Sunday, June 5, 2011

Great Performances: Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive

From time to time, I want to highlight a performance that I find truly remarkable.  This may be from film or TV and could be a leading role, a supporting role, or even a guest appearance.

The story is well known: David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was originally a 2-hour pilot filmed for ABC that the network not too surprisingly passed on.  The irked director turned around and found French backers to give him the money to extend the existing footage into a 2-and-a-half hour-long theatrical mindfuck.  I have no idea if Lynch planned on eventually having the series take the bizarre turn that the film takes around the 2-hour mark, but Mulholland Drive ended up as one awesomely strange and beautiful movie.

I don't think that the film would have worked at all without the central performance (or should I say central performances) of Naomi Watts, whose only other starring film role up to this point was in the direct-to-video sequel Children of the Corn: The Gathering (a movie I have not seen despite my affinity for the occasional bad horror flick).  For most of the running time, Watts plays Betty Elms, a fresh-off-the-plane ingenue from Canada who arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a famous movie star.  The tone of the film up to Watts' entrance is dark and amusingly bizarre -- pretty much what you would expect from the creator of Twin Peaks, but when Betty steps out of the airport into the bright LA sunlight, it is immediately clear that Lynch is going for something different.

Watch Mulholland Drive: Betty's Arrival/Betty's Theme in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at

We know David Lynch too well to think that Naomi Watts is the worst actress in the history of film, but at first Betty's entrance looks like it is lifted out of a terrible cartoon from the 1930s or something.  In retrospect, this hilariously over-the-top corniness should not be a surprise considering the characters played by Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but Watts takes this personification of innocence and righteousness a step further.  She gives wide-eyed a new meaning and her ever-present smile seems downright deranged.  Betty becomes a little more normal when she comes across the troubled amnesiac "Rita," but only about halfway through the film is the genius of Watts' performance revealed.  First, Betty rehearses a cheesy Movie-of-the-Week-type scene with Rita that shows that she (and Watts) are not completely devoid of acting ability.  Then, we see Betty's big audition where she surprisingly delivers a knockout performance that somehow manages to bring real emotion to a ridiculous script.

All of the sudden, Naomi Watts looks like a brilliant actress and while it is unclear where Mulholland Drive is headed, I now have supreme confidence in David Lynch's vision.  But, the surprises don't end there.  After the audition, Betty and Rita realize that they are attracted to each other and have sex in another scene that moves the Betty character away from caricature.  What is interesting is the way the this development feels natural thanks to the way that Watts played the earlier scenes even while catching us off guard with her total commitment to the love scene.  Finally, the movie goes off the rails (in a good way) at the end as Betty disappears and Naomi Watts becomes a new character, Diane Selwyn, who seems to exist back in the real world.  Diane is everything that Betty is not -- bitter, angry, and vengeful.  There is no trace of humor or winking to the audience in Watts' performance as Diane and she is totally believable.  It is clear by now that David Lynch knows exactly what he's doing as he directs Naomi Watts to one of the most original and fascinating performances ever committed to film.


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