Post Mortem On Twin Doctors – 1988

by John F. Burns, The New York Times
May 1, 1988

Jeremy Irons, who made a major impact on American audiences with his performances in television’s ”Brideshead Revisited” and with his Tony Award-winning role in the Broadway version of Tom Stoppard’s ”Real Thing,” has been particular in his selection of film roles. Mr. Irons, who will turn 40 later this year, has appeared in only seven pictures, none of them made in Hollywood and only two of them, ”The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and ”The Mission,” widely known among mainstream audiences.

Lately, Mr. Irons has opted for larger risks. To the chagrin of at least some of his English friends, he has spent the last 10 weeks in Toronto filming ”Twins,” a psychological drama scheduled for a 20th Century Fox release in the United States this fall. In the film, Mr. Irons plays two roles, Beverly and Elliott Mantle, identical twin brothers who are partners in a world-renowned fertility clinic, who share a passion for one of their famous patients and who see their practice – and their lives – dissolve in a haze of drugs.

The outline may seem familiar to anybody who was reading the front pages of New York’s newspapers 13 years ago, when the deaths of two gynecologists who were identical twins, Dr. Stewart L. Marcus and Dr. Cyril C. Marcus, shocked the medical profession and the city. In July 1975, the Marcus brothers, who had been specialists at Cornell University Medical School and its affiliate, New York Hospital, were found dead in the Manhattan apartment of one of the brothers, victims of barbiturate addiction.

Despite the broad parallels with the $8 million Toronto production, in which Mr. Irons co-stars with the Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold, production executives insist that theirs is a fictional treatment that stands at two removes from the real-life events in New York. To begin with, the basis for the film is the 1977 novel ”Twins,” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, whose story line bears little relation to the Marcus tragedy other than the element of identical twin gynecologists addicted to drugs.

Beyond that, the screenplay is said to be a liberal adaptation of the book. The location has been removed to Toronto from New York, and one major element of the book, the homosexuality of one of the brothers, has been abandoned. What is left is a plot about the two close but contrasting brothers, the confident, glib Elliott and the introverted, sensitive Beverly, about a French actress (played by Miss Bujold) with a drug habit who comes to their clinic seeking help in having a child, and about the involvement of both brothers with her.

Drugs play a major role, leading to what Mantle Clinic 11, the independent production company making the film, refers to in a press release as a ”twisted, unspeakable” end. Executives were loathe to say exactly what that end is, other than that both men die, but it was clear that the dramatic interest centers on the unsuccessful attempts by Beverly, the weaker brother, to break away from his psychological ties to his twin in order to build a love relationship with Claire Niveau, the character played by Miss Bujold.

For Mr. Irons, the challenge of the film lay only partly in the difficulty of playing dual roles, a task that has fallen to a number of fine actors in the past (Bette Davis in ”Dead Ringer,” Olivia De Havilland in ”Dark Mirror,” among others). Mr. Irons has a reputation as one of the most technically proficient actors around, and it was this, as much as his potential box-office draw, that prompted David Cronenberg, the Canadian director of ”Twins,” and co-author of the script with Norman Snider, a Toronto writer, to offer him the dual roles.

What particularly made this a high-stakes venture for Mr. Irons was the screenplay itself, with elements that caused some of his English friends to question whether the venture was in good taste, and, linked to that, the cinematic history of Mr. Cronenberg. At the age of 45, the Canadian has built his reputation on an impressive output of horror and science-fiction movies for the more cerebral followers of the genre, notably ”The Fly,” the hugely popular remake of the 1958 classic about a scientist whose botched laboratory experiments cause him to metamorphose into a common housefly.

Mr. Cronenberg’s 1986 version was one of the most successful horror films ever made, grossing an estimated $80 million on a budget of about one-tenth as much. But while it and some of the director’s other film credits (”Shivers,” ”Scanners,” ”The Brood,” ”The Dead Zone,” ”Videodrome”) are credited with achieving new levels of fantasy and shock, as well as probing the tortured psychology of their characters in a way that is unusual for such productions, a director known for such memorable effects as an exploding human head makes an unusual partner for an actor as orthodox as Mr. Irons.

When Mr. Cronenberg flew to London last May to discuss the project with Mr. Irons, who had returned to England after filming ”The Mission” to undertake two years of repertory acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company, it was touch and go. During a break in the filming here, the English actor said that he knew of the Canadian as a ”cult director” and as a man whose ”videos were in every store in London,” but that when the two men met at Brown’s Hotel in the West End he was not sure that ”Twins” was for him.

”I was a little concerned, especially when I read the script,” Mr. Irons said as he relaxed in a motor-home-turned-dressing-room provided for him outside the converted warehouse in north Toronto where ”Twins” was filmed. Puffing on a cigarette, the actor recalled the reaction among women friends who read the script. ”Every woman I spoke to said, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” he said. ”I can understand that; the film plays on a lot of women’s nightmares.”

After a screen test in Toronto, to satisfy his and Mr. Cronenberg’s concern that he could handle the technical subtleties required to portray twins, Mr. Irons signed on. ”I thought, ‘This could work,’ ” he said. ”To an extent, it was a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained, but there was also the rather arrogant thought that I’d done enough work to be able to fall on my backside, if that should turn out to be the case.”

A failure with ”Twins” would put Mr. Irons in a class with other well-known actors from Britain and the United States who have come to Canada to make feature films that have not met favor with the critics. In two decades of attempting to establish an indigenous feature film industry, with generous government support in the form of tax breaks and cash grants, the English-speaking Canadian film industry has had markedly less success internationally with its features than Australia, a nation only half Canada’s size that has produced a number of major successes.

