Perhaps the fact that he was a painter long before he forayed into film-making helped David Lynch steer clear of the conventional film milieu. Unlike cinema, paintings never really give you any answers. There is a mystical quality to them, where there are multiple answers, and no one explanation is right or wrong. It is this artistic philosophy that Lynch brings to his film-making, where his films are all what we make of them. Popularly known as the father of modern surrealism, David Lynch is one of his kind; blending dark thematic elements into a light, almost parodic tone; leaving audiences wondering whether to laugh or be outraged. With weird characters, gory imagery and a slew of symbolism, he shocks and mystifies his audiences; while offering a compelling portrayal of contemporary society.
The performances in a Lynchian movie is quite unlike those of other movies; they are often deliberately over-the-top, campy and melodramatic, which are exploited by Lynch to paint a larger portrait of the world that he constructs. He is a very demanding filmmaker, forcing his actors to reach beyond the realms of acceptability and completely surrender themselves to his central idea. Lynch has made the careers of a lot of the talented yet struggling actors, as he has managed to elicit a wide array of breath-taking performances over the years.
Here are the 10 of the best performances in a David Lynch film.
10. Laura Harring – Mulholland Drive
Laura Harring won the coveted Miss USA in 1985, but that did not translate into a successful Hollywood career as she appeared in a string of duds for the next decade or so. Until Lynch cast her as the archetypal femme-fatale in his neo-noir masterpiece ‘Mulholland Drive’. Lynch took the movie to Cannes, where it was an instant sensation as the movie divided opinions across the globe. And while Naomi Watts took all the acting plaudits for the path-breaking performance, Harring remained in the side-lines even as her hauntingly seductive performance played an important role in the movie’s brilliance. As a troubled amnesic woman who seeks the help of a naïve young woman to help reveal her identity, Harring’s brilliant performance as the desirable Rita was the perfect foil to Watts’ innocent Betty.
9. Robert Blake – Lost Highway
Another surreal horror-scape from Lynch’s oeuvre, ‘Lost Highway’ is today a cult classic remembered for Robert Blake’s terrifying onscreen persona of The Mystery Man. A neo-noir mystery film, ‘Lost Highway’ follows a man convicted of murdering his wife as he inexplicably morphs into another individual in a seemingly parallel reality. As is the case with all of Lynchian works, ‘Lost Highway’ is impregnable after a first watch, but subsequent viewings would slowly peel beyond the surface of the plot of characters to explore the horrors that lurch beneath our consciousness and the realities we forge to justify our madness. Blake appears for just a couple of sequences in the movie, but he manages to haunt our psyche, inhabiting our consciousness even while he isn’t on screen. The Mystery Man personifies our deepest fears and paranoia as ‘Lost Highway’ explores the intertwining of our dreams and realities, and Robert Blake sign offs with a bang in his last performance.
8. Jack Nance – Eraserhead
The movie that introduced the world to David Lynch – ‘Eraserhead’ is the very definition of a cult film. Written, directed and produced by Lynch under a scholarship by the American Film Institute, ‘Eraserhead’ marked the beginning of a new cinematic aesthetic in Hollywood as Lynch perfected the art of surrealism introduced by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali in ‘Un Chien Andalou’. And Jack Nance, playing the lead role, is nothing short of a revelation as he inhabits the heart and soul of the film as a troubled everyman fighting his way through his paranoia in a dystopian world. As the movie goes from weird to weirder, Nance stands tall as he anchors the film through the surrealist labyrinth that it journeys through. A masterpiece of surreal cinema, ‘Eraserhead’ is a pioneering work of art and Nance gives a breathtaking performance that sets the template for Lynchian characterizations in the years to come.
7. Isabella Rossellini – Blue Velvet
Probably the ballsiest performance in this list, Isabella Rossellini took up arguably the most demanding characterization that Lynch has ever conceived, as she portrayed a young mother and wife, who is held emotionally and sexually captive by the deranged psychopath Frank Booth who has kidnapped her husband and on. But even as we begin to sympathize with her, we realize that she is a somewhat willing prey to Booth’s perversity as she realizes that enjoys the masochistic relationship, to the point where she even begins to crave it. It is a controversial performance in an even more controversial movie, one which was deemed “one of the sickest movies ever made” by none other than the great Roger Ebert, but Rossellini gives her all as Dorothy, as she imbibes her sexual and emotional dichotomies while effortlessly treading over the tight path that Lynch lays out for her. It is a daring performance, one that will fascinate you and repulse you in equal measure.
6. John Hurt – The Elephant Man
“I am not an animal! I am a human being! I…am…a man!”
Lynch has never been known for his narratively coherent and humane ventures, he was always the great American surrealist, but when he did dabble in emotionally compelling dramas, he excelled beyond expectations. ‘The Elephant Man’ is a heart-warming biopic on the Victorian life of John Merrick, a severely deformed man whose desolate existence as a circus freak-show found solace under the care and comfort of Dr Frederick Treves. As a deformed man searching for love, affection and acceptance from the world, John Hurt portrays Merrick with a warm humility and tenderness that will move you to tears. Even with all the prosthetic make-up, Hurt brings out the aching pain and humanity in Merrick’s eyes as we too begin to look beyond his face and care for the man underneath.
