Late last week it was announced that a sequel to the 1988 Danny DeVito-Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Twins is now in the works. The aptly named Triplets will star Eddie Murphy as the long-lost third brother of the titular Twins. When this news broke, I made a point of telling my cinema friends that “This twin does not approve” of this unnecessary sequel–yes, I am an identical twin. There is another person out there with the same genetic code (scary, right?) It’s kind of awesome having a twin, but it’s not easy either–especially since (from the ages of 1 to 18 at least) you go through every major life milestone together. But I gotta say, things are never quite as funny or horrific as cinematic representations of twins would suggest.
I think people are fascinated by twins because we represent the Uncanny–something unknown or unknowable. It’s almost like we’re supernatural: people are obsessed with asking me if we have ESP, as if sharing a womb means we share brainwaves, too. Maybe it’s because we represent a threat to the idea of individuality–we seem like we’re halfway to Pod People because we look alike. Perhaps it is our seeming connection to the strange and unnatural that lends the use of twins to horror movies and thrillers. Sad to say, but we twins are often the villains of the piece. After all, what’s creepier than Jeremy Irons playing a disturbed gynecologist? Well, Jeremy Irons playing two disturbed gynecologists who have an, um, unnaturally close relationship (in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.)
Horror movies aside, onscreen twins are largely represented in extremes and oppositions. Film twins are structured as opposing forces (and opposing personalities) within film narratives. Comedies often concern twins who are comically different in stature or personality. Movies like Twins and Big Business (both from 1988–apparently that was a big year for film twins) center on the humor of an inverted opposites-attract structure, in which twins separated at birth find each other later in life. This reunion is a source of humor because Schwarzenegger and DeVito are structured as opposites both physically and morally, with the towering colossus playing innocent to DeVito’s small-town (and small) crook. The Lily Tomlin-Bette Midler comedy Big Business sets up a dichotomies of city versus country and rich versus poor, with an added twist of actually mixing up two sets of twins.
While the twins of Twins (clever title, no?) and Big Business are contradictory in stature or upbringing, many film dramas focus on twins who represent even starker dichotomies–those of goodness versus evil, the moral versus the amoral. In fact, this trope is so common that my sister and I constantly joke that she’s “the evil one” and I’m “the good one.” (It’s true, I swear). The Man in the Iron Mask is the perfect example of a Good v. Evil twin tale because it has been rehashed for more than a century, notably in the 1998 film adaptation that blessed the world with two Leonardo DiCaprios pitted against each other. Leonardo as King Louis XIV is a cruel and heartless king, while Leonardo as his secret twin brother Philippe is a kind and gentle person. The film posits Philippe as the just, kind foil to the ruthless King Louis, and also utilizes the common twin-based plot of twins replacing one another.
Twin interchangeability is pretty frequent in dramas and thrillers, often with Twin A assuming the identity of Twin B for one of two reasons: to right the wrongs of the latter in a story of inspiration (like in Iron Mask), or in narratives where Twin A is attempting to escape some kind of sordid or dangerous past. Morality plays a key role in these films, as films like Iron Mask emphasize the replacement of a cruel person with an identically physical but morally opposite (i.e. good) person. Meanwhile, films that concern twins with sordid pasts often place a moral judgment on the lesser twin who hasn’t succeeded in maintaining their moral integrity. The television show “Ringer,” now airing on the CW, is a contemporary remodeling of this plot point, wherein a twin who has suffered and made bad decisions in her life impersonates her rich, seemingly well-off twin. (It should be noted that “Ringer” owes a debt of gratitude to films like the 1964 drama Dead Ringer, starring the incomparable Bette Davis.) As is often the case with these tales, the twin in “Ringer” soon finds that the life she idealized is actually fraught with its own sorrows. (The illusion of the ideal twin’s life is also found in countless tales of twins and doppelgangers who switch places, only to discover that, well, everybody’s got problems).
Ultimately, what I find most compelling about twins on screen is that they are used to represent two diametrically opposed ideas. Twins like those ever-so-creepy ones in The Shining are identical to the point of being the same person–they represent the unknown, the uncanny, an impossible sameness that is unnatural. They’re so identical that their evilness almost seems inevitable–as if it was born in their Twin DNA. Dramas like Iron Mask, on the other hand, suggest that genetics have little to do with the person you are or can become. King Louis and Philippe may have the same genetic code, but they are completely different men by moral standards. In films like this individuality–indeed, a person’s soul or essence–trumps genetics. In the end, I’d like to think I have little in common with my cinematic counterparts, and it’s more than a little disappointing that so few films accurately depict the relationship I have with my twin. Honestly, the film that most closely illustrates the bond I feel to my twin sister is The Parent Trap. I count myself lucky that it’s not Dead Ringer. There’s certainly no evil twin in my family…or is there?
*While we’re on the subject of twins, be sure to check out Kai’s Top 5 Movie Twins!