Through [alpha] Speculum Darkly THE TRAGIC ANATOMY OF DEAD RINGERS: An unsettling tale based on a real-life case of twin gynaecologists who were found dead together, David Cronenberg's 1980s cult oddity is a strangely moving examination of addiction, biology and co-dependency. As RAMON GLAZOV descripes, the film is also a rich senior secondary classroom text for English and health education students.
An atmosphere of respectability strikes you immediately as you watch Dead Ringers. It is Cronenberg's first film to have a high-society setting: the world of twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Both characters are played by Jeremy Irons, whose plummy voice and refinement stand in contrast to the middle-class airs of earlier Cronenberg protagonists. Recalling her first viewing of Dead Ringers, film critic Eileen Jones told me: 'The film was so lavishly production-designed, I was distracted by how posh it was.' (1) Such newfound poshness went hand in hand with Cronenberg's rising fortunes as a director. His previous film, The Fly, had won an Oscar for make-up, and he was working with production budgets ten times larger than those he had enjoyed a decade before.
Dead Ringers was respectable in another sense: for Cronenberg, it heralded a move beyond genre entertainment and into the traditionally highbrow territory of biopics and character studies. Its plot was based on the real-life story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, identical twins who practised gynaecology at New York Hospital and were found dead together in 1975, apparently from barbiturate withdrawal, in an apartment full of faeces and garbage. (2) (More precisely, Dead Ringers began as an adaptation of Bari Wood and Jack Geasland's novel Twins, which fictionalised the Marcus brothers case. Nevertheless, the final film has so little in common with the book that Twins can barely be called a 'source.') While this subject matter was far from typical Oscar bait, Jeremy Irons credited Dead Ringers with building his reputation as an actor. (3) Receiving an Academy Award for Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990) in 1991, he thanked Cronenberg in his acceptance speech even though the latter was not involved in that film's production. (4)
In a tension with this new respectability, Dead Ringers still shows the hand of the old Cronenberg, the director whose earlier work had been described as 'el sleazo exploitation' by critic Roger Ebert. (5) Indeed, Ebert remained uneasy with Cronenberg in his review of Dead Ringers, likening the film to 'a collaboration between med school and a supermarket tabloid', and deriding its subject as 'trashy material' (6)--perhaps reminded too much of Cronenberg's background in low-budget grindhouse films.
The biggest source of discomfort surrounding Dead Ringers comes from its premise. It is a film about malpractice; worse, one concerning malpractice by a class of doctors whom numerous people trust with the most sensitive part of their anatomy. 'This one probably won't cross over, because it's too queasy,' concluded Washington Post reviewer Rita Kempley. 'Mostly it should boost business for female gynecologists.' (7) Gynaecology was such a touchy subject that Robert De Niro, no stranger to playing creeps, allegedly turned the lead role down. (8) While Dead Ringers was in production, Irons told reporters: 'Every woman I spoke to said, "Don't do it." I can understand that; the film plays on a lot of women's nightmares.' (9) But--as might be expected from someone who would go on to star in Dungeons & Dragons (Courtney Solomon, 2000)--Irons was an actor open to risks.
Had its story unfolded from a patient's perspective, Dead Ringers might have been a ready-made horror film. Instead, Cronenberg achieved something more delicate: turning two creepy (and at times reprehensible) characters into objects of pathos. The director would later recall how sadness had been one of the most visible audience reactions to it. 'Can you tell me why I feel so fucking sad having seen this film?' a doctor asked him after a screening in Toronto. Another acquaintance told Cronenberg that 'a friend of his saw it and cried for three hours afterwards.' (10) We don't expect a story about drugged-up, philandering, narcissistic gynaecologists to put tears in our eyes, though the same could be said for human-fly hybrids or broods of murderous asexual dwarves. Cronenberg's films are often more moving than they should be.
