Thursday, February 19, 2009

Discovering Naomi Watts

She was a wide-eyed woman from Ontario, descending upon Hollywood with visions of stardom dancing in her head. In pursuit of her dream, she had flown into LAX, and she was staying at the home of an aunt who had connections to the film industry. In general, however, she was your stereotypical blonde wannabe just off the bus from the middle of nowhere – beautiful, star-struck and almost assuredly destined to be a waitress. Thus it was fitting that this wide-eyed woman was being portrayed by an actress who was beautiful, who seemed star-struck and who was almost certainly without talent. Actually, it was too fitting. It was painfully fitting.

The actress from Ontario was Betty. The actress playing Betty was Naomi Watts. And as I watched David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. upon its release in 2001, I pondered which actress (the fictional Betty or the actual Naomi) would be the first to star in an adult film. Flatly delivering lines while looking pretty seemed to be the extent of Watts’ talent, and thus Betty’s. True, I knew from experience that Lynch’s most Lynchian films had a habit of producing mechanical, deliberate performances. But this Watts actress I was seeing for the first time seemed determined to take it to a new level. She was tone deaf, and, even worse, she didn’t appear to realize it. This wasn’t just annoying. It was sad.

And yet fittingly, too fittingly, hilariously fittingly, this was all an act. Watts wasn’t clueless. I was. More than an hour into the picture, long after I’d given up on Watts, this happened ...

Betty's audition in Mulholland Dr. is the moment in which Lynch pulls Watts’ talent out of an empty hat. It’s magic – there’s no other word for it. With one scene, Lynch and Watts redefine everything that has happened before it – a switcheroo that would make M. Night Shyamalan envious. As she stands before some movie producers, across from an actor who is as unprepared for what happens as I was, Betty proves that her Hollywood dreams aren’t so unrealistic after all. The woman can act, and thus Watts can too.

Over the latter half of the picture, Watts portrays Betty with some of the same aw-shucks tendencies she established from the outset. But in the final 30 minutes of the film, as Betty is redefined yet again (and more completely), so is Watts.

If you haven’t seen Mulholland Dr., stop reading here. This post is an addendum to my discussion of that film with Ed Howard for The House Next Door. Suffice to say that Mulholland Dr. marks the moment in which Watts didn’t just introduce herself to me; she put me on alert.

Her performance is a marvel. Below I celebrate some of the deep, dark emotions she reveals over the film’s final act. Even as still images, the emotions are palpable. And yet, in final reflection, perhaps Watts’ best work in the picture occurs in the first act, when a very talented actress cons us into thinking that she has no talent at all.


Ed Howard said...

Great stuff, Jason. Your images from the film's second half really drive home the conflicting, violent emotions wracking Watts' Diane: anger, grief, jealousy, self-loathing. The contortions she's able to subject her face to are pretty amazing. And it's all built on the framework she established as Betty, making the transformation all the more stunning. I've read that when the film first came out some people didn't realize that the same actress was playing both Betty and Diane. I can't imagine that myself, but the change is really drastic.

Anagramsci said...

very nice--and I couldn't agree more with your points--if asked to pick the single greatest performance in a film, I think I'd pick this one (at the very least, it's right up there, for me, with Stanwyck in The Miracle Woman, Gena Rowlands in Woman Under the Influence, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Ms. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Falconetti in Passion de Jeanne d'arc, and James Stewart in It's Wonderful Life)

but I was wondering--have you seen Ellie Parker? It's not a good movie, by any means, but for those who are interested in Watts' performance in Mulholland Dr, I think it's almost irresistibly compelling! (it almost plays like a fictionalized making of Mulholland Dr feature)


Jamie said...

I think another film that also showcases Watts in the same way (depicting her range, despite being a drastically different film) is "We Don't Live Here Anymore."

Daniel Getahun said...

Nice one here, and I still need to catch up on that conversation at HND as this is a fascinating movie.

I had the exact same reaction as you when I watched it in the theater (but maybe doubly so as it was the first Lynch film I'd seen). That scene was just mind-blowing for a lot of people, I think.

But truth be told...I kind of wonder if Watts didn't peak at the same time. For my money I haven't seen her as impressively in anything since - she's just seemed kind of one note to me, even in 21 Grams.

Although I did like her in Eastern Promises, I thought she was channeling Betty recently in The International. Ugh.