Home » Truth and Fiction Aren’t Identical in David Cronenberg’s ‘Dead Ringers’

Truth and Fiction Aren’t Identical in David Cronenberg’s ‘Dead Ringers’

Is Dead Ringers Based on a True Story?

The Case of Twin Gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus

On July 19th, 1975 Stewart and Cyril Marcus—the twin gynecologists who inspired Bari Woods and Jackie Gleasand’s novel Twins, which in turn inspired David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers—were found dead in their apartment. In this case, the truth might be stranger than the fiction. Certainly, it was more grisly. According to The New York Times article “Death of Twin Doctors Linked to Despondency, “Cyril Marcus had weighed just over 100 pounds when he died, although he was 5 feet 11 inches tall.” (1) He was, “found lying face down on a bed, wearing only undershorts. His brother was found lying face up on the floor, nude.” (1)

The Lineup reports that a police lieutenant told Linda Wolfe that, “There wasn’t an inch of floor that wasn’t littered… The place was a pigsty.” (2) He showed Wolfe photos of the scene, which she described in this passage:

I concentrated instead on the rooms themselves, vast seas of garbage, of unfinished TV dinners and half-drunk bottles of soda, of greasy sandwich wrappers and crumpled plastic garment covers. ‘See the chair.’ The lieutenant pointed at an armchair I’d hardly noticed, a-swim in the debris. ‘See what’s in the middle of it?’ I peered but couldn’t tell. ‘That’s because you’ve probably never seen an armchair full of feces before.’ The lieutenant guffawed. Then, serious and indignant, he said, ‘They used the chair for their toilet! Would you believe it!’” (2)

The police personnel investigating the deaths put a photo of that same chair outside the scene, writing, “East Side doctors!” above the pile of s**t (2).

The Shocking, Yet Intriguing, Manner of Death 

Weirder yet, and what likely inspired Woods & Gleason and Cronenberg was the mysterious natures of the Marcus’s deaths. That same Times article, written two days after the Marcus’s were discovered, wrote, “that examination had revealed no evidence that either brother had been suffering from a serious illness, such as cancer” but police ruled out suicide and homicide soon after (1). There were high dosage barbiturates found in their apartment, but neither brother had any in their systems. The next theory is that they died from withdrawal symptoms, but nothing came up until the second autopsy. 

No one is quite sure how Cyril died. Evidence suggests he left the apartment and then returned before his death. Though what he did or where he went can only be answered with speculation.

In  Life

The peculiarities around the Marcus brothers started in life. While most identical twins (at least the ones I’ve met) have minor differences, the Marcus’s “looked so much alike that their colleagues at the hospital and their neighbors on York Avenue had difficulty telling them apart.” (3) Cronenberg plays with this in Dead Ringers.

They were well-respected obstetrician-gynecologists. The brothers published a seminal textbook in the field before their drug addiction. Wolfe’s interest in the case stemmed from her time as Stewart’s patient. As she tells it:

It was back in 1966, a year during which I paid several visits to his office but then abruptly decided not to continue seeing him. Though he was garrulous and even oddly confiding on one of my first two visits, on my third, he got angry about something—I no longer recall exactly what it was—and began to shout and scream at me. My husband was with me at the time, and I remember how, controlling an urge to respond in kind, he turned to me and said, “Let’s go. This man is obviously crazy.”

Dr. Marcus seemed not to hear my husband’s derogatory remark, though it was made sharply and loudly. He just went on ranting and raving, and we felt that although the doctor was standing just across his desk from us, it was as if, in effect, he were somewhere else, somewhere very distant. We stood up and left. (1)

Intoxication in the Workplace

The brothers’ colleagues described similar incidents. One of the brothers, “ripped the anaesthetic mask from a patient’s face and placed it over his own. [He] was sent away and replaced by his brother who was also ‘out of it.’” (3). This must’ve been especially disturbing for their patients, who’s lives may have been impacted because the Marcus brothers, “performed gynecological surgery and made medical judgements on numerous occasions during the time they were taking barbiturates regularly.” (3)

Their personal lives were intertwined as well. At first, they lived in the same building. But when in 1960 Cyril got divorced and moved in with Stewart. (4) Stewart’s girlfriend moved out. Though it’s unclear if this was to make space for her boyfriend’s twin or because she was unsettled by the barbiturate addiction. 

