The Many Facets of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive

*contains spoilers

Is Mulholland Drive (2001) a load of old cobblers? That director David Lynch has taken a rejected tv series pilot and added a number of new scenes and re-edited it, suggests that if it is a load of cobblers cobbled together… oh, what a sublime load of old cobblers it is! This article assumes you have seen the movie perhaps several times…

Director David Lynch

Here is a series of notes and ideas about the movie. I almost spiked the article as I sometimes think I’m full of it!

I don’t think Mulholland Drive can really be fully explained, certainly not in any linear fashion, which is part of its charm. It evokes different ideas from many people and in the end is just typically, and totally, enigmatic David Lynch.

This compelling anti-Hollywood movie remains almost wish fulfillment for those actresses and, perhaps, actors who want to work in tinsel-town, no matter how tragic this and their story ultimately maybe. It begins with the wish in that… Mulholland Drive is just about the ultimate nihilist Hollywood tale and yet offers, in contrast, one of the best parts for an actress in a film about Hollywood.

Mulholland Drive poster

The director has taken charge, in his own inimitable way, of the downbeat – I’ll say tragic again – tale of a would-be starlet who once had dreams of Hollywood only for them to end in bouts of masturbation and then ultimately suicide.

The Hollywood Dream, hinted at the beginning of the movie, has our heroine played by Naomi Watts (1968-) and the faces of an old couple she meets on the plane from Ontario to her dream land of Los Angeles, where she has already seen herself as the centre of a swinging dance or jitterbug contest. Yet her arrival there almost seems like it is the end as there is a first person shot of someone about to crash out on a bed, whether drugged or exhausted entering another dream land altogether. Is this the same person?

The jitterbug contest which opens Mulholland Drive

It is that clash between living the reality of the Hollywood Dream and just living in Hollywood and dreaming of a big break – or once dreaming of it – which is the essence of Mulholland Drive. We all have to sleep sometime and if you are lucky you may dream your fantasy. Or you may try to force it though onanist fantasy.

There is also the fact that open, or even closeted, homosexuality or lesbianism, leading up to the time the film was made, was more or less a death knell for a high-flying acting career in Hollywood. All this despite the breakthrough use of lesbian scenes using A-list actresses such as Watts and the lesser known Laura Harring (1964-). And yet we know that Naomi Watts and Harring are straight actresses. There is that division of reality and the Hollywood Dream again where success and failure meet and yet are forever divided. Oscar is yet to embrace ‘out’ lesbians or gays in leading roles although it will readily give them to straights playing bisexual or gay roles. This split in reality is something we are reminded later in the film at the Silencio nightclub where all that appears real isn’t necessarily so. I’m guessing that you have seen the film and so I won’t go into too much detail as Lynch’s vision is so dense with ideas I could go on for dozens of pages.

The prelude to the Silencio cabaret. The girls are mirror image but opposite.

It is at the Silencio nightclub where Watts as one of the characters she is playing, this one Betty and her lesbian lover Rita played by Harring, listen to Rebekah Del Rio sing Crying in Spanish. The two women are moved to tears and it ends with the singer suddenly passing out while a recording continues to playback the song as she is dragged off stage.

It is then that Betty produces the blue box, for which the key they have discovered in a pouch full of money when Betty and Rita first met at Betty’s aunt’s apartment may fit.

The old couple at the beginning are key to Naomi Watts’s character’s suicide at the end

Is the key to this movie that synchronised sound and picture is the key to emotion in performance, and modern cinema is still, ultimately, a live performance? Silencio! The synchronisation of sound with image is the key to Hollywood today since the original founding of sound movies… So perhaps the dream of theatre and film performance for an actress is contained within the blue box and the blue box is the recording and yet it contains and means… nothing. All performances mean nothing and all the dreams of Hollywood means nothing. Ultimately, they are not real.

Certainly when the key is placed in the box, it means nothing and yet it means everything as Rita disappears upon opening it and the box disappears… but the key has a much sinister meaning as the movie progresses as the key at the end opens nothing but is purely symbolic of death… We have to ask whether cinema as a theory that uses each movie symbolically as a separate key to the kingdom that is Hollywood is meaningless and not worthy of criticism and discussion. Is it all nothing but a record of an often long departed filmmaker or individual? And even then it is not real history.

David Lynch’s seriously strange Eraserhead (1978) trailer

When Rita disappears, all that is left is an empty bedroom where once the couple made love, as Betty’s/ Diane’s/Naomi’s supposed aunt enters upon hearing the sound of the box dropping to the floor. But it is nothing. If these walls could talk is perhaps hinted at.

