From Sunset Blvd. to Mulholland Dr.: The Road to Hollywood is Paved with Good Intentions

Sunset Blvd. (1950) | Directed by Billy Wilder | Drama, Film-Noir | Not Rated | With William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson | Paramount Pictures | Runtime: 110 minutes | Box Office: $5 million | Rotten Tomatoes score: 98%

Mulholland Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch | Mystery, Neo-Noir | R | With Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux | Les Films Alain Sarde | Runtime: 147 minutes | Box Office: $20.1 million | Rotten Tomatoes score: 83%

Fifty-one years after the premiere of the film-noir classic Sunset Blvd. (1950), David Lynch released his neo-noir thriller, Mulholland Dr. (2001), drawing clear inspiration from the former. Rather than a cheap reimagining of an old tale, however, Lynch reconstructs the narrative in his own masterfully haphazard fashion, creating a dreamy, puzzling film for the ages. The final 40 minutes of Mulholland Dr. are very nearly a reenactment of Sunset Blvd.’s basic plot points—a failing actress kills her unfaithful lover, then promptly goes insane out of grief—but the other hour and a half of the movie that elevates the extensive reference into true originality. Lynch takes it all and infuses it with his trademark surrealist imagery, so much so that to call it a “reimagining” would not be giving it due credit.

Lynch is anything but subtle about the impact of Sunset Blvd. on his own film. The titles themselves are abbreviated street names; the street “Sunset Blvd.” shows up twice explicitly, most notably as the location of a diner called Winkie’s. The titular street of this film, too, being the scene of a murder, is shrouded in noir mystery. The first and second plotlines are original, telling the love story of Betty and Rita, as well as Adam’s casting troubles caused by the mafia. Of course, the greatest shout-out is still the third major narrative of the film. Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is no faded silent movie star a là Norma Desmond, but she is not doing so hot after losing the lead in a major feature; Hollywood has passed both of them by. Camilla is the irresistible bait, who Diane forms an unhealthy attachment to; Joe Gillis, suffocated under Norma’s jealous thumb, is rolling in his grave. Camilla chooses someone with brighter prospects: the illustrious director Adam Kesher; Joe forsakes love for the financial comfort of being a gigolo. Adam and Betty Schaefer have the one fault of falling for someone already taken, and get caught unwillingly in the crossfire. Revolvers and telephones alike are cold-blooded instruments of murder. Romance and Hollywood are seen through jade-colored glasses, and there is no happy ending to be found. The perpetrators of crime promptly lose their minds, unable to live with the reality of what they have done. They are haunted by delusions, and so ends their tragedy.

Yet despite the many similarities, Lynch is not content with merely rehashing the time-tested plot. What set Mulholland Dr. apart from its predecessor are its shifted perspective and emotional resonance. With Sunset Blvd.Director Billy Wilder made the conscious choice to tell the story from the point-of-view of Joe Gillis, whose dry, sardonic voice lends itself to the atmosphere of the film. Under the framework ofa love triangle, Wilder makes a broad, scathing criticism of the film industry, and the characters feel removed from the viewer’s sympathies.Mulholland Dr. switches perspective and is told from the eyes of Diane Selwyn, love and career’s rejected castaway. Whereas Norma Desmond garnered at most pity, we almost sympathize with Diane. After seeing the ingenuous relationship between Betty and Rita, the audience believes that Diane and Camilla ought to work out too, and Adam is seen as someone who is getting in the way. Instead Diane is driven to the edge by loneliness and jealousy, becoming far more understandable after we get a glimpse into her bleak lifestyle: for her, the best thing in life may as well be Camilla. Diane has moments of genuine emotion that contrast sharply with Norma’s contrived melodrama. While it cannot be said that either is superior, Lynch’s presentation of the story touches off a more heartfelt chord. Up until the very end, Diane and Camilla’s story progresses smoothly without much distraction. Worlds away from Lynch’s usual erratic style, this creates a compelling narrative that lets Mulholland Dr. ascend beyond plain mimicry.

