Mulholland Drive: The Consequences of Gay Silence
by Kristin Grady
David Lynch’s bizarre 2001 drama, Mulholland Drive, illustrates a metaphor for how Hollywood revels in LGBT+ tragedies by crafting the story around a fantasy within a fantasy, then dashing it against a brick wall of reality. In the twenty years since its release, great improvements have been made LGBT+ representation, but inequality lingers. Taking a second look at this critically acclaimed fan favorite against the portrait of today can keep us progressing forward. Changing the narrative means acknowledging the horrifying potential of ignoring it, and David Lynch was way ahead of the times. The symbolic weirdness characteristic to his style gives a spectacular view, you just have to climb a mountain to get there.
The first half of Mulholland Drive created a colorful, yet terrifying circus out of the noir genre. Bright-eyed blonde Betty and enigmatic, exotic brunette Rita represented the binary film noir female dynamic of “girl next door” and “femme fatale”. Lynch turned this relationship from the traditional adversaries into lovers, giving focus to a same-sex relationship that early noir films hid in double entendres. Films in the 40’s and 50’s only alluded to shadows of homosexuality, while this film crafted a love story between two women without it necessarily being about them being gay. Their romance simmered under the surface, remaining unspoken until Betty confessed her love out of nowhere.
Amnesiac Rita’s pained silence in response to Betty’s confession is somewhat understandable. Rita didn’t know who she was, how could she know who she loves? They had only known each other for a day, such strong feelings seemed very sudden. So, what has made Betty fall in love with Rita? The wig. Seeing Rita’s delight at cosplaying Betty made Betty feel seen, most likely for the first time in her life. Sadly, Rita’s later actions showed Betty she was just a costume, not a real person to her. Rita wanted to try on Betty’s confidence and self-assuredness, but that’s not something you can wear on the outside forever.
In an almost somnambulatory state, Rita slowly pulled back the veil, inviting Betty to a bizarre theatrical performance in the middle of the night. You don’t know if it’s a dream and you don’t need to know because at this point, everything in the film could have been a dream. People who don’t speak Spanish could still understand what the host was saying (or pantomiming). Like a magic show, everything seemed real until it’s revealed to be an illusion. Betty and Rita clung to each other in the audience, wearing juxtaposed red and black outfits, symbolizing their traversing personalities.
Betty’s violent shaking was a physical foreshadow to her later mental anguish over accepting reality. The singer’s performance was intensely emotional, beautiful, and heartbreaking, it seemed so real. Rita and Betty exchanged a tearful glance that spoke without words. Any romance between them was part of the show, just an illusion, no matter how real it seemed.
As Camilla and Diane ascend the hill above Mulholland Drive, there’s a feeling of cautious hope. Are they headed towards a happy ending? Everything leading up to this point says no. When they meet Camilla’s new husband, Adam, you realize not only will there be a sad ending, there was no happy beginning from the start. Diane isn’t even sitting at their table. It’s uncomfortably sad to watch her shake in anger (callback to the theater scene) as Camilla shares an exaggerated kiss with her new girlfriend, while sitting next to her husband. The kiss shows Diane she was replaceable.
One of the most obvious problems with Hollywood producing these gay tragedies is the majority of LGBT+ characters are played by heterosexual actors. Representation doesn’t really have a lot of weight when the under-represented group portrayed on the screen doesn’t even get the part. The second half revealed Diane was projecting her desire to be like Camilla onto Rita, imagining her desire to be like Betty. Rita/Camilla wore the gay romance like a costume, in secret, for entertainment, breaking Diane’s heart in the process. Straight people playing charicatures of gay people, in media and real life, hurts gay people. Camilla rubbing it in pushed Diane over the edge.
The hit on Camilla carried out, Diane stared blankly at the key, empty after exacting her revenge. Tiny, electric, movie-reel-like versions of the old people from the beginning, who we assumed were going to be a positive, protective influence, crept under the door. The illusion was looping back around, starting all over again, intensifying in maliciousness, and Diane was terrified. Compounded by the horrifying reality closing in, the delusions overwhelmed her.
Besides this film, it’s rare, if not non-existent, to see a gay person commit suicide on screen. Hollywood goes for sensationalized versions of any story in order to fit a marketable narrative, but the statistical commonality of real-life LGBT+ mortality doesn’t align on this very sensitive subject. Acceptance of varying sexualities and the stigma against mental health won’t get better unless it’s talked about. Twenty years ago, David Lynch gave us a very harsh look at the consequences of silence on these issues. The shocking ending is slightly softened by the hazy film of Betty and Rita in love, floating over the city. Leaving us like this gives a last, fleeting note of realness to the romance, inspiring a modicum of hope for future LGBT+ generations.