50 years, 50 films: Dead Ringers (1988)
At the height of the decadent years, David Cronenberg responded with a disturbing gynaecological horror.
And David Cronenberg finally makes an appearance in our travels through the last half-century. Other films by the Canadian master almost made it in — The Brood, Shivers, The Fly, Videodrome — but it seemed wisest to hold off for his greatest picture to date. The general consensus argues that the 1980s was not a strong period for mainstream US cinema. There is something in that. You couldn’t say there is a great deal of competition from that camp for the 1988 slot. Bull Durham, Big, Dangerous Liaisons, Die Hard: I don’t exactly feel the earth shaking. Of course, Dead Ringers is not really a US film. Co-financed in Canada, set in Toronto, the picture gestures back to the early sleazy Cronenberg pictures that emerged from the director’s home nation. As a result, Dead Ringers — which has much to do with vulgar wealth — feels like a distinctly detached comment on the decadence swilling about western society at the end of the Reagan years. (Check out the reference to the now near-forgotten TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.)
As you will be aware, Jeremy Irons plays a pair of twins who, though both gynaecologists, display contrasting attitudes to life, work and humanity. One is confident and ruthless. The other is weak and dissolute. (Martin Amis’s earlier, undervalued Success plays similar games with siblings.) Over the course of a torrid, squalid story, the two men act out various neuroses that, in less heightened form, affect too many in modern society. There is, in particular, much here about the distrust and hatred of the feminine. When we encounter medical instruments — actually art works — designed for operations on “mutant women” we sense that the creators rather think of all women as “mutants” (mutated, perhaps, from the “normal” male body). Yet it is a woman who commissions those tools. Dead Ringers does, even by the standards of Cronenberg’s work, travel in some very disturbing territory. Yet the horror with which all such allusions are imbued makes it clear that the director has serious feminist intent. This is not how such things should be. Society’s misogyny poisons us all.
The film finally confirmed our David as a big, serious director. To that point a few silly critics still felt he was slightly tainted by his taste for the horrid. Dead Ringers is not just psychologically sound, it demonstrates an utterly singular cinematic style. Nobody else would have thought to put Irons (and Irons) in those horrific red, operating gowns.
It is also offers us the finest moment(s) in that actor’s career. It hardly needs to be said that he didn’t get nominated for an Oscar that year. Many have cited this as one of the greatest injustices in the Academy’s shoddy history. For the record, Dustin Hoffman won for the distinctly ordinary Rain Man (which also won best picture). A few years later, Irons triumphed for Reversal of Fortune and thanked our David in his speech. Most smart observers understood the implication.
Aside from those films mentioned above we also, for 1988, considered Akira, The Thin Blue Line, The Decalogue and — best of all — Grave of the Fireflies.