Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 2, 2013
The history of the movies is replete with great performances, one after another, often in the same movie. While many movies have a clear central character with no counterpart in length or breadth within the same film (from I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Stella Dallas and Citizen Kane to movies like On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood) many others have a male and female lead playing off of each other, with some famous examples from Hollywood history being Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and The Apartment. But there are still others, the great dual performance movies, that have two parts playing against each other in a mutual conflict or war or maybe just a game, depending on how you look at it. They’re the movies that have the two leads, usually the same gender and the characters are usually, but not always, completely at odds. You know the ones I’m talking about, movies like All About Eve or Sleuth, in which two characters face off and do battle, one against the other, and often times their performances are also matched one against the other by the movie-going public. When it comes to picking one over the other, I’m no exception, I do it all the time.
Before I delve too deeply into this, I should make clear: I have absolutely no measuring stick for choosing one performance over the other, just my own personal opinion, and would further state that in some cases, I’m probably picking a performance made better by the other performance. You see, good actors have a way of making each other look good while bad actors can bring a whole company down. Of course, no one ever had to worry about that with Bette Davis, so supremely confident in all of her performances that they often overshadow everyone else in the movie. But in one of her most famous “dual lead” movies, All About Eve, I think I’d go with Anne Baxter for the better performance or, at least, my favorite performance of the two. It’s cunning and duplicitous but, mainly, it’s sad. Anne’s Eve is, in the end, a tragic character, getting what she wants most dearly but losing her soul due to the drive and determination that got her there. She’ll do anything for stardom but once she attains it the ends don’t seem to make the means worth the trip. When she resigns herself to Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, who manages to photo bomb the whole movie) there’s a sense of mournful defeat. At the end, as she goes into the other room to change she is lacking in emotion of any kind. She just exists now, as a star, with Addison as her Svengali. It’s a great performance.
But in Bette Davis’ other great “dual lead” movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, I give the edge to Davis, by a long shot. To my mind, Joan Crawford doesn’t give Bette a whole hell of a lot to work with but at the same time, the script is mostly to blame. Crawford’s is a thankless role, made no better by the twist ending because even upon repeated viewings, her character is very bland, staid and, frankly, boring. So Davis has nothing much to play against and has to play it big as a result and play it big she does. It’s one of my favorite “big” performances, in fact, all ham-hock and glaze with enough spice to make even the most demur gourmets among us gobble it down with delight.
But women aren’t the only ones who get to have fun with these kinds of juicy battle of wills stories, as evidenced at the top of this post with the mention of Sleuth which contains two great performances by Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. Again, as with all great actors, it’s a tough call of one over the other. In any normal circumstances I’d say they’re both equally good but for the purposes of this post, I’ll pick one and that one will be Laurence Olivier because, well, just go back to the whole ham-hock line in the preceding paragraph. Olivier plays it big and bold and when (SPOILER ALERT) in the end he is duped by Caine and decidedly the loser, his wailing release of self-pitying emotion is one of the most gratifying things in the whole movie. (END SPOILER)
Michael Caine, like Bette Davis, had another dual lead movie as well, this time with Christopher Reeve and employing multiple twists and turns just like the previous outing, Sleuth. The movie was Deathtrap and this time, I go with Reeve. Christopher Reeve doesn’t get a lot of respect as an actor. He’s most closely associated with Superman and even though he did a lot of fine work as an actor, he didn’t make a lot of movies that stand out on their own where he was the lead. In a movie like Street Smart, it was Morgan Freeman who stole the show and in movies that made a bigger impact, like The Remains of the Day, his role was important but small. But in Deathtrap he excels and makes the movie work, along with Caine and Dyan Cannon. They’re all great but Reeve plays the role of the younger sociopathic writer with a fearsome menace so well that when he threatens Caine about the consequences of burning the play he wrote (that he’ll leave and write it somewhere else), the viewer knows he’s really threatening Caine, and it’s scary.
Of course, not every dual lead movie is about people doing battle, sometimes they’re at odds simply because of personality. Midnight Cowboy is one of the best examples, with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman both receiving Oscar nominations for their roles and both losing out to John Wayne in True Grit. The talk has always been that they cancelled each other out and that may be true because their performances appeal to two different types of performance tastes. I think Hoffman is the one that’s always gotten the most praise but I think Voight is better by a considerable degree. He plays a character fighting against his instincts to be successful at something he probably isn’t sure he wants to do in the first place. That is to say, he wants to be a hustler and plays the extroverted cowboy even though it’s clear he’s withdrawn and quiet and probably just wants to settle down somewhere. He does an excellent job with it and if there’s one of the two I have to go with it would probably be him.
In another great duel of the leads, 1983 gave us Terms of Endearment and even though I’m not a big fan of the movie, the actual war between the actresses seemed real enough to jump off the screen. It’s been rumored that they had problems on the set but I honestly have never read anything on it nor have any desire to so (I just can’t bring myself to ever care much about behind-the-scenes tales of woe) I couldn’t be sure one way or the other if any of it is true or not. All I know is, once again, it’s a case of two great actors perfectly matched against each other, each making the other one better. And once again, it’s hard to pick between the two but I’ll go with my gut instinct and say Shirley MacLaine gets the nod because she really set herself into a different performance type with this one. For the early part of her career, MacLaine played perky, flighty, lovelorn and comical but never before, not even in her other great dual lead movie, The Turning Point, did she really get to the point where she could play bitter like she does here. It opened up new roles for her and now it’s almost cliche that MacLaine can play the role of old, embittered woman better than anyone (witness her spot-on casting in Bernie).
As always, I’ve barely touched on the topic at hand. A handful of movies and I have to wrap it up but there are plenty of others from comedy (The Odd Couple) to westerns (Red River) to war (Hell in the Pacific) to crime/adventure/dramas (Lethal Weapon, Thelma and Louise) but I don’t have time to go through each one here. That’s what the comment section is for. Besides, we all know the correct answers for those last four are Matthau, Clift, Marvin, Glover and Sarandon, right? Of course we do. Or maybe it’s Lemmon, Wayne, Mifune, Gibson and Davis. I don’t know. Pick up one and leave the other behind, I say, but I warn you, it’s not always easy and it’s not always kind when you finally have to make up your mind.
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