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.