Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Unsung Performances: Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive
I think it's a shame that the Academy doesn't recognize comedy more often but how in the hell do you nominate Renée Zellweger for Bridget Jones's Diary and snub Naomi Watts for Mulholland Drive? Maybe the Academy does have a sense of humor, after all. The other nominees that year were Sissy Spacek for In The Bedroom, Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge!, Judi Dench for Iris and the eventually winner, Halle Berry for Monsters Ball. It's not a bad group but... come on. Watt's performance was not just the best of that year, but one of the best screen performances ever.
In Mulholland Drive Watts takes on the task of two very different, very demanding roles. For 2/3rds of the film she plays sunny, optimistic Betty Elms, an actress with Nancy Drew-like curiosity. Betty is the epitome of promise. As an actress she has as-yet-untapped depths and is set to be launched into the stratosphere, as an amateur sleuth she's able to put the pieces together with seeming ease, and she gets the girl to boot - if only it weren't for that mysterious blue box, things would be perfect.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Diane Selwyn. An actress who hasn't made it, who has been used and abused by the woman she loves, Diane has been beaten down by life and her bitterness has nearly eaten her from the inside out. While Betty represents the Hollywood dream, Diane is the harsh, brutal reality. As her ex-lover becomes the focus of her anger over her unfulfilled dreams, Diane becomes increasingly unhinged until, in the end, she can no longer outrun her own madness.
The two characters are so distinct and expertly played that it's difficult to accept that both are played by the same actress. As Betty, Watts has a bounce in her step and a sunny, can-do attitude; as Diane she slumps and sulks, though there are brief moments when a little bit of hope is allowed to pass briefly over her face, only to be crushed again in the next moment. This set of performances requires a lot, but Watts doesn't disappoint for even a second and carries the film with these two absolutely engrossing performances.
Now, granted, Watts didn't go entirely unnoticed. She won the Chicago Film Critics award for Best Actress, the National Board of Review's award for Breakthrough Performance and, bizarrely, the Las Vegas and San Diego Film Critcs awards for Supporting Actress; and her career took off in part thanks to the buzz Mulholland Drive generated but, seriously, she was robbed. I've seen this movie many times and I never cease to be impressed with what Watts accomplishes in it.