Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Naomi Watts’ performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
As an aspiring actress arrives in Hollywood, starry-eyed and full of hope, a mysterious woman loses her memory after a car accident on a lonely stretch of Mulholland Drive. Their worlds collide in a small apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles where young ingénue Betty (Naomi Watts), upon discovering amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) squatting in her Aunt’s home, becomes dedicated to unearthing her identity.
This, of course, is just the simplest way to describe the plot of one of David Lynch’s most mystifying movies, Mulholland Drive. Like much of Lynch’s work, this one takes ostensibly an archetypal setup — a character suffers memory loss and spends the rest of the film trying to figure out who they are — and spins it out into wildly creative and unexpected directions. As much as Mulholland Drive positions itself as a neo-noir, it’s dripping with surreal humor and dread-inducing horror as Lynch intersects his narrative with strange characters and situations that give the film added color and dimension.
Lynch often relies on a company of actors who have a preternatural ability of interpreting what he is trying to convey in a filmography that often leaves audiences with more questions than answers. It’s why he frequently works with Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, and Jack Nance. They understand how to toe the line between playing the given circumstances of a scene and acting as the physical embodiment of the symbolism Lynch bakes into his films. This is a quality that Watts is effortlessly able to personify in Mulholland Drive. But Betty isn’t just the audience surrogate, or a representation of the harsh realities of making it in Hollywood. She can also be read as a meta-commentary on Watts’ own performance in the film.
Throughout the opening acts of Mulholland Drive, Watts plays Betty as the spitting image of naivety, untouched by the realities of an industry with a track record for crushing dreams. She’s like the bit character Star-to-Be in the musical Annie, singing out “Three bucks, two bags, one me!” in the number N.Y.C. In the musical, she’s a joke because the audience knows the character’s lighthearted innocence will only last so long on the hard concrete sidewalks of Manhattan. As Betty stares wide-eyed at the looming gates of a Hollywood studio, she breaks into a beaming grin that says, “I can’t believe I’ve made it!, which makes the audience cringe because we know what she’s feeling is destined to be fleeting.
But Watts is intentional in playing Betty this way, and the audience realizes this once she lands her first audition. Beforehand she rehearses her sides with Rita, and while she’s connected to the dialogue, the performance she delivers is not overly impressive. She’s making choices, but they’re all pedestrian, a safe interpretation of a scene filled with volatile emotions.
When she steps into a cramped casting office filled with an array of Hollywood decision makers, everything changes. She’s immediately put into an uncomfortable position when her older co-actor draws her in closely, wanting to play the scene almost lip-to-lip. We can sense her unease as she pushes him back as they begin, but she funnels that disgust directly back into the scene, driving the characters and emotions into a direction no one could have anticipated. As much as her acting rocks everyone in the room, it also impresses the audience. We see Watts’ Betty in a new light because we didn’t think the character had it in her to deliver such a visceral performance.
But this quality goes beyond the confines of the film’s narrative and bleeds into how we perceive Watts’ overall performance in Mulholland Drive. When I first revisited the film in preparation for this column, I was initially unsure of what I could really explore with her performance. Throughout the first two hours of the film, Watts allows Betty’s good-naturedness to define her character. However intentional, it makes the character feel one-dimensional, even as the script begins to ask more from Betty as her romantic relationship with Rita begins to blossom.
That all changes in the final 30 minutes when the film’s big Lynchian twist comes in. After Betty and Rita discover a dead body in the house of Diane Selwyn — a woman who may have been able to confirm Rita’s identity — the two are drawn to the ominous Club Silencio. As they watch a singer perform, Betty discovers a blue box that seems to be a clue to Rita’s past life. When they open the box, they both vanish.
The next time we see Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, she isn’t Betty anymore. She’s become Diane. Everything we’ve seen before was presumably Betty’s dream, with Diane being her actual reality. All of Betty’s sunshiney hopefulness is replaced by Diane’s abject desperation and psychological anguish. Like Betty, Diane came to Hollywood hoping to become a star, but unlike Betty, she never got her break. Rather, she rode the coattails of Camilla Rhodes (also played by Laura Harring), who helped Diane land a few bit parts before discarding her in favor of more well-connected paramours.
Because of this, Diane feels betrayed by Camilla, and Watts plays this emotion with harrowing precision. As Diane joins Camilla for a dinner with Hollywood heavyweights, she watches with muted despair as Camilla fawns over her director (Justin Theroux) before locking lips with a young starlet in front of Diane. In her face, we see Diane shuffle through emotions, from annoyance to jealousy, anger to anguish, all without Watts uttering a word. It’s such a powerful moment that she received a standing ovation from Lynch and the crew after the scene was shot.
If Watts’ Betty sustained one emotional note throughout the first two acts of Mulholland Drive, Watts’ Diane is a symphony of disparate desires and impulses that breaks our hearts. But it’s also exhilarating to watch because the audience now gets to experience what that small casting office felt after Betty left her big audition: the excitement of seeing a brilliant new talent blow us away. Mulholland Drive was Watts’ big break, and by intentionally playing Betty as blithely optimistic, when we see Diane slowly losing all sense of self, the impact we feel from her performance is earth shattering.
Naomi Watts’ performance in Mulholland Drive vaulted her star into the Hollywood stratosphere, quickly leading to her first Academy Award nomination two years later in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. The dual roles of Betty and Diane were a perfect showcase for Watts’ colossal talent sketching out complex characters that are incredibly painful to watch. As Betty becomes Diane, Watts teeters on the brink of total psychological collapse, and we see it seep into the very fibre of her being. Her performance is deeply uncomfortable, which I believe is an undervalued emotion for an actor to make an audience feel.
There are a lot of theories about what Mulholland Drive means. Is Betty actually Diane’s dream? Does the monstrous figure behind Winkie’s Diner symbolize the underlying horrors of Hollywood? Are the old people that attack Diane in the film’s final moments a representation of the last time Betty was filled with optimism, the memory of it so despairing that it destroys her?
Regardless of how you interpret the film’s many mysteries, one thing about Mulholland Drive requires no further discussion: the power of Naomi Watts’ performance. Even if you are not a fan of Lynch’s approach to storytelling, it’s difficult to deny what she accomplishes as Betty and Diane. Watts embodies the demoralizing Hollywood experience that was Lynch’s overarching focus throughout the film while also delivering a performance that makes us eager to see her face on the silver screen again.
Lynch places us in Betty’s dream, before Watts ushers into the blinding lights of Diane’s reality being chewed up, and spit out, by Hollywood. It may be an age-old tale, but it’s one given explosive, heartbreaking authenticity through Watts’ carefully calculated performance.