But is it all the director’s story… Lynch’s story? There is a director in the movie and his story is separate from the tale of Naomi’s Betty/Diane although their lives intersect. Betty can’t necessarily be making up the story of the director and his fight to hire the actress he really wants. Why should she? Except to validate her failure as Diane, as Diane laments that she wasn’t chosen for a role which ended her possible career stardom. Perhaps Diane really does blame faceless executives for her failure and not her penchant for no discipline and self-abuse where Diane seems to conjure up the world of herself as starlet Betty – and the director. It’s that split in reality and possible dream.

Ann Miller as Coco with Betty. The film as straight narrative? Coco ends this theory.

It is said the film has three elements. There is the real story of Diane the failed starlet and Diane’s masturbatory dream of herself as Betty and Betty’s arrival in Hollywood and her dreams and aspirations which are immediately turned on their head when she meets a woman who names herself Rita which begins the mystery noir that is the beginning of Mulholland Drive. There may also be a subconscious element as well.

You could almost watch the film as a straight narrative of it purely being Diane’s story. She was once Betty, but she fell in with another actress, had a lesbian affair and couldn’t let that side of herself go, something which ruined her career and continues to blight her life as Diane the disillusioned abject failure. You could watch it that way if it weren’t for the appearance of Ann Miller’s (1923-2004 lung cancer) character Coco, who is obviously two separate characters in the movie. So, we must believe it is reality vs dream against the reality that the dream is dead.

Lesbianism and bisexuality has hit the mainstream in terms of actresses with Kristen Stewart

Mulholland Drive is the ultimate Hollywood story about someone who did not make it in Hollywood. And Diane towards the end of her humiliation imagines her young and ideal Rita visiting her: “You’ve come back” she gasps in her junk filled apartment as she sees Rita who is not there. It has been another night of dreams and masturbation as Diane makes coffee in the morning and then sorely imagines she is having sex with Rita again.

Is this the key to Hollywood acting failure and hellish limbo (going back a couple of decades and even further) – either to be in a same sex relationship, or to be forever imagining but not achieving, or perhaps sentimentally remembering, a same sex relationship. I’m not saying it is wrong but in terms of the Hollywood Dream reality, the heterosexual façade must be kept for the public… I’m sure that still goes on today. In the film, it is in the end at the director’s party where Harring’s character engages the director for marriage and yet she kisses another woman Oh, the horrors of being bisexual!

Blond Betty/Diane can’t get over her love for Rita/Camilla

To go back to when Betty is a triumph and yet fails without her knowledge because of what she performs in is a dead end audition, she is led by two female casting agents to another possible audition where she momentarily catches the eye of the director… But she will never get the part as it has been predetermined for the director and also Betty leaves the audition suddenly because she feels she is drawn into the life of Rita. She has her priorities all wrong as an actress and yet she is human after all.

It is that notion of its not what you know but who you know in Hollywood which predetermines the success of a career no matter how much talent you may think you have. Does a person’s decisions, such as Betty’s decision to enter into the amnesiac lesbian or bisexual Rita’s life – she chooses her name from a Rita Hayworth film poster in Betty’s aunt’s apartment – predetermine the final outcome of either a life of riches and fame or penury and disillusionment in Los Angeles?

Is half or all of the story of Mulholland Drive just and onanist’s dream/nightmare?

Diane is asked to a party at Rita/Camilla Rhodes home in the Hollywood Hills, or so it seems… “What are we doing? We don’t stop here?,” says Diane and she is met by the antithesis of the beginning of the movie when Rita utters these words as the car she is in stops on Mulholland Drive with a pair of assassins ready to kill her.

Diane is taken up the hill to the director’s party as if ascending to heaven where Rita now actress Camilla Rhodes is Diana’s unrequited public eye candy. Rita/Camilla, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t mind kissing another actress at the party with her partner the director even if Diane feels all the more awful for being ignored and a failure as she talks to the other Coco.

No wonder she wants Camilla Rhodes assassinated and uses the money left to her by her aunt to hire a hitman. We question whether it is the same aunt from the beginning of the movie or was Aunt Ruth just an idealised dream?

The aftermath of the crash on Mulholland Drive is central to the movie

Whereas Diane ascends the Hollywood Hills near the end of the movie when the car stops, Rita or Camilla, having survived her assassination through a car crashing into her stationary vehicle with the assassins killed, descends down into Franklin Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, where she slips into Aunt Ruth’s apartment just as she is about to leave and let her niece Betty housesit and possibly begin the life of a Hollywood actress.

It is this hinge of reality and dream about the car that Mulholland Drive also swings upon.

The film is so surreal and yet it seems to fit together despite some elements of the movie which don’t seem to be related at all. This includes an appearance by Lee Grant (c1925-) at Aunt Ruth’s apartment door.

Wild at Heart (1990) trailer

Ultimately, Diane is the star of her own film, or nightmare, or the director’s film… At the party she suffers as the director and Rita/Camilla are about to announce their marriage and that kiss… But Diane is then in the diner Winkies to hire the hitman with her money to kill Camilla. Such is the all-consuming bitterness of failure and rejection in Hollywood!

