Isn’t it through the most ambitious of films that the most curious of trends seem to emerge? Tomorrow brings with it the release of what is likely one of the most anticipated films of the fall season, Rian Johnson’s Looper. Thus the clear trend on the internet is to scramble together the best time travel films they can find, which was admittedly a strong temptation here as well. Who doesn’t love themselves a chance to revisiting Back to the Future, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and even Chris Marker’s La Jetee (a personal favorite)? Oddly enough, what catches my eye regarding Looper is the two lead performances.
In the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis both play the lead character of Joe, be it at different ages. That provokes a rather interesting challenge of performance and storytelling, and given Johnson’s ace character flourishes in Brick, I’m rather confident he can pull it off. It did, however, bring my mind to topic of multiple actors taking on the same character. I’m not talking about the lead character of James Bond being recast once every decade and a half. I mean actors who work either separately or together (off screen) to figure out the same character at different ages or through different personality facets.
My first reaction to the idea was wondering “Does this happen enough to make a full list about it?” As it turns out it isn’t that rare a practice, spanning all the way back to Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, where we’re shown characters in lead George Bailey’s life at different time period. Due to sheer neglect, and that I didn’t quite feel like getting into the holiday spirit just yet, I didn’t get the chance to see that. Also missing my list is one of the greatest films of all time (or at least so for Alex), The Godfather. That’s both Part I and Part II, where Vito Corleone is played by both Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Unfortunately, De Niro’s performance felt like something of an imitation of Brando’s, both working brilliantly on their own, but not together.
And I’m certain you could continue plumbing the depths of cinema for more examples. I’ll save you some trouble by saying I considered certain performers in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, There Will Be Blood, and My Left Foot. For my purposes, it came down to seven.
Film Misery’s Best Collaborative Performances on a Single Role
HONORARY MENTION: Richard Harris and Michael Gambon in the Harry Potter films (2001-2011; dir. Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates)
I’m not the biggest Harry Potter fan as of late, largely given a grand scale fumble on multiple counts, particularly the last film. The series is a missed opportunity to me, but not an entirely wasted one. It did manage a handful of truly outstanding performances, two of which on the same main character. Richard Harris’ death threw the future of the franchise into uncertainty, especially given the non-presumptuous sense of wisdom he brought to the role. The pauses in speech evoked a man both seasoned and cautious in his words. Michael Gambon was a gamble, but one I feel paid off in full. Particularly in Prisoner of Azkaban, Gambon gave the character a wistful sense of wonder that the franchise so constantly needed, but mostly only got through tacked on whimsy. Gambon was an honest symbol of optimism; Harris, an encouraging symbol of faith.
7. Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009; dir. Terry Gilliam)
The only inclusion on this list I truly wish wasn’t, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus continued Terry Gilliam’s more aimless wanderings of recent. It did, however, hold a number of strong performances in it, particularly an incomplete one from the late Heath Ledger. To Ledger credit, his is the face we remember most, a charming idealism much needed to ground Gilliam’s insane worlds. The work of the three actors cast to fill in the gaps is admirable more than anything, because they all mindfully don’t try to steal the show. They fulfill their short appearances as needed, Depp being the curious dreamboat, Law offering a crazed giddiness, and Farrell representing a scuzzy realization of the character’s true nature. All the same, leave the inquisitive showmanship to Ledger, a man who did it unlike anyone else.
6. Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, and Madjur Mittal in Slumdog Millionaire (2008; dir. Danny Boyle)
Slumdog Millionaire has three potential entries on this list, given the three central characters played each by three separate young actors. Honing in on one was a difficult task, but I was thwarted by the rising star status of Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. The characters of Jamal and Latika are most centered around those adult leads, and the child actors feel more like additions than individual performances. Even so, I am often most drawn to the interpretations of Salim, Jamal’s adaptive, backstabbing older brother. Each performance builds that brotherly relationship and the character, and the divides between each of them illustrate how the indiscretions the character commits change him, making him less or more sympathetic as the film progresses. It’s a chaotic boiling pot indicative of the one that Salim grows up in.
