With the recent return of BBC America’s brilliant cloning drama Orphan Black – and its award-winning star Tatiana Maslany – we explore the long tradition of screen actors playing several different characters in the same production.
Orphan Black does a lot of things very well indeed: its writing and direction are untouchable, with a continuous air of tension and an eye for a great twist and cliffhanger; it looks stunning, and stands as a supreme example of low-budget genre TV/film-making; and it has a great cast, notably headed by the three characters Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix and Cosima Niehaus – all played, among others, by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany.
The brilliance of Maslany’s performance is as layered as the show’s plot. Of course, it’s impressive that she can create so many (eight, at the last count) characters all completely different in personality, physicality and even accent. But more than that, each clone has her own trajectory and development; not a single one of them is a mere one-note caricature, even if punky Sarah or soccer mom Alison may seem that way at first. And each of these growths is acted perfectly, to the point that Maslany’s involvement could be stripped down to the one role and she’d still be Emmy-worthy.
Then there’s the complications – Sarah spends much of the first season pretending to be another clone, Beth, while the best episodes stretch the farcical possibilities of the central concept to its extreme, forcing Sarah to cover for a drunk Alison and, later, the other way around. So Maslany finds herself frequently playing one character playing another, and so on and so forth, without ever even dropping her accent – be it estuary English, R.P., Russian, German, American, etc. etc. But you get the idea. The technical complexity of the performance(s) is just mind-boggling, far more complicated in fact than the twists in the actual show. The concept, however, of an actor playing completely different roles in the same production is certainly not new; with that in mind, let’s take a short trip through the history of cinema’s dual roleplaying tradition.
We start, as always, in the silent era. One of the earliest examples (still in existence at least) of a proper dual role on film is 1917’s silent adaptation of The Woman in White, featuring rising star Florence LaBadie as both Laura Fairlie and the eponymous woman Anne Catherick. It’s a great, classic role, and well-serviced by a lead actress who succeeds in giving the two identical characters distinct personalities. The Laura/Anne role has been filled many times since – by Blanche Sweet in 1929, Sylvia Marriott in 1940 and Eleanor Parker in 1948, among others – but LaBadie’s effort, on YouTube here, remains a solid precedent.
Other greats from the silent era include the various versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, most notably the 1920 silent version in which John Barrymore struts his stuff quite wonderfully, and the 1931 talkie for which Fredric March deservedly won (his first) Academy Award. Then there’s 1929’s The Iron Mask and 1939’s The Man in the Iron Mask, which like Jekyll and Hyde and The Woman in White use the classic literary conceit of an uncanny double or evil twin, and so utilise dual roleplaying. It may be clear at this point that multiple roles in earlier films tended towards the melodramatic or horrific, forcing actors to play simple extremes – the “bad” version and the “good” version of a character. So far, so simple.
Enter Buster Keaton. 1921’s The Playhouse, available here in its entirety, went as you may imagine for more of a comical approach. The film opens with a surreal dream in which Keaton plays every single occupant of a theatre, including the audience, the orchestra, and an entire minstrel show that required the development of an insane camera shutter allowing nine strips of film to be played simultaneously and at different speeds.
The sequence – referenced beautifully in An American in Paris – set the precedent for many later multi-roles in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s the technology involved. As we see in Jekyll and Hyde and later versions of The Woman in White, a great deal of stagey tricks were needed in order to not only convince audiences that actors could play multiple characters but that these characters could exist, as in real life, alongside each other. Or even transform into one another – just another piece of movie magic. Keaton’s proto-split-screen was a great trick also used in this early period by innovators such as Chaplin and even Edison – and the trick has proved popular to this day, albeit now augmented with CGI and other fancier tricks (more on that later).
Secondly, Keaton’s spectacular show gave important precedent to an archetype that has remained for nearly a century: the sketchy comedic role-hopper. There’s a clear line from The Playhouse to modern pretenders that include Jack and Jill‘s Adam Sandler, Austin Powers‘ Mike Myers, and the heroic efforts of tireless entertainer Edward R. Murphy. Which, given their box office receipts (and the fact that Austin Powers is actually an alright series), isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s important to note that this current landscape, the one in which Tatiana Maslany finds herself, has been the standard for multiple roleplaying for years.