The rest of the film is much less straightforward. References and storylines appear to be almost jarringly unrelated, like jigsaw pieces that seem to be from different puzzles entirely. Here, Lynch again adds to his loving homage through the character of Betty Elms, undeniably a tribute to Sunset Blvd.’s aspiring screenwriter ingénue Betty Schaefer. With identical names and similar ambitions of making a career in Hollywood, they each fall in love with someone who has an intriguing secret, quickly becoming wrapped up in things that are, suffice it to say, no good. They have family in the movie business, with Elms’ Aunt Ruth and Schaefer’s entire family having worked in Hollywood. Directors don’t like them much, and their guileless charm is endearing. Lynch even takes care to make sure they dressed similarly: Elms favors Schaefer’s style of tops and pencil skirts in contrasting colors, and both pin their hair back. Schaefer’s defining traits are a sharp wit and relentless optimism. Elms is slightly more grounded, butstill has a charming naïveté and a brash fearlessness. Schaefer is, even at her most clever, a textbook ingénue, a shameless but likable trope. What save Elms from the fate of a cliché are, in large part, the increasingly surreal situations she is thrown in and the characterizing moment of her movie audition. Rather than the hammy, over-the-top acting we expect, her seductive, subtle performance displays hidden facets of her personality. Throughout the film, Elms is beset by strange circumstances upon her arrival in Los Angeles: she meets the amnesiac Rita, finds a putrefied corpse, and visits the Silencio club. These events shatter the typical image of preserved innocence, especially after her discovery of the corpse; she breaks down, and some part of her spirit is damaged forever. With her character irrevocably warped, Betty Elms is saved from what would have been irredeemable one-dimensionality.

In so playing with our expectations, Lynch weaponizes them. The audition is the epitome of this subversion of assumption; Lynch is not afraid to challenge his audience. The absurdity of the story of the horrible figure behind Winkie’s makes it almost comical, but we still feel unease, justified when the figure does materialize against all odds. When Betty and Rita play Nancy Drew at Diane Selwyn’s house, we are led to believe that there is no real danger, deceived by the guileless anticipation in their faces despite the clearly ominous atmosphere. Of course, the putrefied corpse quickly corrects us. Soon after, the bizarre Silencio club makes its appearance, yet it is no club in any traditional sense. It is instead a theater, made for a grand performance. Yet, again, there’s no performance: it is all a recording. We are thrown into a sense of disbelief—how can any recording be a performance?—but are shocked again when Rebekah del Rio enters, and sings a heartbreaking Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. The sheer power of her singing brings Betty and Rita to tears; although we have been told that it is all fake, we are spelled into believing the performance’s authenticity; soon after, Rebekah collapses, but the singing continues in her absence. Perhaps most egregiously, when Rita finally unlocks the blue box we believe that we will finally be given some answers. Lynch then proceeds to do the exact opposite, spiraling us downward along Diane and Camilla’s tragic tale. But despite Lynch’s duplicity, we never feel cheated: we know that, as viewers, we ourselves are complicit, for each time, the payoff is so captivating that we cannot help but watch.

Even still, Mulholland Dr.’s offerings would seem lackluster, or at least undeserving of such praise. What catapults the film into excellence is the classic surrealism that Lynch is famous for. Ever since his first film, the fantastical body horror Eraserhead (1977), Lynch has always managed to create films less concentrated on comprehensibility, instead following a “dream logic” to convey from his subconscious his exact vision. Almost immediately into watching Mulholland Dr., we know that we should not expect anything less: it opens into a scene of couples dancing, superimposed on a purple background. The questions this raises are never addressed; as with all Lynch films, the audience shouldn’t expect them to be. Other little mysteries pile up: Ed’s black book, Diane Selwyn’s neighbor, the Cowboy, the blue-haired woman. Lynch lets the audience know that they are of grand significance, then, with the concluding act, seems to ignore them. There is also the greatest incongruity of all: how the first part of the film, with Betty and Rita, fits the second part, with Diane and Camilla. Lynch himself denies any interpretation, although the oft-cited one is that the much happier tale of Betty and Rita is a masturbatory fantasy concocted by Diane of how she wishes her story with Camilla had panned out. The loose ends are left untied in deliberate fashion. The aura of mystery is delicately created through the piecemeal narrative and left whole by avoiding any answers.

Under any other director, Mulholland Dr. would likely end up a mish-mashed hodgepodge of unrelated plot points, serving no purpose but to confuse the viewer. But Lynch is a true master of his medium. Despite polarizing critics after its release, Mulholland Dr. is now cited as one of the greatest films of the 21st century. What saves the film from being irritably confusing is Lynch dangling in front of the audience a taste of the bigger picture, always just out-of-reach. We always sense that we have every clue needed to solve the puzzle, which rescues it from being frustratingly complex. Lynch tempts his viewers with little rewards; Lynch provides just enough details to prevent the audience from lose faith in his storytelling, and so we don’t feel that he is mocking us with perplexity. Most notable is the instance of the Cowboy, who tells Adam that he’ll see him again once if it goes well, and twice if it goes awry. True to his word, his third appearance in the film occurs so quickly that it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Upon seeing it, if the audience recalls his earlier words, the film seems to be at its most solvable, and we are led to believe that if we try hard enough, we can find the right conclusion. Like with any Lynchian film, the temptation exists to parse the mysteries that have passed before our eyes. But after watching it, just like the ending words of the blue-haired woman, we will most likely still be sitting dumbstruck: in silencio.