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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.


R. D. Finch said...
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R. D. Finch said...

Norma, I absolutely agree with you about Watts's performance in "Mulholland Drive." For me this is, along with "The Elephant Man" and "Blue Velvet" one of Lynch's three bona fide masterpieces. Yet as much of a director's movie as it is, credit for its artistic success must be shared with Watts for her fantastic performance. I've seen her in a few other roles, but none of those approached the brilliance of her work here. Your post really got to the essence of the character(s) she plays and the way she convincingly manages to merge the two very different personalities. Another example of the Academy's too-frequent criminal neglect of unforgettable performances. Well done!

Norma Desmond said...

Her performance really is amazing. Hopefully one day she'll walk away with the golden boy and hopefully it won't be one of those "oops, we should have given you this a while ago" wins.