Thirty years ago today, the world realized that David Lynch had hit his stride. Until then, his career had been one of extremes – he’d either made fiercely independent films like his short work and ERASERHEAD, or the mainstream pictures people tried to fit him into like THE ELEPHANT MAN and DUNE – and was polarizing to filmgoers to say the least, but in BLUE VELVET, Lynch accomplished the perfect marriage of his particular brand of storytelling and Hollywood’s. Not only did BLUE VELVET make up for the misfire of DUNE, it revealed the director’s mature aesthetic and the techniques and themes he would explore for the rest of his career.
BLUE VELVET is the tipping point of Lynch’s filmography, I believe, it isn’t his best work – that’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE – nor is it his most culturally successful – that’s TWIN PEAKS – but it is the moment at which the world understood that this odd little director was going to be a full-fledged cultural force. BLUE VELVET is one of those rare films (as are all Lynch’s) that only benefits from age and multiple viewings. It is a masterpiece of psychological manipulation and a beautiful perversion of American ideals and relationships. It’s also the first film I recommend to people who are looking to get into David Lynch’s work, because I believe it is the perfect encapsulation of who he is as a storyteller, a filmmaker, and an artist.
In honor of BLUE VELVET’s 30th birthday, we dug around behind the scenes to find some fascinating ephemera that makes this intriguing film all the more curious.
The role of Dorothy Vallens was originally written for Debbie Harry of Blondie fame, but she was reportedly tired of being typecast as a weirdo, so turned it down; Isabella Rossellini was cast in her place. The role of Frank Booth was originally offered to Harry Dean Stanton, who turned it down because he didn’t want to be in such a violent movie; Dennis Hopper had no such qualms. As for the younger leads, Molly Ringwald was offered Sandy but her mother objected to the graphicness of the film, so she passed, and Val Kilmer when offered Jeffrey had a similar reaction, calling the script he read “pornography.” So then but for a few really bad decisions by the above actors, this could have been your BLUE VELVET cast:
Originally, producers didn’t want to shell out for the rights to the song “Blue Velvet,” which was, you know, kinda important to the overall film. So exploiting a loophole, they had composer Angelo Badalamenti produce a new version of the song that sounded pretty much exactly like the original, then invited original singer Bobby Vinton to come in and lay down the vocals. Since he was a few decades older, Vinton’s range had gotten lower and as such the key of the song was shifted down a couple octaves, resulting in a darker-feeling song. You’d think that would have been right up Lynch’s alley, but he was counting on the upbeat-dreaminess of the original so pushed the producers to just pony up for the rights.
As written, Frank Booth had helium in his tank and inhaled it frequently, resulting in a maniac with a super-high voice. It was Hopper who suggested it be changed to amyl nitrate, as he “had heard” it was a sexual enhancer. Lynch was okay with this change because he was worried Booth’s high voice might be construed as comical instead of incredibly terrifying.
The “ritualistic rape scene” as it is known was actually the first scene Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini had together, not just in this movie but ever. She wasn’t supposed to be naked when she slipped off her robe to have him kneel between her legs, but she was. Totally naked. Furthermore, while this scene was being filmed, Lynch was off camera laughing hysterically at the absurdity of what he was shooting. Rossellini didn’t understand what was so funny in the moment, but admits that even all these years later she can’t watch the scene without laughing herself.
In the “In Dreams” sequence, Dean Stockwell’s character was, naturally, supposed to be holding a microphone, but when lighting the scene, Lynch had him hold the lantern, and ended up liking that visual better.
BLUE VELVET was Woody Allen’s vote for the best film of 1986. His own film HANNAH AND HER SISTERS was released the same year to much bigger acclaim.
During filming, Lynch and Rossellini became romantically involved and lived together for a handful of years afterwards. She had previously been married to Martin Scorsese.
The original cut of the film was four hours long. This, of course, had to be trimmed, and Lynch took it down to just one frame shy of two hours. Before you start salivating too much, the majority of the excised footage was considered lost for nearly 25 years until Lynch “found” 50-minutes’ worth and included it on the 2011 Blu-Ray release of the film. In one of these scenes we meet Jeffrey’s college girlfriend (who’s never mentioned in the final version) as played by WILL & GRACE’s Megan Mullally.
The scene in which Dorothy is walking nude down the street was reportedly inspired by a real event Lynch and his brother experienced as children.
This is the film that made the general public stop seeing Isabella Rossellini as just the gorgeous progeny of two filmmaking legends (director Roberto Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman) and a runway model, and start seeing her as a legitimate actress. Not everyone thought the same, though. Her fellow Italian and the film’s producer Dino de Laurentis, who’d known her since birth, said he was embarrassed for her, and her own agents dropped her after the film’s release.
And finally, despite being considered by many critics as one of the most important films of the 20th century, independent or otherwise, BLUE VELVET only received one Oscar nomination, for Lynch’s direction. He lost to Oliver Stone for PLATOON.