“Are you sure you want this?,” asks the hitman.

“More than anything in the world,” she says. No longer is it the Hollywood Dream she wants, it’s Diane’s Dream or movie which she is appearing in… and the hitman tells her that when the hit is made, he will leave a blue key in her apartment when the job is done.

All or nothing is contained within the dreams of the blue box and its meaningful key. Que?

Thus, the surreal link to the odd blue key which opens a blue box which leads to nothing. Again, it is that nihilist view of Hollywood. Of having your ultimate fan who wants to have sex with you and also kill you. That a career in Hollywood which leads to riches or penury is all illusion anyway… although Rita/Camilla doesn’t seem to be suffering in Hollywood except for a bad case of amnesia. Betty/Diane loves or once loved her.

When she asks the hitman what the key opens in the diner, we think this character’s name is Diane, but it is also the name of the waitress who serves them and the waitress resembles a streetwalker earlier in the movie outside the diner. So, there is a real identity crisis happening for Naomi Watts’ characters if not just a sexual identity crisis.

Sunset Blvd. (1950), referenced at the beginning of the film, is another nihilist tale. Trailer.

In the end, it is the monstrous hobo living on the streets with the box. He puts it in a brown paper bag and leaves it on the ground… it is the penury of the imagined blue box which is nothing even to those with nothing… They have given away all their dreams contained within and discarded it like an empty liquor bottle having consumed it or it consumed them. But it is everything to Diane in terms of her failure and when she receives the hitman’s key on her coffee table in her rundown apartment, the friendly couple from the beginning of the movie emerge from the blue box as tiny figures… the box which also may have contained all of Diane’s empty dreams. The couple pound on the door, entering the apartment to Diane’s screams… It is then the so-called actress gets a gun and blows her haunted brains out.

The surreal overlap of the film is shown with the discovery of the body. Is it Betty/Diane?

This is possibly the body that Betty and Rita have found as they follow the mystery of who is Diane Selwyn and enter a rundown apartment midway through the film.

But it is the car and the crash on Mulholland Drive which is the beginning, the middle, and ultimately the end of the movie in different ways as it is the hit ordered at the end of the movie which happens at the beginning, albeit a possible dream, and it is Diane in the car which stops on the road so she can be taken to the party which may be the genesis of her bitterness to initiate the hit.

There are just so many angles to look at the car on Mulholland Drive as the police, led by Robert Forster (1941-2019 brain cancer), at the beginning of the film, try to work out what goes with the discarded pearl earring.

Men went to bed with Gilda and woke with Rita Hayworth

I guess we are like the police investigating this movie except there are layers which the police don’t see. This investigation into the failed life of an actress. It maybe only a fantasy anyway, but a car also features later in a key scene…

“I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star,” says Betty to Rita at the beginning of the movie. The contrast between the names Betty and Rita could be made in that Bette Davis was a great actress whereas Rita Hayworth was more of a movie star.

Was Diana as Betty, as she may have previously been known, actually stay at the apartment? There are hints of her imagination being stimulated by the place if it did exist, or was it just a plain idyllic Hollywood Dream apartment? And her want to sleep with Gilda.

I am leaving out the director meeting with the overseas investors who control his cast and his ultimate meetings with the cowboy. Also, we have the hitman kill an apparent friend or acquaintance for a book of numbers…

The straight sex scene is performed or practiced/practised for the public

But back to Aunt Ruth’s apartment with Betty and Rita and there is another conjunction between reality and Hollywood unreality when Betty tells Rita to leave only it turns out they are reading from a script… and shortly after, that practiced script is used for Betty’s audition with actor Chad Everett (1937-2012 lung cancer), while a producer played by James Karen (1923-2018 cardiorespiratory arrest) looks on.

We almost believe the scene of heavy breathing played out in front of us between Everett and Watts, with a detached director who wouldn’t have a clue. Mulholland Drive is again, an actor/actress’s movie – to use the term both as female. Is the audition a part of Betty’s fall from grace and her beginning to spiral into the excesses of the Hollywood Dream which offers sexual liberation and yet leads to her career destruction as Diane? And it is the split between the unreality of a straight and steamy love scene being performed with an audience at close quarters. It’s that reality question again when it comes to performance and reality…

Boys Don’t Cry was an award winner for a straight actress in a transgender role. Confused?

The director at the audition had something else on his mind, or he knew his project was doomed as the casting agents tell Betty afterwards. Was this footage filmed after Lynch’s tv series was rejected? It doesn’t matter.

The question of whether Betty or Diane ever had a chance of a career without connections … or without prostituting herself/themselves is perhaps also central to Mulholland Drive.