It's loosely true that Dead Ringers is a biopic and, for Cronenberg, a departure from sci-fi. This is no reason to underestimate its creativity, however. Cronenberg sneaks a great many fantastic elements into the film, using dream sequences and mental breakdowns to his advantage (few viewers will forget the infamous surgery scene). The elegant, studied production design occasionally seems more dreamlike than Cronenberg's films from the 1970s, whose budgets left little room for formalism. And since many details about the Marcus twins' final months are lost to the grave, Cronenberg had ample licence to think up his own version of events. If nothing else, Dead Ringers is a masterclass in how to play with the biopic genre's constraints.
Bizarre love triangles
Cronenberg introduces us to the Mantle brothers when they're boys on the edge of puberty (Jonathan and Nicholas Haley) in 1950s Toronto. Puzzling over the facts of life, one of the twins theorises that sex exists 'because humans don't live underwater' and can't fertilise their eggs externally like fish. They approach a neighbourhood girl (Marsha Moreau) and ask her to 'experiment' with them in their bathtub. When she reacts with disgust, the Mantles walk away, saddened. 'They're so different from us,' says one twin, 'and all because we don't live underwater.'
It's clear that the Mantles haven't fallen into gynaecology by accident. Mystified by the opposite sex, they have sought to understand women in the most concrete way available to them: the study of female anatomy. A fulfilling relationship with a woman is perhaps the only thing that could rescue them from their state of co-dependency, and this tragic quest continues into their mature lives.
In adulthood, Beverly remains shy and nerdy while Elliot has become a socially adept womaniser. They live together and rely on each other heavily; Elliot needs Beverly's medical brains, while Beverly needs Elliot's confidence and schmoozing skills. This symbiosis also extends into their love life. Whenever Elliot grows tired of women he seduces, he passes them on to Beverly--without telling them that they're sleeping with two different men. 'If we didn't share women, you'd still be a virgin,' he reminds his brother.
In fact, when we first meet the adult Mantles, they are in the process of seducing a patient. Claire (Genevieve Bujold), a movie star, happens to have a trifurcate womb: 'three doorways, three cervixes leading into three separate compartments in [her] uterus'. Ecstatic to find such a rare deformity, Beverly rushes to confer with his brother, leaving Claire stuck in the stirrups all alone. Elliot is less interested in Claire's uterus than in her status as a celebrity. He heads to the consulting room and impersonates his twin.
When Claire is surprised that he wants to ogle her deformity, Elliot replies: 'Surely you've heard of inner beauty? I've often thought there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies. You know, best spleen, most perfectly developed kidneys.' Despite his surface charm, Elliot still struggles to connect with his lovers emotionally. To him, 'inner' is a question of plumbing, not personality.
After a long courtship that sees the Mantles trade places frequently, Claire uncovers the truth and confronts both twins. Once her initial anger fades, she decides she would like to continue dating the shy, sensitive Beverly--and only Beverly. (She tells Elliot, 'Beverly's the sweet one, and you're the shit.') For a while, Beverly enjoys a relationship that promises him independence from Elliot. Claire also introduces him to dexamphetamine, her drug of choice, putting him on the first steps to a rampant polysubstance addiction. Sadly, the affair is derailed when Beverly mistakenly thinks that Claire is unfaithful. Suffering a nervous breakdown, he becomes convinced that his patients are 'mutant women' with deformities that only he can see, and a botched operation sees him suspended from medicine.
As much as Dead Ringers is a film whose plot hinges on women's genitals, Cronenberg scrupulously follows the principle of tell, don't show. It falls on us to imagine Claire's three-chambered organs, or what kinds of 'mutations' Beverly
Cronenberg built his career on monstrous special effects: a man turning into a living VCR; a scientist degenerating into an insect; squirming parasites; tumorous fetuses; exploding heads. Grisly prosthetics, however, are almost entirely absent from Dead Ringers; the film's most elaborate special effect was the computer-aided cinematography that created the illusion of twin Jeremy Ironses. Only one scene gives us a glimpse of Cronenberg's typical fleshy horror, yet it's a crucial scene. As his drug problem worsens, Beverly has a nightmare of himself and Claire in bed, unable to make love because Elliot is lying next to them. 'Alright,' says Claire. 'I'll just... separate you.' Looking down, Beverly sees a mass of ugly tissue joining him and Elliot at the abdomen. Claire begins gnawing at the tissue, trying to cut the twins apart.
