It’s been a year and a half before I get rid of satellite TV, realizing I was paying more for channels I wasn’t watching when they’re are streaming services available that are cheaper.
Usually, this is the time of year during the Dog Days of Summer where networks advertise the hell out of their upcoming promising shows, most of which don’t even make it to when summer officially ends on Sept. 21.
Sometimes during the summer, the big networks would broadcast the failed pilots to fill slots. One of those failed pilots was Mulholland Drive, created and directed by David Lynch, produced for Touchstone Television intended for ABC. Naturally, ABC, owned by Disney passed on it in 1999.
Incidentally, Walt Disney Pictures was releasing The Straight Story, a G–rated movie made by Lynch. Yes, you read that correctly. It seems like one of the ultimate examples of an oxymoron but you can find it on Disney-Plus and I highly recommend you watch it if you can. It may just well be Lynch’s best movie.
Lynch became a mainstream name in the 1990s with Twin Peaks and the prequel movie, Fire Walk With Me. Lost Highway was also released in 1997 to mixed reviews and some people dismissing it as soft-core pornography.
Lynch is known for pushing limits so making a G-rated movie about an ornery old cuss who hitches up a trailer to a lawnmower and goes a few hundred miles to visit his estranged brother who suffered a stroke probably was the touching feel-good story Disney just ate up.
So, in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last project so it was worth a shot. Fortunately, for Lynch, Disney and ABC said no, so he could negotiate a deal with French film studio Canal+ to make it into a feature.
Turning a TV movie into a feature film is nothing new. After the initial reception of Duel, Steven Spielberg was encouraged to add additional scenes to the movie to get it around an hour and a half so they could run it in the movie theaters. TV movies at the time were shown in 90-minute blocks with commercials and usually only had about 70-minutes of the actual movie.
Michael Mann’s crime epic Heat was originally conceived as a TV series, L.A. Takedown, but the network passed and it was shown as a TV movie of the week instead.
But a strange thing happened to Mulholland Drive. According to Lynch, all sets had been trashed, which isn’t the Hollywood standard for pilots as sets are supposed to be stored. So, Lynch decided to start fresh with the story, incorporating new scenes and cutting out existing scenes. What started out as a 90-minute movie ended up running almost two-and-a-half hours.
The plot involves a young bright woman, Betty (Naomi Watts), arriving in Los Angeles by plane, to stay at her Aunt Ruth’s apartment as she tries to pursue acting. When she arrives, she finds a woman (Laura Harring) taking a shower. Assuming she is a friend of Ruth’s, she passes it off.
The woman who calls herself Rita was in a car accident from the night before when she was being transported in a limo on Mullholland Drive and when the driver stops, he aims a gun at her. But some young motorists drag racing collide with the stopped car, killing the driver and another hitman.
With amnesia, the woman who calls herself Rita makes it down to the apartment complex right before Ruth is leaving on a trip and manages to go in and hide.
When Betty talks to her aunt on the phone, she discovers there isn’t any friend named Rita who is supposed to be at the apartment. But Betty doesn’t call the police. She takes pity on Rita who says she doesn’t know who she is herself.
There’s $125,000 in a bag she carries as well as one blue key. Betty and Rita work together to try to find out what happened and who Rita really is.
YouTube has the original pilot here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcXt3ufaLgc.
A lot of the main elements of the first 90 minutes of the movie are there, with a few exceptions. The two detectives played by Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe, have another scene. The lawyers played by Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti also come out to the parking lot and see how Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) used a golf club to pummel the limo.
The scene with the man named Dan (Patrick Fischler) talking about his recurring nightmare of the bum behind the Winkie’s diner is missing, obviously added in the feature movie.
There is no old woman who shows up in black clothing telling Rita and Betty about something bad has happen. This is another addition.
And Scott Coffey had a more crucial role as Wilkins, the renter who Coco (Ann Miller) is upset that his dog keeps leaving excrements on the pavement in the courtyard. Wilkins is a friend of Adam’s, who talks with him over the phone about letting Adam stay with him temporarily. Wilkins is reduced to a smaller scene at the party later.
All these character set-ups were supposed to be explored further if the pilot was picked up as a series. And like Twin Peaks, there were a lot of characters to fill an entire series as their lives intersected. So, there was a good chance Billy Ray Cyrus as Gene the pool-cleaning man who has an affair with Adam’s wife, would have a recurring if not regular role.
And there’s also the possibility, just like Twin Peaks, who Rita really is and why she was meant to be killed, wouldn’t be revealed. Lynch had never intended to solve the murder of Laura Palmer so quickly, or even at all, in the series, but pressure from the network, which was (checks notes), ABC forced some resolution.
Unfortunately, the appeal of Laura’s murder was what drove audiences. When you have a series based on a set-up, you have to keep the audiences tuning it or make it worth their while if they change it.
And I’m pretty sure ABC would’ve insisted Lynch solve the mystery of who Rita is at least by the mid-season. But they passed on it. Reportedly the executive watched it at 6 a.m. standing in his kitchen drinking coffee and making phone calls.
The good news for Lynch was he was able to give it an ending even though a lot of things are still left unknown of what happened.
Additional scenes shot make Betty into a more three-dimensional character as well as describing why she appears so perky and bubbly. Eventually, Rita and Betty sneak into an apartment a “Diane Selwyn” is supposed to be living in and discover the dead body of a woman in the bed that’s been there for a few days.
Frantic, Rita later cuts her hair with the help of Betty and bleaches it to hide her identity and this is where the pilot ended. Lynch takes it a step further and has the two fall in love and have sex together. The scene isn’t used for exploitation and it works because you can tell Betty and Rita both have an attraction to each other.