5. Nicholas Cage – Wild at Heart
I am not a big fan of Nicholas Cage, the man has appeared in so many atrociously bad films that I’ve finally lost count. But, under the stewardship of a great director, Cage can be phenomenal as he is a naturally gifted actor and always surrenders himself to the film. In ‘Wild at Heart’, he is absolutely riveting as the brash and aggressive Sailor Ripley, who has gangsters and hitmen on his tail after he takes off with his girlfriend, escaping from her controlling mother. It is a very loud, over-the-top, physical performance, but it was exactly what was needed for this exhilaratingly hilarious yet mildly disturbing road-film which won Lynch the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. Cage virtually embodies the passion and volatility of Sailor’s character even as his scintillating chemistry with Laura Dern lends the film its effervescent charm. Of course, Cage wasted his acting cops as he caricatured himself over the course of his unremarkable career, but ‘Wild at Heart’ is proof of what the man is capable of.
4. Dennis Hopper – Blue Velvet
Ever since the day I first watched ‘Blue Velvet’, I have never been able to get a certain shot from the movie off my mind – Frank, looking absolutely transfixed by the hypnotic voice of Bobby Vinton singing In Dreams, slowly humming to the beautiful song. It is a moment of absolute tranquility, but it doesn’t last, as Frank soon loses his temper and turns off the song. That single sequence personifies dichotomies that exist within Frank Booth, a man who displays a kind of childlike enthusiasm in one moment before turning into a terrifying monster in the next; a victim to Dorothy’s sexual magnetism and also the perpetrator who holds her emotionally and sexually captive. Frank Booth is the very personification of evil, a man who shouldn’t exist, but when we are faced with him, he is as real as anybody you’ll ever see in a movie. And Hopper, in his comeback role, gives himself up to the character as he becomes the man he plays; he turns into the man who exists in our nightmares and the darkest corners of our psyche. His childlike enthusiasm is complemented by his vicious intensity as we are left absolutely terrified. Frank Booth is one of cinema’s greatest villains and Dennis Hopper captures him on screen with alarming precision.
3. Laura Dern – Inland Empire
Laura Dern is one of Lynch’s closet friends; she has appeared in a lot of his works following her debut in ‘Blue Velvet’. It’s not surprising, for otherwise I see no other reason for any respected actor deciding to be a part of a movie so absurdly incoherent and incomprehensible as ‘Inland Empire’. Dern blindly gave herself over to Lynch, as she floats across the surreal labyrinth that Lynch constructs in ‘Inland Empire’. Lynch’s last feature work and his most Lynchian film to date, ‘Inland Empire’ is an experiential masterpiece; three hours of undiluted, untethered Lynchian madness with no tangible plot or narrative coherence, where Dern plays multiple characters across multiple timelines. It is a movie where I understood absolutely nothing, but it is an experience to behold, as Lynch lets us into his brain as we are led from one rabbit hole into another until we finally lose count. And Dern is our companion throughout this journey, as she effortlessly transforms from one person into another, from moment to moment, scene to scene. She is painfully vulnerable and helpless in one moment and charmingly self-assured in the next. She personifies Lynch’s subconscious mind as he uses her as his vessel to transport his ideas and themes as she willingly surrenders herself to the madness. A daring performance, if ever there was one.
2. Richard Farnsworth – The Straight Story
One of my favorite movies of the 1990s and the most underrated movie in Lynch’s oeuvre, ‘The Straight Story’ is arguably his most accessible and profoundly emotional work to date. A biographical road-movie following the journey of an elderly World War II veteran (Alvin Straight) across Iowa and Wisconsin in a lawn mower to mend fences with his estranged brother, ‘The Straight Story’ is conventional American film-making at its finest as we are transported into Alvin’s world as we join him in his journey and experience the kindness of the strangers he meets on the way. The 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth, in his last performance before his death, is beyond perfect as the proud, stubborn old man, and brings a sense of humane-ness and warmth that will move you. Alvin is a man of few words, his sweet smile and gentle demeanor coupled with his extraordinary fortitude conveying more about the man than mere words ever could. But when he does speak, you just can’t help but listen to him, his words carrying the weight of years of wisdom and the pains and regrets that come with it. Alvin evokes the humanity in all of us without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality or melodrama, and Farnsworth is absolutely brilliant as the gentle old fool. A performance for the ages.
1. Naomi Watts – Mulholland Drive
Naomi Watts had all but given up on a career in the movies; her dreams of making it big in a David Lynch work after years in Hollywood oblivion were shattered when ABC executives rejected the pilot of the show Lynch had planned. Thankfully, StudioCanal decided to fund the project and Lynch reworked the pilot into a feature film. Ultimately, Watts’ fortunes were drastically overturned as the movie became an instant sensation. Watts, playing the dual roles of Betty Elms and Diane Selwyn, turns in a performance that I consider to be one of the greatest in the history of cinema. Watts’ gives her all into the performance and her radical transformation from the sweet, loving Betty to the obsessive lunatic Diane will leave you gasping for breath. As Betty, she is hypnotic with her old-worldly charm, optimism and energy but the moment she turns into Diane, Watts’ face personifies her anger, obsession and emotional disengagement. ‘Mulholland Drive’ is a movie about the idea of cinema itself; it’s a love story that exemplifies our deepest fears and darkest desires, and Naomi Watts is its heart and soul, as she translates the vision of her director on to the screen with uncharacteristic brilliance. The famed Audition scene, arguably one of the most passionate sequences in cinema, is portrayed exceptionally by Watts as she literally transforms into her character and turns a series of tacky dialogues into something unbelievably erotic. If there ever were any doubts as to the genius of this performance, this one sequence should clear them all up.