The 'monster' in Dead Ringers, then, is co-dependency: the relationship that binds Beverly and Elliot, denying them independent lives and dooming them to die together. Outside of Beverly's nightmare, this monster is invisible; the twins are conjoined psychically, not physically--at least in theory. We're watching a Cronenberg film, and Cronenberg's universe doesn't allow a clean mind/body split. Thought is reflected in flesh.
We realise how destructive this co-dependency is when Elliot (at first glance, the responsible, assertive 'big brother' of the pair) takes it upon himself to wean Beverly off drugs. Maintaining a vigil to make sure Beverly goes cold turkey, he begins abusing stimulants himself to stay awake. 'You'll take an up so that I don't take a down?' asks Beverly. 'Don't worry about me. I'm not you,' Elliot assures him. But eventually Elliot has a drug problem of his own, and is living in squalor in the deserted gynaecology clinic; it's Beverly's turn to play the caregiver. For the twins, drug withdrawal is but the surface layer of a deeper struggle against a dependency that is more than chemical.
In one scene, as Elliot is tending a drug-sick Beverly, the brothers reflect on the story of Chang and Eng, the original 'Siamese twins'. (14) Morosely, Beverly recalls that when Chang died, Eng followed soon afterwards. The Mantles' life is a package deal; the fate of one twin touches the other through a dark sympathetic magic. When Beverly is suspended from practising medicine, Elliot's career deteriorates too, even though his record is clean. While Beverly is in the throes of drug addiction, the previously rational Elliot starts to believe that they share the same circulatory system. 'Whatever's in his bloodstream goes directly into mine,' he tells his mistress. The burden of their co-dependent relationship has become somatic.
The solution, Elliot decides, is for the twins to 'synchronise' their metabolisms and kick the drugs in unison. The mention of synchrony is appropriate for a film about gynaecologists--it brings to mind the 'McClintock effect', a 1970s theory that women who live together find their menstrual cycles adjusting until their periods occur simultaneously. (That theory, now discredited, (1)' was still widely believed when Dead Ringers was in production.)
Near the end of the film, Beverly is reconciled with Claire, who offers him a new opportunity to live with her. Instead, fate draws him back to Elliot. Brandishing copies of the gynaecological instruments he designed earlier, he claims that they are really tools 'for separating Siamese twins'. By 'separation', he means killing Elliot, with his brother's full consent. Because Claire--his first choice of instrument--has failed to keep the brothers apart, he is pushed towards a more 'radical' option. But even Elliot's death doesn't unyoke him, and he abandons his plan to return to Claire, preferring to die in a fetal position beside his twin's corpse.
Dead Ringers, much like Cronenberg's previous film, The Fly, draws its pathos from a protagonist torn between love hallucinates through a speculum darkly. Perhaps, after idealising Claire and losing her, he cannot perceive non-trifurcate women as anything but monstrous, and resolves to 'fix' them.
Film scholar William Beard has noted that in Wood and Geasland's Twins, one of the brothers is presented as homosexual. (11) Among his countless departures from this 'source,' Cronenberg chose to make both Mantles straight. We should consider the consequences of this change. If incestuous same-sex love were an option for Beverly and Elliot, then perhaps the film's tragedy would be averted; the twins might be content in the closed circuit of their obsessive co-dependency, with no desire to break free from it by pursuing women--least of all, their patients.
