Mulholland Drive: Identity Crisis and the Hollywood Dream – Henry Bergles

“Lynch contrasts the fixed cultural idea of the Hollywood Dream with the randomness and unpredictability of real dreams to create the universe of Mulholland Drive.”

One of the biggest cliches in media is ending a story with it was all a dream. While this phrasing is regularly mocked and derided, representing the unconscious via dreams in cinema and literature can be incredibly transformative. 

Mulholland Drive (2001) is a film directed by David Lynch that utilizes the dream space to tell a particularly heartbreaking story about failed love and a fruitless acting career. This mystery and psychological thriller in one is famous for being convoluted and hard to follow. Dreams can be this way, too. I often find myself waking up confused and disoriented in the aftermath of a particularly interesting dream, with its own cast of characters, locations, and interactions seemingly pieced together at random by my unconscious mind.

The other definition of a dream, apart from a creation of the subconscious, is an aspiration, wish, or goal that may or may not be achievable. This second definition carries with it its own cultural connotations, and the shared aspiration of many of the characters in Mulholland Drive is the ubiquitous “Hollywood Dream.” The idea of the “Hollywood Dream” by itself is not mysterious; it is a clear-cut goal to be a successful actor, landing film roles through talent and skill, an objective with minimal room for interpretation. The “Hollywood Dream” is the same for every actor –– whether or not they will achieve such a dream, however, is well out of their control.

Lynch contrasts the fixed cultural idea of the Hollywood Dream with the randomness and unpredictability of real dreams to create the universe of Mulholland Drive. Much of the movie takes place within the dreams of Diane, the movie’s protagonist, as she strives to achieve the elusive Hollywood Dream. Diane’s idealized dream-self is Betty, a naive, southern girl who moves to Los Angeles to audition for film roles. The style of acting and editing is extremely cheesy in these scenes, perhaps to emulate the uniformity and cliche of the Hollywood Dream. Betty stays in her rich aunt’s fancy apartment, and finds an amnesiac girl already living there, who took the name Rita. As Betty auditions for Hollywood roles, Betty and Rita fall in love as the two of them attempt to find Rita’s real identity, just like in a sappy dime-novel detective story.

Despite Diane’s attempt to fulfill her wishes in her dreams, her nightmares begin to slip in. In one infamous scene, a man named Dan (referencing an alternate dream version of Diane) is led to the back of Winkies  diner and is startled by a homeless bum, clothing torn, whose face is covered in dirt and dried blood, causing him to lose consciousness and bringing the  dream sharply to end. Dan had claimed to have seen this figure before, twice, in other dreams. The bum behind the diner represents Diane’s greatest fears about Hollywood –– his  poverty and appearance are the polar opposite of the fame and glamor that Diane hopes to achieve in Hollywood. Even in a pleasant dream, uncomfortable and exaggerated realities and fears will emerge to the surface, personified by the bum behind Winkies.

It is revealed toward the end of the film that Betty and Rita did not truly exist, and that Betty was Diane’s idealized self, and Rita was Diane’s fantasy version of Camilla, an actress that Diane had a relationship with in the past, but who now is engaged to the director Adam Kesher. Camilla decided to invite her ex-girlfriend Diane to her engagement party –– escorting Diane from her limousine, Camilla showed Diane a “shortcut” to get to her and Adam’s lavish Hollywood home. To Diane, Camilla’s way of life represents the worst way to achieve success, by marrying a rich man and getting roles via offering sexual favors to directors. At the event, she sees multiple directors she was denied roles from, with actresses accompanying them. This enrages her, and she decides to put out a hit on Camilla.

Diane’s simultaneous love and hatred for Camilla can also be interpreted as her feelings towards the Hollywood Dream. In the dream realm, the real Camilla is split into two entities –– the parts of Camilla she loved (Rita), and the parts of Camilla she hated (the Blond Camilla Rhodes). Rita’s character’s complete dependence on Diane represents her jealousy of Camilla’s success. In reality, Camilla was the one to get Diane film roles in the first place. The successful actress in the dream, Camilla Rhodes, represents Diane’s jealousy toward Camilla and her resentment of her success.

Through the complex interplay of envy, sexuality, and the “splitting” of characters into their dream selves, as well as the contrast between how people really are and how they appear within one’s subconscious, David Lynch paints a complex and tragic picture of a failed personal and professional relationship between the two actresses that motivated Camilla’s murder and Diane’s eventual suicide at the end of the film. It also raises interesting questions about love itself –– Diane’s failed affair with Camilla can also be seen as her failed affair with the Hollywood Dream, her failure to live up to its standards. When she realized that this dream was not as innocent as she hoped, she felt betrayed and heartbroken. To Diane, Camilla was the Hollywood Dream she loved and was so jealous of. To Lynch, love can be motivated by idealization and obsession with an idea, not the pure romance between two individuals.