Tannen character, bringing the characteristics of the man-bully into each variation with some subtle, and some not-so subtle, changes.
Perhaps his most memorable incarnation of the character is Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, Biff’s supposed ancestor from the Wild West. However, in the original Back To The Future we get to see how playing with the past affects the future as present-day Biff changes from a moody curmudgeon into an over-caffeinated, overeager family friend.
With the Tannens included, here’s my selection of best films featuring actors in multiple roles…
10. Big Business (Abrahams, 1988)
Lily Tomlin & Bette Midler
In this fun comedy from Jim Abrahams who is famously part of the team that created Airplane, Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin play a set of sisters who are mistakenly separated from their twin at birth. Each pairing grows up (believing they’re non-identical twins) unbeknownst of the error before a series of events sees them in the same small town at the same time. This initially leads to some funny scenes of the sisters being mistaken for their twins including by the men who are trying to pursue them romantically. The premise adds weight to proceedings by making one set of sisters rich and the other comparatively poor. It leads to a formulaic conclusion but both Tomlin and Midler’s enthusiasm in their multirole performances rubs off on the audience.
See Also: Top 10 Female Buddy Movies
9. Legend (Helgeland, 2015)
Tom Hardy plays the infamous Kray twins in Legend, capturing the subtleties of their volatile personas to distinguish identical brothers who, visually, are difficult to tell apart. Hardy has proven, across a number of roles (the standouts being his appearance as one of Britain’s notorious criminals Charles Bronson in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 film, a mixed martial artist in Warrior, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s nemesis in Oscar-winning film The Revenant), his ability to immerse himself in character. These attributes are tested in Legend where he authentically brings the Kray twins to life, scenes often composed of him acting with himself.
Discover More: similar multiple roles for actors playing twins/doppelgangers can be found in Adaptation (Nicolas Cage), Enemy (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dead Ringers (which is featured in this top 10).
8. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Roach, 1999)
Mike Myers, like many of his Saturday Night Live co-stars past and present, is great at playing multiple roles. In the sequel to Austin Powers he adds Fat Bastard to his ensemble which includes the titular title character and the brilliant villain Dr. Evil. He’s unrecognisable as the rotund Scottish henchman Fat Bastard, a gluttonous villain with a penchant for ingesting anything and everything into his oversized belly. Myers excels, however, with another great performance as Dr. Evil, one of his best creations.
7. Coming To America (Landis, 1988)
Eddie Murphy plays four characters in John Landis’ Coming to America including Randy “Sexual Chocolate” Watson, a soul singer with a wonderfully inappropriate manner, particularly when considered in the context of his “stage” – amongst god-fearing churchgoers. Murphy is even better as the barbershop owner (Clarence) and customer (Saul), local mainstays always good for a gossip.
See Also: Top 10 Eddie Murphy Characters
6. Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988)
Like all the greatest multirole performances in film, it’s the subtle differences that are the hardest to bring to life. Overt differences (like Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers in their over-the-top caricatures – see The Nutty Professor or So I Married An Axe Murderer, for example) are easier to invent than when characters such as twin brothers are required to have individual characteristics without the benefit of facial-changing prosthetics and cartoonish foreign accents. Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers gives us one of those delightfully understated multirole performances as he brings to life identical twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Aesthetically inseparable, Irons finds individualism in motivation and character development, the unsettling nature of their story coming from a disconcerting sameness.
5. The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger, 1943)
In one of the greatest British films of all time, Powell and Pressburger’s The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp sees Deborah Kerr play three love interests, each with distinctive attributes that set them apart but, crucially, a striking, alluring appearance that draws the attentions of Roger Livesey’s Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy. Kerr’s reoccurring role underlines the changing sensibilities of the period (early 20th century through to the Second World War) while typifying love, loss, romance and relationships in a turbulent era.
4. Tootsie (Pollack, 1982)
A definite contender for “best man-dressed-as-woman movie”, Dustin Hoffman’s multirole performance sees him play a talented actor who finds acting opportunities more difficult to come by thanks to his reputation for being difficult to work with. Told by his agent that no one will hire him, he dresses up as a woman and goes to an audition for a female lead in a popular daytime soap. Miraculously he gets the part and his character becomes an instant hit with audiences. Problem is: no one knows he’s really a man, and when he falls in love with the leading lady, things get really complicated. The credibility of Hoffman’s female persona makes Tootsie both funny and endearing. The wig, glasses and make-up help you forget you’re watching a man in drag but it’s the talent of Hoffman, softening his voice and mannerisms, adjusting the way he walks to get more shuffle in the hips, that really sells the character.
See Also: Top 10 Dustin Hoffman Performances
3. Back To The Future trilogy (Zemeckis, 1985, 1989, 1990)
Thomas F. Wilson
Across the Back To The Future trilogy we see several actors playing multiple roles such as Crispin Glover performing as his young and old self, and Michael J. Fox playing his older self’s children, including his teenage daughter. But it’s Thomas F. Wilson who really stands out when all three films are taken into consideration. Not only does he play versions of his original character Biff Tannen (as both a bullying teenager and similarly nasty grown-up businessman) but also variations as the result of the past being changed. For example, an older Biff Tannen who has softened after being punched by Marty’s dad when the high schooler finally stands up to the bully and, in a dystopian future, a Trump-esque stinking rich business mogul wielding an iron fist from his ivory tower. He even plays his own grandfather in the Wild West in Back To The Future 3. Wilson’s great at bringing something unique to each character, helped of course by the excellent screenwriting of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.
2. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer, 1949)
This wonderful Ealing comedy features Alec Guinness in eight distinct roles. The gifted actor gives us eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, heirs to a dukedom that Dennis Price’s Louis Mazzini is desperate to get his hands on. So keen is the 10th Duke of Chalfont that he’s willing to kill every family member standing in his way. Both Price and Guinness are wonderful; the impeccable, well-spoken murderer with his unassuming charm opposite a number of Guinness incarnations (including Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne) ranging from the idiosyncratic quirks to restrained, stiff upper lip of ruling class nobility.
1. Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964)
One of the most well-respected and widely loved American films, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove showed the courage, as well as the genius, of its writer-director in its comedic portrayal of a nuclear apocalypse. The Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world to the verge of atomic annihilation and people on both sides of the Cold War divide were worried about a sudden news report to “duck and cover”.
Kubrick was similarly concerned by the concept of man-made apocalypse and having initially toyed with the idea of producing a dramatic depiction of mid-1960s fears, turned his attentions to satirising the futility of war. Kubrick singlehandedly voiced his fears about the fragile system in place to stop nuclear war while making fun of it. He gives audiences at the time a moment to laugh thanks to the genuine levity he finds in the subject, while not avoiding the seriousness of the matter.
Peter Sellers, in his triple role, is an actor known for his many personas thanks to multi-character performances in Kubrick’s Lolita and previously in The Mouse That Roared. Here he expertly gives us Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and Dr. Strangelove himself, each character enjoying very different characteristics. From their various accents (American, English, and German) to the subtleties of their specific personas (Strangelove’s bizarrely half-and-half body, his right side seemingly still a Nazi sympathiser, his left fighting desperately to fit into a world at comparative peace), the three aren’t just credible in their differences, they are genuine characters, not caricatures.
Over to you: what are the best films featuring actors in multiple roles?