Diane blames her failure enough to kill and again it is that fragmentation of the movie into a completely surreal experience of reality and dream which keeps us interested. All we know is that the actress is dead and it is the ultimate ingenious package for the actress who plays her in this film. The actress is the meaning of the movie. The down and out actress has retreated so much into fantasy that the fantasy encroaches into her real life and becomes her future. Her fantasy discovers her own body in reality. If there really is a reality!

Yet another nihilist Hollywood movie is The Day of the Locust (1975) trailer

What you sow, you may reap and that is reflected in the life of the director when he at first revolts against the advice of others to cast the actress in his movie named Camilla Rhodes who we otherwise know as Rita.

But Diane or Betty as she may have once been or still is… which is another part of the film’s genius… is disabled in Hollywood again for her sexuality and lack of discipline. That old adage that the gay or lesbian, dated that it may be, sets out only to find a replica or another version of themselves is reflected when Rita dons a blond wig and she and Betty stare in the mirror. It is shortly after that they have their first sexual encounter.

Del Rio sings at the Silencio cabaret. Is a film a real performance? Was it ever real?

“I’m in love with you,” Betty tells Rita after they have sex and Rita wakes in the middle of the night and says: “Silencio” over and over again. When this word is repeated by an old woman with blue hair at the Silencio club at the end of the movie, it could be asking silence for a performance whether real or recorded as a movie. Anyway, it is universal when spoken by the woman at the club.

So, the key to the Silencio cabaret club scene is the two women, Rita in a blond wig as they clutch each other… they are an illusion just like the performance they are watching, as a couple and as a part of Diane’s so-called dream. They are also the illusion we are watching. They are an illusion in their dress and in being a part of the illusion that is the cabaret theatre named Silencio where both recording and apparent reality meet. And the blue box appears once more containing all that Diane once ever wanted.

You were warned! Yet you enjoyed something which in the end is out of sync. Performance as mental onanism? Mulholland Drive is just as out of sync.

There is no doubt that Diane or Betty is a genius for making up a fantasy about Hollywood and when they put the key and the box together…. Poof! Like a magician disappearing in a puff of smoke… cabaret-style.

But the real blue key at the end of the movie after Rita turns up in another dream masturbation sequence is missing from the coffee table. Was it ever really there!?

“It’s him, isn’t it?,” says Diane as more of a statement than question about the end of all her dreams with Rita.

Aunt Ruth, if these walls could only talk? The Hollywood Dream is nothing.

Then we are at the studio where Camilla is the star with the director beside her in a car on the closed set. This could also be seen as another car wreck in the movie for Diane as she is watching as the pair kiss and the director says: “Kill the lights.” And there is a fade to black with a slight rumbling sound, the same sound as when the blue box seemed to swallow Rita and also faded to black. Another heart breaks.

It is the breaking of the spell of Betty having Rita disappear from her life in the dream.

Lynch directs the director for the heartbreak scene in Mulholland Drive. The real car wreck.

With the brown paper bag at the end of the movie from where tiny versions of the happy old couple emerge to monster our actress to her suicide looks like it may have once carried a wine bottle.

I’m swerving with this article like the car carrying the teenagers at the beginning of the film as they are about to hit the stationary car – their lives possibly flashing before their eyes just like this movie may be for our doomed actress as the old couple chases her to her doom with a pistol…

The key to Mulholland Drive may be alcoholism. Who knows? The actress is telling the story… yes, ultimately Lynch as well… but the actress maybe hiding the bottle in her dreams. She may even be a junkie.

Mulholland Drive (2001) trailer

The final straw of seeing that key has the ghosts of the once benevolent couple who met Betty on her flight to Hollywood come calling in a horrible way… they have emerged from the box of what she has always wanted in the brown paper bag. This is her worst nightmare as she blows her brains out. Again, it is a life flashing before the eyes. Was the box always a bottle?

The homeless monster could be anyone in Hollywood who had dreams

The homeless “monster” which another character has dreamt up as his worst fear at the back of Winkies diner at the very beginning of the movie is the antithesis of a successful Hollywood career and so is Diane… If she really was Betty in the beginning, it just goes to show how one false move can lead to one missed opportunity which can mean the end to any possibility of a successful career as a result and the negative psychic marks they leave on a person’s psyche. The bitterness of knowing that opportunity knocks but once.

Mulholland Drive is the best load of old cobblers I have ever seen. It is a masterpiece, although it is a depressing one to sit through a number of times in a row. Lynch’s failed tv pilot is definitely art and Lynchian with a capital ‘L’.

Ultimately, Mulholland Drive is an actress’s movie no matter how you look at it

If it points out that we are only watching a recording of a performance, total attention is needed to enjoy its essence and richness. As the old woman with the blue hair says at the end of Mulholland Drive, even if she may be a part of the performance itself: “Silencio.” And an actress of any age of stage or screen, a failure or success, knows and always desires that above all as a part of their art as a performer. Respect as a part of self-respect.

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