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

"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

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. 

Incredible shrinking Woman

“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.