“You haven’t had any experience until I’ve had it, too.”
Successful gynecologists and identical twin brothers, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, share everything. Elliot, the more assertive and confident of the two, drags his studious, socially awkward brother Beverly through life. When the beautiful and famous Claire Niveau walks through the doors of their clinic, she creates a ripple in the lives of the twins that won’t easily be settled.
Dead Ringers was my first introduction to the work of David Cronenberg. I always want to say it was his 1986 remake of the sci-fi classic, The Fly, but then I realize it wasn’t. My parents had gone to see The Fly and forbade me to see it. Of course, that only made the desire stronger.
By the time Dead Ringers was available on VHS – I know, I’m dating myself here – I rode my brother’s ten speed to the video store and rented it. Even then, at the tender age of 14 or 15 years old, I was figuring out workarounds for things I perceived to be broken. You see, my parents had put me on their rental account and never bothered to use a restriction on what I could and could not rent.
Looking back, I realize, of course, there was a damn good reason why my parents didn’t want me to see The Fly or Dead Ringers or anything made by the likes of David Cronenberg. But I regret nothing. Nothing!
As a teenager, the discussion of fertility and the depiction of gynecology – with which I had no first hand knowledge – was terrifying and mysterious. The Beverly brothers seemed to sexualize it, obsess over it. This didn’t square with what I’d been told about doctors. In fact, it downright terrified me.
Well, I’m sure their custom designed tools didn’t help either.
There was no way for me to relate to any of the characters in the film, either. I have a sibling – an older brother – but obviously, we were not as close as Elliot and Beverly. Thankfully. That’s a whole different kind of gross, right there. But, this was a time in my life where I was consuming as many movies from as many different genres as I possibly could. I had just discovered my first love; cinema. And, not unlike the Mantle brothers, I had found an obsession.
For me, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers was the most sophisticated, complicated, and sexy film I’d ever seen. It weaves a sad and complicated tale of identity, in which it is made eventually clear that Elliot and Beverly do not see themselves as two distinct people. They are one – split into two – constantly attempting to come together again so that they may feel whole.
After watching the film again recently, I realize much of how I felt about Dead Ringers more than 25 years ago remains true for me today.
There is a type of seduction to the plot, in watching the slow unraveling of the brothers’ psychological state. To be outside of it, with no way to interject, provides a delicious freedom – you can almost feel what its like to lose yourself as Beverly spirals into drug abuse and despair, trying desperately to free himself from the dominance of his brother.
Everything is set in motion because Beverly has fallen for one of Elliot’s cast-offs, the actress Claire Niveau – a woman with a wonderfully rare, but useless feminine mutation that has left her infertile. In the doing, Beverly unwittingly upsets the balance between the brothers.
Watching the film again, at a more mature age, I realize how Earth shattering this news would have been for a woman like Claire who, at the height of her wealth and fame, cannot do the one thing she so longs to do – become a mother. This side plot of Claire Niveau’s character is as rich and interesting as the brothers’, but she is really only present to act as the explosive catalyst that drives the brothers to their ultimate fate.
Jeremy Irons’ performance was widely praised but ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A few years later, when Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, it was David Cronenberg he thanked. And for good reason. The role of the Mantle brothers had been offered to the likes of Robert de Niro and William Hurt before Irons was considered.
In production, Irons utilized what is known as the Alexander technique to give Beverly and Elliot unique physical attributes. The technique helped Irons create different physical movements and energy points for each of the brothers, a subtly that aids in the oft times dangerously blended appearance of Beverly and Elliot.
It is this ambiguity, this blending of the two characters that is paramount to the film’s success.
I haven’t yet read the semi-fictionalized book upon which Dead Ringers is based: Twins by Bari Wood. Published in the late 70’s, Twins is a look at the real life twin brothers, Stewart and Cyril Marcus, found naked and dead in their Manhattan apartment. It tells of incestuous homosexual behavior, drug abuse, and other Cronenbergesque grimness.
In Dead Ringers, the first thing many Cronenberg fans will notice is the stunning lack of Cronenberg’s signature visceral display of blood and gore. With Dead Ringers, Cronenberg shows a – I hate to say it – matured ability to stun and affect without the visual effects present in his previous outings. Here, Cronenberg uses visual and aural suggestion to lead his audience. Panning the camera over a table of surgical instruments is enough, in this case, to suggest the horror that will follow as Beverly and Elliot spend the last of their days together.
Dead Ringers is a stunner – thanks to a tightly woven script and the amazing performance of Irons who proves to be the films’ best special effect.
Making of Featurette:
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