Canadians who have studied the problem believe that its cause lies partly in the subsidies, which encourage films that would not otherwise be funded, and in the push that Canadian film makers have often felt to move away from Canadian themes to ones that have a potential appeal to the mass moviegoing audience in the United States. Too often this has placed them on a reverse course to some of Australia’s best-known directors, who have succeeded internationally with films like ”Breaker Morant” precisely because they dealt with authentic Australian themes.

In the case of ”Twins,” a number of factors suggest that the pattern could be broken. For one thing, the film is not a creature of government grants, although the national film funding agency, Telefilm Canada, did step in last fall with a $100,000 bridge loan after the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, which was to have made the film, dropped out at the last minute because of financial problems unrelated to ”Twins.” The money allowed the co-producers, Joe Roth and Marc Boyman, to hold on to $300,000 worth of sets built for the project while coming up with a new financial backer.

For ”Twins,” Mr. Cronenberg has assembled almost the same production crew that he used for ”The Fly,” a crew that won a 1987 Oscar for special effects and makeup. And this time, the camera crew has a new piece of technology, a ”motion control” system that links a computer to the camera and makes it possible to shoot more realistic and fluid sequences in which each of the two characters played by Mr. Irons can appear on the screen at the same time, moving freely, and with the camera moving too.

According to Lee Wilson, the film’s optical effects supervisor, who worked on the system with its originators, the New York visual effects house of Balsmeyer and Everett, the system should result in the first ”twinning” film that has a real-life feel to it. In the 1920’s, when the studios produced the first films with twins played by the same performer, the technique involved masking one side of the lens, then the other, using the same strip of film for each of the two takes.

The problem with the technique was that a miscue on either of the two takes resulted in both being lost, and by the 1940’s the studios had shifted to essentially the same technique used ever since, until ”Twins.” This involved locking the camera down and shooting the scene twice over, with the performer acting first one side, then the other of an imaginary center-screen split, with the two strips of film subsequently being spliced into one.

The problem with this, overcome by the new technology, was that it lent a wooden approach to the films, as if there were an invisible wall at the center of the screen that neither of the two on-screen figures could cross. In ”Twins,” the two gynecologists played by Mr. Irons will appear together in about 30 of the 100 scenes, and Mr. Cronenberg’s hope is that there will be such a naturalness to their movements, as well as to the differentiations of character lent to each part by Mr. Irons, that moveiegoers will forget that they are watching the same actor twice.

Whether Mr. Cronenberg can succeed in achieving a compelling realism in the production as a whole is another matter. The challenge for him, he said at the outset of ”Twins,” was to make the transition from the horror film genre in which the aim was ”to make the fantastical seem real,” as he did so successfully with ”The Fly,” to working with characters and a plot that, to be convincing, must seem true to life. It is a major leap, and there have been indications along the way that the urge to shock with the incredible has not entirely been put away.

One of the complexities in ”Twins” is that Miss Bujold’s French actress is found to have a trifurcated womb, meaning a womb with three chambers, a biological impossibility. And on a day when this reporter visited the set, the crew was still talking about the visual effect Mr. Cronenberg had achieved the night before, when he had the doctors and nurses in an operating room sequence dressed not in the traditional white, but in blood red. Other shocks, not disclosed to visitors, are promised in the finished film.

Still, Mr. Cronenberg believes that the movie will stand or fall on its success in presenting the relationship between the two Mantle brothers, and much of the effort in writing the script and directing Mr. Irons has gone into achieving a believable representation of the things that unite and divide identical twins.

”Most of the previous twins films seem to be black comedies, revolving around a psychotic twin and an innocent twin, a good twin and a bad one,” said Mr. Cronenberg, who spent many hours watching videotapes of earlier productions and reading studies of twinship before completing the screenplay.

”The idea of twins has always seemed so provocative to me,” he said, in a hurried break between two takes in which Mr. Irons, in the space of 20 minutes, had to play first one, then the other Dr. Mantle, changing clothes in between. ”As I envisage it, the essence of the relationship is one in which identities become confused, or suffocating, but which are unrelenting and cannot be broken, not at any rate this side of death.” DOCTORS AND DRUGS

Drs. Cyril and Stewart Marcus shared a thriving Manhattan gynecology practice, office quarters and a luxury apartment on Manhattan’s East Side. Both taught at Cornell University Medical School and were affiliated with New York Hospital.

But the identical twins also shared a fatal addiction to barbiturates. It led to their joint suicide in the summer of 1975 – deaths that astonished the medical community and highlighted the problem of drug abuse among physicians.

During their last months, the 45-year-old twins examined and even operated on patients while under the influence of drugs. Witnesses later told a New York State Assembly committee that the doctors performed surgery when their hands were shaking and they could barely stand up.

Colleagues, who described the twins as ”inseparable,” said they initially attached little signifiance to the twins’ aberrant behavior, because the Marcuses had a reputation at the hospital for being geniuses, although a bit peculiar.

Both graduated in 1951 from Syracuse University, where they were elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1954, they received medical degrees, with honors, from New York State University’s Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse. Together, they edited a textbook on obstetrics and gynecology and co-wrote several articles about infertility. Cyril was divorced and had two daughters. Stewart never married. On July 17, a handyman discovered the doctors sprawled on the floor in their bedroom. Autopsy reports showed that they had been dead for approximately a week.

By the end of that year, the New York State Medical Society issued a report urging doctors, nurses and patients to report any physician they suspected of drug abuse.