There Never was a Woman Like Rita

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.


gilda-movie-posterThe 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!

Weekly Round-Up: May 29 – June 04, 2016

My Memorial Day weekend was pretty packed, so not as much movie time as usual – managed to squeeze in some good ones though:

  • X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) – This film’s intriguing premise (Oscar Isaac as a millennia-old mega-mutant who’s been awakened and must be stopped!) is slowed down by silly dialogue and the cliche “catching up on where everybody is, before bringing them all together.” We find out how Professor Xavier becomes bald, though! NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Night and Fog (1955) – It’s hard to say you “like” this kind of movie, but this mid-twentieth century nonfiction film (not quite a documentary) is undeniably powerful for its horrifying imagery and introspective narration. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Immortal Story (1966) – Unbearably long (at less than an hour) take of a wealthy older man who becomes obsessed with living out an urban legend, by recruiting a young sailor and providing a woman for him to couple with. Everything about this film felt stagnant, from the lifeless dialogue to Orson Welles, at possibly his biggest, perched within his throne. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Blue Velvet (1986) – Arguably David Lynch’s breakout film, finding his auteur voice as a balance between classic film sensibilities and unsettling surrealism. This loaded crime mystery is hypnotic, dreamy, and sublimely beautiful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Valley of the Dolls (1967) – Another delightful “so-bad-it’s-good” flick, about three young women in the 1960s who succumb to booze and pills. I got to see this in theaters with an enthusiastic audience, cheering for key moments (wig-pulling) and outrageous dialogue (“You know how bitchy f**s can be”). Not for everyone, but if you love camp this one is REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: October 25-31, 2015

This “victory lap” of the final week before Halloween turned out pretty interesting. Typically I save the universally acclaimed masterpieces of horror (The ExorcistThe HauntingRosemary’s Baby to name a few) for this key period – due to unexpected time constraints plus wanting to just see more new movies, I ended up with a unique assortment. (Am I the only person who’s ever seen Haxan and Escape to Witch Mountain back-to-back?)

  • Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) – This marks the sixth movie that follows the same infrastructure, but this saga can’t stop being entertaining, compelling, and remorselessly scary. In this (supposedly) final entry, once the terror starts going it doesn’t stop. Without spoiling too much, for a final film, it really does wrap up the mythology of the series and explain why these events transpire (even going back to the very first film). I know these movies don’t work for everybody, so I’d say RECOMMENDED to the casual viewer and REQUIRED for fans of the Paranormal Activity saga.
  • Alien: Resurrection (1997) – The premise of the fourth and (currently) final of the Ripley Alien films feels straight out of fanfiction (dead Ripley is cloned and is a super-Ripley, who maintains some but not all of her memories from the first three movies). Unfortunately the storyline feels like a rehash of what we’ve already seen, though there are new elements to broaden the complexity of the Alien species, and actually tie into Prometheus (the prequel most people are mixed on, but I personally love) pretty well. NOT RECOMMENDED unless you’re an Alien completist.
  • Mulholland Drive (2001) – Possibly my favorite movie of the 2000s, and certainly swirling in my list of top movies. David Lynch’s neo-noir thriller is both hauntingly familiar and wholly original. Even if the (incredibly rich) narrative doesn’t quite click upon first viewing, the emotional journey supercedes the logical one. This is the rare film that challenges your mind as much as it moves your heart. REQUIRED.
  • Häxan (1922) – This movie was only on my radar due to its inclusion in the Criterion Collection and on their list of “Scary Movies” (which the previous film is on, too). A very odd, silent, pseudo-documentary on witchcraft, sweeping across history recreating scenes of rituals, the Inquisition, even nuns gone wild. This is a movie where the sum of its parts feels greater than the whole, with specific vignettes & images standing out while the overall journey is less riveting. RECOMMENDED (for the film buff only).
  • Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) – This was actually my first time seeing Disney’s wacky 1970s sci-fi mystery. Two (very likable) kids with mysterious powers are pursued by Ray Milland and the lousy psychiatrist from Halloween, and many cool special effects ensue. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Others (2001) – Genuinely emotional horror film about one mother protecting her children from the new presence invading her home. This feels like the tragic ghost story film Guillermo del Toro keeps getting close to making, but The Others takes the cake. (Tidbit: I only saw this movie when it came out because, at the time, I had a crush on Nicole Kidman.) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – This masterpiece speaks for itself. Top-notch family entertainment in every way, boasting a wildly imaginative cast of characters, superb score by Danny Elfman, and wonderfully clever premise. Another landmark film in the era of the Disney Renaissance. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week to celebrate Halloween?