It also explains why Betty wouldn’t be so surprised to find a woman in her aunt’s apartment. Betty is a lesbian or bisexual. However, I don’t think Rita is.
After this, they attend a late night theater where they are told in many languages, everything is an illusion. The emcee, played by Geno Silva, previously appeared as the manager of a hotel Adam was staying at. This subtle hint by Lynch by using an actor in two different roles sets up the last hour of the movie in which it is revealed by Betty is more or less to be Diane Selwyn.
But is Betty really Diane? Some fan theorists have argued they’re two different characters. Hollywood is the world where people are trying to look like one another. Amy Adams and Isla Fisher or Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard are sets of identical-looking actresses. And Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel look the same. In the 1980s, Dave Coulier from Full House and Jeff Daniels could be easily confused.
However, I think Betty is really Diane and Rita is now referred to as Camilla Rhodes. But there was already a Camilla Rhodes in an early scene during an audition. Backers have been pushing for Adam to hire Camilla even shutting down the movie and affecting his finances.
In the final hour, we see all the bright and joy of Betty sucked out as Diane has become depressed, bitter and angry. Rita/Camilla is involved in a serious relationship with Adam and the two Camillas are also involved in a relationship. They are at a party where they hint they are about to get married as Adam talks about his previous wife running off with Gene the pool-cleaning man.
Coco is at the party but no longer supportive and as Diane says she’s from Canada talking about a jitterbug contest she won, she more or less dismisses her.
Betty/Diane has seen the harsh reality of Hollywood. Her dreams of making it have been dashed. She’s been left some money but has decided to use that to pay a thug, Joe (Mark Pellegrino), to kill Rita/Camilla. They meet at Winkie’s where the waitress who was named Diane is now Betty. Dan also briefly appears and him and Betty/Diane exchange looks.
What does it all mean?
Some have theorized that Betty/Diane has been driven mad by her betrayal of Rita/Camilla and may or may not successfully had her killed. Even though the detectives don’t appear in this part of the movie, it is mentioned that they were looking to speak with her.
But is Rita/Camilla dead? Or does it have to do with a botched way Joe tried to cover up the hit resulting accidentally in more deaths?
Betty/Diane is either dreaming the first 90 minutes of the movie or this is her life flashing before her eyes at the end as she commits suicide.
Lynch is the type of director who sets up multiple themes and ways to interpret his movies. And the Mullholland itself is a very long and winding road. It’s not a straight road. And like a lot of roads, they lead to a lot of destinations.
Could they be two Camilla Rhodes? One who has the professional name and another who’s birth name is Camilla Rhodes? Why does Adam not want to cast Camilla? What’s between the look between Adam and Betty/Diane on the set?
If Betty and Diane are different characters, that might explain why Rita is more easier to get along with her because subconsciously, she remembers she looks like an old friend.
One thing I’ve noticed on a repeated viewing is how the mysterious cowboy (Monty Montgomery) appears three times in the movie. The first time is a during a late-night meeting with Adam where is told if he does good, he’ll see the cowboy one more time. If he does wrong, he’ll see the cowboy two more times.
The cowboy appears twice more in the movie. Once after Betty/Diane and Rita go to the late-night theater and another time when at the party where she is trying to talk about her jitterbug contest. He walks across a room in the background.
Remember he told Adam he’d see him twice more. That didn’t mean they’d actually have an interaction. Some have theorized that Adam’s anger is reflected in the dream Betty/Diane is having. After Adam agrees to hire the Camilla Rhodes auditioning by saying “This is the girl,” he is no longer seen again in the dream part. Betty/Diane tells Joe at the diner “This is the girl” while showing him her celebrity head shot.
And Joe tells her, he’ll give her a blue key to tell her the job is done. Notice how Winkie’s sounds like “Win Keys.” Hearing that Adam’s ex-wife has had an affair with the pool man, Betty/Diane can’t believe that Rita/Camilla has used and left her to be with Adam. So, in her dream, she is channeling her anger through Adam but isn’t able to get over it.
This could go back to what Billy Ray’s character tells Adam earlier on to “Forget you say it. It’s better that way.” Hollywood is a business and in Hollywood, you have to do business deals, sometimes putting your opinions and feelings off to the side. Whatever animosity Adam has toward Camilla he has to forget as he hires her and gets the approval of mysterious Hollywood businessmen.
But Betty/Diane hasn’t been able to forget it. Yes, Rita/Camilla might have used her, hurt her feelings, and left her, but she would’ve been better off forgetting about it and moving on. Betty/Diane can’t.
The irony of a movie like Mulholland Drive being made because Lynch couldn’t forget about it isn’t lost on anyone. It’s not one of the best movies I’ve seen, but it’s far from the worst. This is like a movie that is worth looking at in hopes you might understand it more.
But the more you try to make any analysis of it, the harder it gets to understand. Lynch doesn’t like to discuss his movies and what they mean. And for some filmmakers, I think that’s a good idea that they should consider, giving the side-eye to Kevin Smith.
Since its release almost 20 years ago, Watts and Theroux had enjoyed tremendous success. Harring has found more success in television. Even Cyrus has gone from a 1990s joke to finding newer fans with both the Hannah Montana series and his collaboration with Lil Nas X on “Old Town Road.”
Sadly, Briscoe and Forster both have passed away in recent years. Miller died three years after this movie was released.
Lynch would direct another movie, Inland Empire, the third part in his L.A. trilogy including this one and Lost Highway. He later returned to TV to make a third season of Twin Peaks for Showtime in 2017. And that show had a lot of interpretations too.
Just like Mullholland, the cast and crew have been on a winding road reaching different destinations.