Beard entertains a reading of the film wherein Elliot may have buried homosexual desires for his twin, but that these are not reciprocal, and complicated by Beverly's longing for Claire. He also notes, more confidently, that the twins' personalities suggest a masculine/feminine dichotomy, with Elliot as the 'male' in the arrangement and the androgynously named Beverly as the 'female'. Cronenberg himself has commented on this possibility:
In Dead Ringers, the truth, anticipated by Beverly's parents--or whoever named him--was that he was the female part of the yin/yang whole [...] The idea that Beverly is the wife of the couple is unacceptable to him. (12)
It is true that Elliot is strangely possessive of Beverly, with body language better suited to a jealous husband than a sibling. With Claire, Beverly has a passing chance to reposition himself and escape being an ersatz wife.
I would like to make one final, slightly trivial point about the romantic plot of Dead Ringers: some of its strangest moments were drawn from life. According to a 1976 Esquire article by Ron Rosenbaum and Susan Edmiston, the Marcus twins did, in fact, impersonate each other while sharing sexual partners; and, like the Mantles, they sometimes fooled patients by changing places in the middle of appointments. (13) This does not mean that Dead Ringers is entirely faithful to the events that inspired it--the real Cyril Marcus was a divorcee with two children--but we should be mindful of how much hidden reality there can be even in Cronenberg's most outlandish works.
Many of Cronenberg's films from the 1970s and 1980s are set in Toronto, with a backdrop of mid-century modernist and brutalist architecture. In The Brood, for instance, we are treated to frequent exterior shots of snow falling among bare concrete buildings. The result is a bleak, wintry atmosphere that contrasts with the warm, fleshy horror of the film's climactic indoor scene--in which Nola (Samantha Eggar) spawns monsters from her abdomen and licks them with cat-like tenderness. The horror in Shivers is formed by two components: a dreary, box-shaped condominium tower and a mass of reddish slug-like parasites. Again, the background environment--cold, muted, dry, grey, rectilinear--serves to emphasise the film's organic elements.
In Dead Ringers, the Mantle brothers live in a modernist apartment with cold, bluish lighting, dominated by hard angles and featureless walls; their clinic has roughly the same atmosphere. In the consultation room, they wear greyish-blue aprons that match their patients' equally drab hospital gowns. At the film's climax, however, we see an insane, drug-addled Beverly enter an operating theatre within which he and all his staff are dressed in blood-red surgical scrubs. These lurid costumes, which seem better designed for a dark ritual than a medical procedure, heighten the dread of the custom implements that Beverly unveils--twisted, Gigeresque parodies of obstetric tools, designed for 'working on mutant women'.
The Mantles' apartment and clinic are crucial in conveying their fall from grace. In early scenes, we become accustomed to the fact that the brothers lead a tidy, sterile, well-ordered life, reflected in their modernist living space. When this environment suddenly fills up with clutter and garbage, we realise how severe their unravelling has become. In a more naturalistic film, the amount of garbage might give us some sense of objective time. Here, we get no clue how long the brothers spend isolated from the outside world. Their addiction has placed them in a separate time stream.
A very different decor accompanies Claire's presence: fancy restaurants with baroque frescoes; a well-lit Art Deco home full of antiques. Moving in with her is Beverly's only hopeful alternative to his life with Elliot, and it follows that her house is everything the twins' apartment is not. and monstrosity. Beverly doesn't degenerate into a six-legged abomination, but the monstrous part of his nature still triumphs, crushing the redemption he might have otherwise had. The sight of the twins' garbage-ridden clinic brings to mind the same wretchedness and isolation as Seth Brundle's (Jeff Goldblum) warehouse-lair in The Fly. Peeling back the mantle of 'supermarket tabloid' sensationalism, we find a tragedy. In Cronenberg's own words, the core of the film is 'not really connected with gynaecology or twinness. It has to do with that element of being human. It has to do with this ineffable sadness that is an element of human existence.' (16)
Dead Ringers in the classroom
A good way to gain insights into how story elements fit together is to imagine how the story would unfold if they were changed. As a follow-up to watching Dead Ringers, students might be asked to write alternate versions with crucial differences.
