As hard as it is to imagine, Naomi Watts wasn't always a superstar. That's why the one movie to watch before it leaves Netflix in October 2017 is Mulholland Drive; this is the film that changed the star's life, and this is a a work that's essential to an understanding of Watt's career. Whether or not you're a fan of the actor, her performance in this film has so many layers to it — both because of the project and because of her life behind it — that the movie is psychological and intellectual lesson for everyone.
It feels like kismet that she starred in the movie, with her roles in the film overlapping to an uncanny extent with her real life joys and frustrations at that time, adding depth to her performance. In an interview with The Guardian about Gypsy in July 2017, the blonde talked about her professional frustrations up until the age of 32. She described how, up until that point, the peak of her career had been doing supporting voice work for Babe: Pig In The City, explaining, "I wasn’t getting parts. I was giving myself away. My soul was being destroyed. I was never able to walk in a room and own it by being me." This all changed when director David Lynch picked Watts' headshot out and she was invited to audition for him. "It was having someone actually make eye contact, ask questions he was truly interested in, take the time to unveil some layers."
The movie acted as a perfect showcase for the aspiring actor, partly since, in a case of life imitating art, the 48-year-old got to play Betty, a plucky aspiring actor.
Just like Watts, who spent time away in Australia before returning to Hollywood to pursue her dreams, Betty is new in Hollywood. It's fun, if unsettling, watching the actor function as the film's sunny counterpart to the other, more troubled lead, Rita, the victim of a car crash who has amnesia and who Betty finds hiding in her aunt's flat. Critics at the time were impressed by the way the Brit injected life and depth into what initially came across as a flat, Pollyanna-esque character, with Variety arguing that Watt's performance in the Lynch movie gives "the film its most unanticipated boost" and calling it "a stunning starring debut," one they believed "should decisively put Watts on the Hollywood and international map."
And it made sense that the actor was able to put something human into Betty, a character Watts herself panned as one-dimensional in the TV pilot form, because, from the sounds of things, the actor modeled the character partly on herself. Watts explained to Interview, "I saw her as this completely innocent young girl from a small town who... is ready to take on a new identity; even if it's somebody else's." This echoes her comments from the interview above, taken from the extras from the 2015 DVD, where she talks about Lynch saving her career, because prior to the role, "Following so many years of rejection [auditioning in LA], I’d built up veneer after veneer, thought OK, who do they want me to be, funny, sexy, smart, shy, quiet I didn’t know who I was anymore."
But we shouldn't assume that this was all about the blonde doing something spectacular with a less-than-spectacular role. The project also offered the actor an unbeatable chance to show off her range. Why? Midway through the thriller, it pulls a switcheroo, and, with no explanation whatsoever (because, well, it's a Lynch film), Watts becomes Diana, a depressed and obsessive woman who is in love with a beautiful and successful actor who doesn't feel the same, Camilla. This upending of the characters' fortunes means we get to see a whole different aspect of the actor. She wasn't just luminous as a sunny goody-goody, but completely convincing in the same creative project as the other side of the coin, a woman with severe clinical depression.
Again, in the interview from the DVD, she talks about what the real place Mulholland Drive meant for her:
"Mulholland drive was a particular road that I remember when I was down, down, down on my luck and remember thinking, oh, this day is going too bad and this has been a succession of really bad days, I could just do a quick turn and just drive off this cliff."
She goes on to refer to "The long, unending winding road" before launching into an account of her fruitless time auditioning in Los Angeles. A such, who could possibly have been more appropriate for a film that The Village Voice called "a poisonous Valentine to Hollywood"?
Watts was well aware of how attractive Hollywood could be; in the same DVD interview she describes the other way of experiencing Mulholland Drive "when you just drive smoothly around and the light’s right and it’s the opposite of that and you’re listening to the right song." But her first-hand knowledge ability of the film industry's magnetism and its destructiveness meant that she'd deliver one of the most compelling performances of her career. And that makes it essential that you catch this film as soon as you possibly can. You won't be sorry.