I mined the depths of time travel to find cases that fit this list, and the one that ultimately stuck out was one I worried would just be a guilty pleasure. After all, Men in Black 3 is neither high art or even a rousing return to form. It was, however, quite fun and playful, particularly in its use of Josh Brolin as a young Tommy Lee Jones. Jones’ dryness has been one of the series’ most tactile comedic properties, so to see Brolin dial back that mannerism ever so slightly was the breathe of fresh air the film needed. It did nothing to dilute Brolin’s natural swagger, and in fact gave him a particularly unique way of doling it out. Add onto that the exuberant nature of the film and an emotional narrative twist towards the end, and we’re just in for a good time. Sometimes that’s all you can ask.
4. Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011; dir. Lynne Ramsay)
We Need to Talk About Kevin is the sort of a film that you shouldn’t see if you’re having a child, but you should if you have one. In either case it serves as a living nightmare of a worst case parenting scenario. Lynne Ramsay certainly had her work cut out for her in managing the young actors playing Kevin at different stages of his life. It’s not about definitively creating a devil child or a simply misguided one. Ezra Miller had the heftiest part of the three, cruelly mimicking Tilda Swinton’s mannerisms while showing off a chilling disconnect. Perhaps less astounding, but no less important were the turns by Rock Duer and Jasper Newell, juvenile and malevolent foils for Swinton’s character, but also crucial seeds of what’s to come. The ground each performance paves thankfully provides no definite answer for the question of Kevin, which makes it all the more nightmarishly seductive.
Joe Wright is an interesting director to say the least, but time hasn’t yet told if that’s the most that can be said. At present, he can be highlighted as a director of tools which he uses to his advantage. Of all the storytelling devices used in Atonement, the most structurally gratifying one was the actor split for Briony Tallis. It clearly broke the film into two solid acts and an epilogue, and most interestingly enough was that each actor was given something entirely different to do. Saoirse Ronan was playing up a child’s jealousy and over-confidence that their view of the world has to be the right one. Romola Garai was particularly compelling as she portrayed the shattering of that worldview, and a realization of her unprepared fragility towards human connection. I’d gladly have handed her an Oscar nod over Redgrave, which is no negative statement against Redgrave’s emotionally satisfying cap-off of the film. All the same, it’s still only 6 minutes. Get real Academy.
Either because of a recent boom in multiple actors taking on a character, or because I don’t have as much experience in films prior to the past two decades, this is the oldest group on this list. What it raises attention to more than the others is how difficult it is to work with child actors, let alone get each of them to turn in a specific, honest performance. In the three actors Jane Campion got to play Janet Frame in An Angel At My Table, we get a range of difficult emotions made all the more so by the fact that they’re being handled mostly by children. All the tortures and tragedies of Frame’s early years leave an impression on her, and that these actresses are able to pass on these grievances with such weight and heartbreaking expression is truly remarkable. Nobody understands these kind of characters or stories like Jane Campion.
1. Marcus Carl Franklin, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw in I’m Not There (2007; dir. Todd Haynes)
You might go and call this a cheat, but having seen the film I certainly do not consider it to be. Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic is rather easily the most ambitious and stupefying of the genre, in that it breaks Bob Dylan into six different characters, thus six different performers. Yet I don’t think anybody can say that none of these is Bob Dylan. Marcus Carl Franklin has the simplest work as a performer, mostly done by his character’s arc. Richard Gere is almost a fantasy embodiment of Dylan, though not one to be discounted either. Much of the fascination comes from the rest of the performances, with Christian Bale’s closest embodiment of the Dylan newsreels, Heath Ledger’s carefully managed assemblage of “the human Bob Dylan” as known in a personal context, Ben Whishaw’s cut-like-diamonds readings of famous Dylan quotes, but most of all Cate Blanchett’s provocative embodiment the mystery, contradiction, and explosiveness of his identity. It’s a performance work that’s spread far as the eye can see, and the one that most begs the addition of a Best Ensemble Oscar.