- Mulholland Dr. (2001) movie review: As an ambitious, unbalanced Hollywood star wannabe, Naomi Watts – in what amounts to a dual role – delivers a career-making performance in David Lynch’s roaming, freakish, and excruciating depiction of the annihilation of one’s dreams.
- Mulholland Dr. earned David Lynch a Best Director Academy Award nomination.
Mulholland Dr. movie review: A phenomenal Naomi Watts stars in David Lynch’s panoramic portrait of L.A.’s rotting underbelly
Screenwriter-director David Lynch’s stream-of-consciencelessness take on Hollywood and the pursuit of the so-called “American Dream,” Mulholland Dr. is impossible to pigeonhole as belonging to any one particular narrative genre. Depending on which segment you’re watching, the film is a black comedy, a mystery thriller, a psychological drama, a horror story.
However you choose to label Mulholland Dr., what matters is that this amalgam of genres is a long, meandering, bizarre, at times self-indulgent, and overall brilliant effort that takes the viewer on a journey through Hollywood (the idea) and Los Angeles (the actual place), as processed by the psyche of an ambitious young actress.
That’s the most unsettling such journey since the one undertaken by faded silent-screen star Norma Desmond and dead screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., more than half a century ago.
Betty & Rita in Movieland
Mulholland Dr. refers to the serpentine road that runs atop the Santa Monica Mountains, stretching (as Mulholland Highway on its western half) from the Pacific coast to the Hollywood Hills. Somewhere on or near that road are two good-looking women: The cornfed Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) and the stylish, surnameless Rita (Laura Elena Harring).
The former is a young Canadian who, like Janet Gaynor’s Esther Blodgett in A Star Is Born and Joan Leslie’s Alice Purdee in the short Alice in Movieland, dreams of becoming a major Hollywood luminary. She’s perhaps a more serious-minded version of pert, blonde 1940s box office magnet Betty Grable.
The latter – a role that could have gone to Rita Hayworth in one of her handful of noirs – is left an amnesiac following a car accident on the titular road. “Rita” becomes the memory-deficient charmer’s adopted name after she sees a poster of, shades of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Rita Hayworth in Gilda.
Now, since Mulholland Dr. is a David Lynch movie, its narrative frequently branches off into various off-kilter universes. These include the realms inhabited by an incompetent hired killer (Mark Pellegrino); an arrogant film director (Justin Theroux) at odds with the mafia; an entertainer (Rebekah Del Rio) who collapses onstage after singing “Crying” in Spanish; and a creepy, cryptic cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery).
As the story progresses we realize that these characters – and everybody else – aren’t exactly what they appear to be. Enter Diane Selwyn (also Watts), a disillusioned actress wannabe who, after being dumped by her lover, Camilla Rhodes (also Harring), is about to go off the deep end.
Is Diane’s future found in Betty’s past? Or is Betty’s future found in Diane’s past? And what about “Rita” a.k.a. Camilla Rhodes’ past/future connection?
Who’s real? Who isn’t?
Who’s alive? Who’s dead? Who has never existed? Who’s yet to exist?
Has the amnesiac Rita ever had lesbian sex before her intimate night with Betty? And if she’s a life-like hallucination, would that sexual experience count?
You may be unable to answer (or, for that matter, care to ask) many – or any – of these questions after watching Mulholland Dr. Either way, buckle up.
Mulholland Dr. feels like driving on a bumpy road during an earthquake. The dizzying aftereffects, especially considering the movie’s disturbing final sequences, are likely to linger on.
‘Surreal’ vs. ‘hyperreal’
For this cautionary Hollywood tale, David Lynch took a step back from the conventional, linear style found in the sentimental The Straight Story, reverting to his surrealistic approach in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Actually, “surrealistic” might not be the right word here. The “hallucination” segments in Mulholland Dr. should rather be labeled “hyperreal” for they are, generally speaking, manifestations of an overblown reality. Everything, from Betty’s goody-goody persona to the explosion-like sounds of car crashes, gunshots, and punches, is an exaggeration of reality itself.
This not quite real, not quite unreal ambiance is immeasurably enhanced by Lynch’s frequent collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, who composed the picture’s haunting score (and who plays a supporting role as a mobster type), and by Peter Deming’s exquisite, slightly askew cinematography.
