The cinema enthralls us with illusions within illusions, and even the most obvious can quickly become complicated. Take acting, for example. It's basically a performer pretending to be someone else, and that in itself can be extremely nuanced and complex. But sometimes that complexity derives simply from the fact that one actor portrays more than one character, often at the same time.
Lately we've see several striking examples of this. Last year's "Cloud Atlas" had Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving each playing six different characters and several other performers doing five to seven each for six different stories in six different time periods. For Hanks, at least, this wasn't an entirely new challenge. In 2004, through motion capture technology, he acted six different characters (from a young boy to Santa Claus) in the animated "The Polar Express," often indeed playing opposite himself.
In 2011, Adam Sandler, playing brother and sister twins in "Jack and Jill," made history by winning the Golden Raspberry Award (the Razzie) for both worst actor and worst actress.
"The Host," now in theaters, features an unusual double role. Saoirse Ronan plays not only heroine Melanie but also Wanda, the alien creature who possesses her body. We only briefly glimpse Wanda's true form (sparkly!), but we hear both her thoughts and Melanie's as they argue in Melanie's head (both voiced by Ronan). So it's perhaps a role-and-a-half rather than, strictly speaking, a double role.
Of course, the most familiar multiple role gambit appears in movies about twins. "The Parent Trap," in both its 1961 Hayley Mills version (with its three TV movie sequels in the late 1980s) and its 1998 Lindsay Lohan version, represents the family-friendly take on twins. "Dead Ringers," David Cronenberg's 1988 film about perverse twin gynecologists played by Jeremy Irons, presents probably the darkest, or at least the best of the darkest.
In between, numerous films deal with twins, often with an "evil twin" to complicate matters. In "Jack's Back" (1988), James Spader plays a doctor and his somewhat shady brother who become involved with a killer emulating Jack the Ripper on the 100th anniversary of his crime spree. Since one brother dies before the other arrives on the scene, Spader does not have the opportunity to share the screen with himself in a single shot. In the 1992 Matthew Broderick comedy "Out on a Limb," Jeffrey Jones plays two evil twins, one worse than the other.
Of course twins or cousins who look alike or even completely unrelated doubles have long been staples of popular fiction and film. The latter include numerous movie adaptations of "The Man in the Iron Mask" (he's the imprisoned twin of King Louis XIV), "The Prisoner of Zenda" (a tyrant's cousin is substituted for him), and "The Prince and the Pauper" (royal and impoverished look-alikes swap places). Both 1988's "Moon over Parador" (Richard Dreyfuss as an actor doubling for a South American dictator) and Ivan Reitman's 1993 "Dave" (ordinary guy Kevin Kline dragooned into doubling for a philandering president) present comic takes on the Zenda story.
"The Devil's Double" (2011) presented a real-life take on the same theme: the story of a soldier (Dominic Cooper) forced to become the double for Saddam Hussein's psychotic son, Uday.
Multiple roles where the characters do not look alike virtually always appear in comedies and usually get touted as bravura performances. One mainstay of Sir Alec Guinness' early reputation was "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949) in which he played eight characters (including one woman), all victims of a protagonist intent on eliminating everyone between him and a dukedom.
Peter Sellers essayed multiple roles in several films, most notably Stanley Kubrick's 1964 "Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" where he played the title character, the President of the United States and a British major.
Eddie Murphy has made playing multiple parts, often in heavy make-up, something of a trademark. It started as a gag in "Coming to America" (1988) where the joke of his multiple identities was revealed in the end credits. But the gimmick grew until it became an integral part of the primary advertising for "The Nutty Professor" (1997), "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" (2000), and "Norbit" (2007).
Television, however, has been providing the best recent multiple role offerings. "Fringe," which concluded in January, had Anna Torv playing an FBI agent, an agent in a parallel universe, both those agents posing as the other, both of them in an alternate time line, and one of them possessed by the mind of Leonard Nimoy. The new "Orphan Black" series on BBC America follows the adventures of a woman (Tatiana Mastany) who discovers she's one of several clones (five so far and counting) who are targeted for destruction by whoever performed the experiment which created them.
As active as this device remains these days, however, it dates back to the early days of the cinema. The 1913 German classic horror film "The Student of Prague" deals with a student who makes pact with the devil and then runs into his resulting evil double in the streets.
American comic Buster Keaton created the classic multi-performance, though, in his 1921 two-reel (about 20-minute) short "The Play House." It opens with a long dream sequence in which Keaton plays all the performers on the stage, all the musicians in the orchestra, and everyone in the audience. And all that was more than three-quarters of a century before a brief computer-generated similar scene in "Being John Malkovich."
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.