David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a never-ending two-way street. The action on film has countless sets of onscreen pairs (two cars drag racing, two Castigliane brothers), plus a showstopping double narrative: midway through the film, we enter a new story altogether, with the same actors playing different characters in a hauntingly distorted mirror of what came before.
One of the most exciting match-ups is the dual performance by Laura Elena Harring, with two main roles but ultimately playing no fewer than four characters throughout the film. In the first half, she is an unnamed woman who takes on the persona of Rita, and in the second half, a venomous rising star named Camilla. These are two women existing in two realities, but somehow piece together in this dreamlike puzzle.
The film opens with an unnamed, dark-haired woman in the back of a car driving up in the Hollywood Hills. She is well-dressed and wearing vivid red lipstick, ready for a night out. The car pulls over and stops, and the two men in the front seat turn around with guns pointed at her. The hit is prevented by a sudden crash, as a pair of drag-racing cars on the opposite side of the road hurdles into the stopped car. The woman, suffering from temporary amnesia, stumbles out of the wreckage like a broken doll, and descends into the glowing Los Angeles night below.
She sneaks into an apartment as the tenant (Aunt Ruth) departs for a trip. While alone, she takes a shower but is interrupted by another young woman, Betty – Aunt Ruth’s niece who is staying there while Ruth is away. Betty apologizes and leaves the dark-haired woman alone to dress. The woman looks at herself in the mirror, and notices a poster on the wall behind her.
The poster is for the classic film noir Gilda starring Rita Hayworth. The tagline reads, “There never was a woman like Gilda!” As she dries her hair, the dark-haired woman introduces herself to Betty: “My name is Rita.” A fitting choice, as there never was a woman like Rita either. She knows nothing of her past or her true identity, and takes this opportunity to build a new persona for herself. Another connection with Gilda is the notion of rebuilding oneself. The three leads (Johnny Farrell, Ballin Mundson, and Gilda herself), all recent arrivals in Argentina, often reassure themselves they have “no pasts, just futures.” Like Rita, they seize the opportunity to shed their old life (though unlike Rita, their choice is voluntary) and build a new identity.
The first half of the film is driven by Rita and Betty’s quest for what trouble is following Rita: investigating the car crash, following leads, and even climbing into other people’s apartments (paralleling the dark-haired woman’s gutsy hiding spot from earlier). These actions are driven mostly by Betty, a more dominant, proactive personality foiled with Rita’s more timid, passive approach. Rita is fearful of what they might find, and is content to stay in the apartment drinking Coke Throughout the journey, the two fall in passionate love.
The story soon diffuses into the second parallel reality. The actress playing the sincere, smiling Betty is now a dark, demented woman named Diane, in a less romantic sexual relationship with the same dark-haired woman, now named Camilla, who suddenly breaks things off with Diane. Theirs is not a relationship of equals: Camilla calls the shots, while Diane takes whatever she can get.
Camilla is also a rising star, arguably related to her falling in love with the director Adam Kesher. She does helps Diane by getting her supporting roles in films, but clearly doesn’t reciprocate the romantic feelings Diane has for her. Whether through genuine romance or for getting ahead in Hollywood, Camilla has made her choice in pursuing Adam.
All films, especially those by David Lynch, are certainly open to interpretation. A common a theory to piecing together Mulholland Drive is that the first half of the film (Rita’s story) is a dream, and the second half (Camilla’s story) is the reality. This is reflected in the different relationships between Rita and Betty, vs Camilla and Diane.
Both worlds feature the duo in a sexual relationship with different power players in each. The “dream world” has Betty in the dominant role, helping and guiding Rita as she struggles to understand her past. Their romance is pure and sincere, in a beautiful love scene where they declare their passion for one another. This is a stark contrast from the “reality” where a desperate Diane tries to keep Camilla for herself, and is left behind and humiliated as Diane pursues love with a man.
Both worlds also place the dark-haired woman in a victim role. She is nearly killed by hit men, and is fearful of pursuit through the “dream world” storyline, clinging to Betty for protection. In the “reality,” her rebuff of Diane’s affections turn violent, as the vengeful Diane takes out a hit on her former flame. The dream version has the blonde woman as protector and savior, the polar opposite of the reality of the blonde as killer.
The stories of Mulholland Drive are as winding as the road itself. It travels in and around the world of Hollywood, taking visitors through turns and twists throughout their journey. The dark-haired woman is at the center of it all, whether the helpless victim of Rita or the cruel heartbreaker Camilla. Like Gilda herself, this femme fatale is victim, antagonist, and atomic bomb all at once – a true force to be reckoned with. There never was a woman like Rita.
This blog post is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon: One Actor ~ Multiple Roles hosted by Christina Wehner. Check out the full lineup here!