Keaton’s approach was different to the Jekylls, iron masks and women in white in that no individual development was needed for each character beyond their placement as totems of entertainment. The conductor is a conductor, the customer is a customer. All are essentially Keaton with different clothes and funny props. The Playhouse, and later films such as Jerry Lewis vehicles The Family Jewels, The Big Mouth and The Nutty Professor, Lee Marvin’s double role in Cat Ballou, Woody Allen’s chameleonic Zelig, the McFlys and Tannens of Back to the Future, Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! and even the sketch-derived approach of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail and Life of Brian – not to mention the prince-and-the-pauper style antics of Bob Hope’s My Favourite Spy and Kevin Kline caper Dave – is all about using the dual role as a kind of comic gimmick. Easily the most acute offender would be Mary Poppins, in which this happens.
Even two of the very greatest examples from the mid-20th century are, at their core, excuses to squeeze as much as possible from their star entertainers and create a memorable selling-point. Kind Hearts and Coronets and Dr Strangelove are both great black comedies; riotous farces anchored by virtuoso performances from Alec Guinness (eight roles) and Peter Sellers (three roles) respectively. And as with all the best such multi-playing, each comes with a perfectly logical reason for its own existence – Guinness plays eight members of the same family while Sellers, partly on the whim of director Stanley Kubrick, appears to be trying to show us the uncanny similarities between peacekeepers and warmakers on all sides of the military spectrum. Yet at the heart of it, the opportunity for instance to place Sellers in three different roles of increasing wackiness (from the more dramatic Capt. Mandrake, to the comically exasperated President Muffley, to the, er, indescribable title character) was a great marketing move – Columbia’s financing of the film being dependent on Sellers’ involvement(s) after the success of Lolita, in which he had also played dual roles.
It’s difficult, of course, to call these wonderful pieces of performative art cynical marketing ploys – especially with Sellers, considering the irrefutable masterpiece that is his multi-faceted, yet totally empty, “Chauncey Gardner” in Being There – yet the tradition with so many of these dual roles seems to be less about internal logic and more about attaining that sense of zany, almost vaudevillian fun typically created by an actor’s multiple role-playing. Even a great deal of international and arthouse films rely on a similar, if probably more intellectual, sense of the carnivalesque: Holy Motors, Sprawa do Załatwienia, Dasavathaaram and even Kieslowski’s Rather Serious The Double Life of Véronique all use multi-roleplaying to conjure an air of quite playful strangeness. It’s simply a higher-falutin extension of the self-conscious entertainment logic that leads to your Strangeloves and Jack and Jills.
If there were any doubt that dual roleplaying tends towards deliberate gimmickry, we can briefly list the ways in which such performances have been used as technological spectacle: Gollum/Sméagol in Lord of the Rings; the “Winklevi” in The Social Network; even the apparently-basic make-up tricks used since the silent era. Such examples just show what a wonderful, madcap thing it is when we see someone occupying more than one character in the same filmic space – it is genuinely as much of a tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal as the car chase, or the sword fight. It’s a strange and entertaining thing to happen; much like spotting an obscure reference, when an actor has been properly disguised it becomes fun just slowly realising what’s happening.
But this just brings us back to Orphan Black. Part of the show’s brilliance is in revolutionising on-screen multi-roleplaying as just that: a series of very different roles, cleverly drawn together by a cloning conceit that, in its apparent obviousness, actually ends up masking the characters’ similarities, forcing us to look for as many differences and unique tics as possible rather than just asking us to sit and point at the actor, impressed at their skill. What I mean is, rather than being distracted occasionally by the histrionic oddity of seeing an actor donning increasingly elaborate disguises, with Orphan Black the changes in appearance are so subtle, the differences in characterisation so naturalised and well-lived-in, that you actually, genuinely forget that what you’re seeing comes from the same basic creative place as The Nutty Professor.