* Suppose it were a film about twin sisters who are urologists: how would this affect the film's gender dynamics? Would it produce the same audience discomfort?
* What might change if one, or both, of the Mantles were gay?
* Would Dead Ringers be as compelling if its protagonists were twin cardiologists, or twin psychiatrists, or twin lawyers?
Dead Ringers could provide an English class with a valuable opportunity to examine the screen adaptation process. Students would research the real-life Marcus brothers and/or Wood and Geasland's Twins, and explore how these sources were used (or unused) in Cronenberg's final him.
The class could also roleplay a deregistration tribunal that is hearing the case of a doctor accused of malpractice (for inspiration, actual case outcomes can be found on state health-department websites). Three students would play tribunal members interrogating a fourth student in the role of the doctor. After the verdict, the class might discuss their own opinions of the ethical issue in question. The 'doctor' does not necessarily have to be Beverly Mantle; the activity could explore a range of scenarios, both realistic and speculative.
Finally, a health education class could use Dead Ringers as a means to explore the issues of informed consent, professional conduct, physician/patient boundaries and the valuable role of nurse chaperones, so sadly absent in this film.
Ramon Glazov is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and researcher. His work has appeared in Overland and The Monthly, as well as on the TED-Ed You Tube channel. He is also the translator of the cult classic Italian horror nove/ The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria.
(1) Eileen Jones, personal exchange with author.
(2) See Ron Rosenbaum & Susan Edmiston, 'Dead Ringers', Esquire, 1 March 1976, <https://classic.esquire.com/article/l976/3/l/dead-ringers>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(3) Martin Dale, 'Jeremy Irons on Dead Ringers, Batman v Superman, Love Scenes in Damage', Variety, 11 December 2014, <https://variety.com/2014/f1lm/festivals/jeremy-irons-on-dead-ringers-batman-vs-superman-love-scenes-in-damage-1201378l57/>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(4) 'Jeremy Irons Wins Best Actor: 1991 Oscars', YouTube, 24 April 2008, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsXFl6IKpyI>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(5) Roger Ebert, 'The Brood', RogerEbert.com, 5 June 1979, <https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-brood-1979>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(6) Roger Ebert, 'Dead Ringers', RogerEbert.com, 23 September 1988, <https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dead-ringers-1g88>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(7) Rita Kempley, 'Dead Ringers', The Washington Post, 23 September 1988, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/deadringersrkempley_a0c9ec.htm>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(8) See Kevin Mcgue, 'Dead Ringers', A Life at the Movies, 7 October 2010, <http://www.alifeatthemovies.com/dead-ringers/>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(9) Jeremy Irons, quoted in John F Burns, 'Post Mortem on Twin Doctors', The New York Times, 1 May 1988, <https://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/01/movies/f1lm-post-mortem -on-twin-doctors.html>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(10) David Cronenberg, in Chris Rodley (ed.), Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Faber & Faber, London, 1993, p. 149.
(11) William Beard, The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, revised and expanded edn, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2006, p. 239.
(12) David Cronenberg, quoted in ibid., p. 238.
(13) Rosenbaum & Edmiston, op. cit.
(14) For more on Chang and Eng Bunker, see Candice Millard, Who Were the Original Siamese Twins?', The New York Times, 1 June 2018, <https://www.nytimes.com/20i8/06/o1/books/review/yunte-huang-inseparable.html>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(15) See Chitra Ramaswamy, 'Do Women's Periods Synchronise When They Spend Time Together?', The Guardian, 11 April 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/apr/10/do-womens-periods-synchronise-when-they-spend-time-together>, accessed 24 April 2019.
(16) Cronenberg, in Rodley (ed.), op. cit., p. 149.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2019|
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