How Does Dead Ringers Compare to its Real-Life Inspiration?

Dead Ringers isn’t a direct of adaptation of the Marcus Brother’s life but it certainty draws inspiration from the case. The first clue being that the characters played by Jeremy Irons being named Beverly and Elliot Mantle, not Stewart and Cyrcil Marcus. The second is that the screenplay was based on Bari Woods and Gleason’s aforementioned novel, Twins. Before the first reel rolled, the story had been filtered twice already, and as John F. Burns wrote, the novel’s “storyline bears little relation to the Marcus tragedy other than the element of identical twin gynecologists addicted to drugs.” (5)

Dead Ringers ends (spoiler ahead, obviously) in a much gorier fashion. Beverly operates on a consenting, stoned Elliot, using the disturbing medical tools they had fashioned earlier in the film to cut a vaginal cavity (did I mention this was Cronenberg?) into his brother’s chest. The chair used as a toilet was left out. The brother’s real deaths were bloodless.

True Story Dead Ringers

In Dead Ringers, Beverly leaves to call his lover (and at times Elliot’s) Claire (Geneviève Bujold), on a nearby payphone. When she answers, he says nothing and returns to die in his brother’s arm. He’s symbolically made the choice he’s struggled with the entire film. He chooses his brother over Claire.

Some Details are Hard to Verify

Whether or not Stewart and Cyril swapped sexual partners without consent as Beverly and Elliot, is impossible to verify. There’s no evidence that the Marcus brothers committed that type of sexual assault, but there’s no evidence they didn’t. There’s also no record of them drugging women, but again, no record they didn’t.

Other moments are patently fictional. Stewart and Cyril certainly had professional issues, but the lack of criminal charges seems to guarantee that they never operated on women with tools those like in the movie.

The “trifurcated cervix” is also patently invented.  There also doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that those tools actually existed. If they had, there’s no doubt that the lieutenant who circled the pile of s**t on the armchair would’ve been showing them to everyone he could.

Dead Ringers True Story

Does It Matter?

The ethics of filming something that’s actually based on a true story, especially one where people have died, are foggy at best. The Marcus’s were forty-five years old when they died, presumably leaving behind friends, families, colleagues, and acquaintances.

They were human beings moving through the same world the rest of us do, impacting some lives for the better and others for the worse. I can’t know what those people felt when Twins was published two years after the Marcus’s death and made the bestseller list. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like when Dead Ringers was released in 1988.

The Marcuses were turned into the the Mantels and portrayed as rapists that murdered one another. There’s no fogginess around the morality of lying about who you are while having sex with someone. Consent given under false pretenses isn’t consent.

What complicates the morality of the filmmaking, is that in the opening credits, where Cronenberg made the decisions, he doesn’t claim that the film is based on a true story. Instead, it says, “Based on the Book Twins by Bari Wood and Jackie Gleason.” It was the marketing, where Cronenberg didn’t have a say, of the film that played up the real life connection, which makes this all even murkier.

The Final Verdict on Dead Ringers and its Real-Life Inspiration 

There’s no doubt Dead Ringers is a compelling story. Jeremy Irons is excellent, imbuing Beverly and Elliot with distinct mannerisms and playing off of himself. Cronenberg is at home playing with the idea of twinhood and the yonic imagery he so loves. Unfortunately, the film will always be intertwined with the greasy exploitation of a real life tragedy. 

Updated June 10, 2024

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Written by Ryan C. Bradley
Ryan C. Bradley (he/him) has published work in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Dark Moon Digest, Daikaijuzine, and other venues. His first book, Saint's Blood, is available from St. Rooster Books now! You can learn more about him at: ryancbradleyblog.wordpress.com.
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