Mulholland Drive Explained: A Hollywood Love Story Gone Terribly, Terribly Wrong
Released in October 2001, Mulholland Drive remains David Lynch’s masterpiece. The surrealist film contains a fractured narrative that blends reality with fantasy about a would-be Hollywood starlet played by Naomi Watts. Trying to make sense of the storyline can be confounding. In part, this is because Lynch shot footage for a TV pilot. When it was rejected, he filmed additional scenes, thus, creating the film version we know so well. Despite its many winding twists, Mulholland Drive boils down to a love story gone horribly wrong.
She Wanted to Be an Actress
In her fantasy state, Naomi Watts plays Betty, a wide-eyed actress who moves to LA from Deep River, Ontario. Because she won a jitterbug contest, she thinks she has what it takes to hit the bigtime.
Betty meets Rita (Laura Harring), a mysterious woman hiding out at Betty’s aunt’s place after a car accident on Mulholland Dr. Rita fled the scene to escape the mob and can’t remember anything. As the film/fantasy progresses, Betty and Rita fall in love.
Both women support each other. Betty wants to help Rita alleviate her amnesia caused by the accident and piece together who she was. Rita, meanwhile, generally supports Betty’s mighty ambitions.
Lynch’s Not-So-Subtle Critique of Hollywood
Mulholland Drive is loaded with scenes that show the underbelly and ugliness of Hollywood. The film’s title is significant because it’s where Rita has the accident and loses her memory. But it’s also the rolling, twisting street that follows the eastern Santa Monica mountains to the north of LA. It contains dangerous and blind turns.
Though Mulholland Dr. showcases the glitzy side of Hollywood, including eye-popping mansions, it contains a seedy underbelly. The Manson murders occurred nearby. The body of 19-year-old Reet Jurvetson was found in underbrush just off the road in 1969. She was stabbed more than 100 times and remained unidentified until 2015. It is still unclear whether or not Manson’s cult killed her.
Further, the film features quite a few helicopter shots showing the Hollywood sign, also visible from Mulholland Dr. The shot of the large H conjures the memory of Peg Entwistle, who threw herself off the letter in 1932. She was 24 and a prime example of a doomed, fated starlet.
Watts resembles the numerous blonde bombshells from a Hitchcock movie or even Marilyn Monroe, who also died tragically. As Betty, she exudes the cheerful innocence and optimism of an aspiring actress. Rita’s name, meanwhile, echoes Rita Heyworth, one of the top stars of the 1940s. Lastly, one of the film’s leads, Adam (Justin Theroux), a hot, young director, is a womanizing jerk. The mob finances his latest film. All reflections of the less desirable parts of Hollywood.
A Dream Place
Not long after meeting Rita, Betty says, “I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star,” before adding, “Now I’m in this dream place.” Upon a few re-watches, it’s evident that the clues exist from the beginning that Betty’s reality is false. “Betty” daydreams a happier story, one in which she makes it and has a happy relationship with “Rita.”
Much later in the film, the women head to a theater. There, a host/magician repeats that “everything is recorded,” and “it’s all an illusion.” Not long after that hallucinatory and bizarre sequence, reality reveals itself.
The truth is that Betty is really Diane, a failed actress. This truth unfolds late in the film, when she opens a blue box, a portal of sorts that snaps her back to reality. Rita is really Camilla, a stunning actress who did make it and has a sexual relationship with Adam. She even kisses him at a dinner party as Diane watches.
This, coupled with Diane’s failure as an actress, causes her mental breakdown. She even hires an assassin to kill her lover. The last 1/3 of the film especially leans into horror elements, with several shadowy shots and close-ups showing Diane’s broken mental state.
Mulholland Drive creates such a sense of unease because it employs what Freud labeled “The Uncanny.” Freud defined The Uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Lynch essentially takes aspects of Americana, including a cowboy, 1950s Hollywood (even the sign), and diners and makes them terribly unsettling.
Take, for example, one of the film’s most famous scenes. Two men sit in a booth at Winkie’s, a 1950s-type diner. One of them, Dan (Patrick Fischler), tells the other about a dream that occurs at the same diner. Dan tells the other man that he’s in the dream as well, terrified, standing by the door. Dan explains, “There’s a man in back of this place. He’s the one who’s doing it.” He adds, “I hope I never see that face, ever, outside of a dream.”
After the chilling dialogue, Dan and the man walk behind the diner. Near the dumpster, they encounter an eerie figure that could be a witch, hobo, or demon. It looks human, yet not. The scene remains a brilliant example of The Uncanny.
Mulholland Drive is filled with that, especially as “Rita,” in Diane’s fantasy, tries to piece together her memories and recall aspects of her true self. Memories come to her in flashes, like when she hears the street name Mulholland Dr. or calls her old apartment and hears Betty/Diane’s voice on the answering machine. All of this is strangely unsettling to experience as a viewer, along with the fractured, dream-like narrative.
Even Winkie’s signifies The Uncanny because both “Rita/”Camilla and “Betty/” Diane have flashes of the familiar when they glance at a waitress’ nametag. They’re haunted by doubleness, identity, and foggy, fragmented memories.
A Tortured Love Story
If you strip away the arthouse aspects of the film, the narrative circles back to a failed actress, spurned by a lover and rejected by the industry. That makes the film’s ending such a heartbreaking gut punch. If anything, Lynch’s magnum opus is the total opposite of a Hollywood ending. It’s about a woman with dashed aspirations, whose lover landed the lead role over her.
Camilla and Diane’s actual, real storylines show the nastiness of the industry and thus, a turbulent relationship. In one especially heartbreaking scene, Diane tells Coco, Adam’s mom, how she wanted to be a famous actress. Coco (Ann Miller) pats Diane’s hand. She’s likely heard the same story countless times.
Mulholland Drive is a film to re-watch to catch certain symbolism, like the importance of the color blue, or early hints that “Betty’s” storyline isn’t real. Even the references to old Hollywood are abundant. Further, Watts and Harring give knockout performances.
On the one hand, the film is one of Lynch’s most befuddling, while also one of his most straightforward once it gets to where it’s going. It blends noir, surrealism, and thriller in a seamless fashion. Yet, its use of The Uncanny makes it such a terrifying film about love gone wrong and a ruthless industry that devours young actresses without remorse.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his fiancé, or curling up on the couch and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.