Stairway to the Stars: Representations of Class in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”

To celebrate Mulholland Drive joining the Criterion Collection, here’s one from the vaults – an essay I’d written on it back in college!

Steven Johnson

The following is an essay I wrote for my American Identity in Film class at UC Berkeley during the Spring 2012 semester. I studied David Lynch’s neo-noir film Mulholland Drive to analyze how class differences are represented both literally, as financial success, as well as through emotion, as a theme synonymous with romantic “success” as love.

Steven Johnson – Stairway to the Stars

The role class plays in film has always been an intriguing one. The scholars Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin define class as “categorizing people according to their economic status” in their work America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (167). Class can be defined absolutely through wealth, such as in the screwball comedy It Happened One Night or through imitation and mockery, like in The Lady Eve. Conceptions of class can be framed within any discourse established for a particular…

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Mulholland Drive (2001)

This is one of the (sadly) few films that commands multiple viewings. I won’t spoil any of the plot details but it’s one of those movies where everything comes together at the very end, practically forcing you to re-watch again and again. I first watched this when I was a pre-teen and rediscovered it last Spring Break. Since then I’ve seen it about ten times and I still discover new things every time I watch it.

When I re-watched it tonight, I found several new details: a woman asks her neighbor for her hold lamp back (possibly linking her to a web of crime), a man’s associated with a cup of coffee at a dinner party (which comes into play earlier in the film). At face value it may not sound like much, but this movie is a wild psychosexual ride through the dreams and desires of a young Hollywood hopeful. Every individual and every detail comes into play and manifests itself in intriguing and significant ways.

What I appreciate so much about this film, and its filmmaker David Lynch especially, is that it rewards multiple viewings. On the surface the movie is two unrelated mini-films, with a handful of cross-references, but you gather more clues and piece together more and more of the puzzle with each additional viewing. I can’t pretend I understand Mulholland Drive100% but I come closer every time I watch it.

Even taking aside the mesmerizing storytelling and unique structure, this movie is nonetheless entertaining and thrilling. It can best be described as a neo-noir thriller, though it is at times terrifying (with the scariest scene I’ve ever watched, I can’t even look at the screen) and heartbreaking. It also has what may be the healthiest and most honest love story I’ve seen at the movies.

What makes Mulholland Drive so exceptional is its metafictional self-awareness. At its core, it is a mystery involving two women, one grappling with amnesia and the other a rising Hollywood actress. It plays with all the standard Hollywood cues we’ve seen for decades: the femme fatale, the wide-eyed optimist, the cynical Hollywood elite, and many others; but the way the action plays out distorts the grasp you think you have on the story.

It initially clings to all the rules of Hollywood only to break them halfway through; the film hinges on a haunting scene at a nightclub where the emcee emphasizes that everything they are hearing is a tape recording; it is all an illusion. From this pivotal moment, all bets are off, as the film throttles in a totally different direction and plunging the characters into a gritty and seedy Hollywood underworld and an ultimately tragic conclusion.

This fantastic manipulation with the audience’s expectations and the immeasurable depth of the colorful Hollywood the characters reside in bring me back to this movie every month or so. I can never turn down another trip up Mulholland Drive.