But notwithstanding all of its behind-the-scenes talent, Mulholland Dr. would have been a pale version of its brilliant self without the presence of British-born Australian actress Naomi Watts.
Naomi Watts showcase
In her first important role in a major motion picture, Naomi Watts is a revelation. For starters, Watts manages to make her potentially insufferable, seemingly one-note Betty a personable, well-rounded character. That’s no small feat.
The fact that Betty Elms and Diane Selwyn look and sound like two radically different people – or rather, like characters played by two radically different performers – earns Watts countless more points. Paradoxically, the most astounding facet of her work is that Betty’s naïveté and hopefulness are discernible underneath Diane’s all-consuming bitterness.
As a result, instead of coming across as a jealous, vindictive villainess out to destroy other people’s lives, Diane – like Norma Desmond half a century earlier – is just one more victim of Hollywood’s Wicked Witch of Broken Dreams (whatever her real name, an actual Mulholland Dr. character).
Whether Diane Selwyn is Betty Elms through the looking glass or vice versa, Naomi Watts’ Diane/Betty stands next to Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond and Ronald Colman’s Anthony John (the Shakespearean actor in A Double Life) as one of the most visceral portrayals of delusional madness on film.
Other filmmakers who have aimed for David Lynch’s cinematic/thematic style, from Spike Jonze to Paul Thomas Anderson, might want to watch – and rewatch – Mulholland Dr. for inspiration.
Admittedly, Lynch does let his old self-indulgence (see Eraserhead, Dune, Wild at Heart, etc.) get in the way every now and then. Besides, some of the supporting players seem to have been carelessly handled – though it’s a pleasure to watch veteran Ann Miller (On the Town, Kiss Me Kate) in what turned out to be her final feature film role.
But even if several Mulholland Dr. scenes could have been shorter while others could have been excised, they do not make the whole any less powerful. That’s because Lynch never loses sight of the dark undercurrent propelling his lead character and of her even darker ultimate destination.
“I’m in this dream place,” Betty exclaims shortly after her arrival in Los Angeles. Lynch, who, ironically, found success and wealth in the American movie and television industry, then spends the next two and a half hours showing us that L.A., Hollywood, the posh Mulholland Drive, and all they represent are, in fact, the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Direction & Screenplay: David Lynch.
Cast: Naomi Watts. Laura Harring (as Laura Elena Harring). Justin Theroux. Dan Hedaya. Ann Miller. Robert Forster. Lee Grant. Chad Everett. Billy Ray Cyrus. Jeanne Bates. Dan Birnbaum. Michael J. Anderson. Angelo Badalamenti. Marcus Graham. Melissa George. Mark Pellegrino.
“Mulholland Dr. Movie (2001) Review” notes
From TV failure to big-screen (critical) hit
Having died the small-screen death after ABC, dissatisfied with the pilot, turned it down, Mulholland Dr. was resurrected by the French-based StudioCanal, which provided the funds (a reported $7 million) that allowed Lynch to transform his rejected pilot into a critically embraced feature.
Historical Diane Selwyn connection?
 Whether or not a coincidence, Diane Selwyn has the same last name as Broadway actor-producer Edgar Selwyn (1875–1944), who, along with his brother Archibald, partnered with Samuel Goldfish (born Gelbfisz) in the founding of Goldwyn Pictures in 1916.
Without his partners’ consent, Goldfish decided to use the company name as his own. In 1918, he officially became Samuel Goldwyn, the future producer of, among other titles, The Magic Flame, Dodsworth, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Guys and Dolls.
As for Edgar Selwyn, although he would remain a name on Broadway – his producing credits include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Barker, and Strike Up the Band – his film output, whether as producer or director, was minor.
His best-known big-screen credit, which he directed but did not produce, is the 1931 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (no – direct – connection to Samuel Goldwyn) melodrama The Sin of Madelon Claudet, which earned Helen Hayes a Best Actress Academy Award.
“Mulholland Dr. Movie” endnotes
Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts Mulholland Dr. movie images: Les Films Alain Sarde | StudioCanal/Canal+ | Universal Pictures.
“Mulholland Dr. Movie (2001) Review: Sensational Naomi Watts” last updated in December 2021.