The 10 Best ‘Mulholland Dr.’ Fan Theories

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The most exciting of this week’s new DVD/Blu-ray releases is the Criterion Collection’s immaculate edition of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., a gorgeous, bizarre, brilliant movie that’s been confounding audiences since its release fourteen years ago. The Movie Internet was still in its infancy then, but fans, critics, and confused novices began using boards and chat rooms to try puzzling out the picture’s many twists, symbols, and dead-ends, resulting in a surplus of Mulholland fan theories, both credible and insane. We’ve compiled our favorites—from both categories.

The first two acts are a dream/fantasy; the third is “reality.”

This is the most commonly accepted reading of a movie that inherently resists being “read.” But the biggest question for Mulholland viewers was—and always has been—exactly how the first 100 minutes and the last 40 fit together (aside from “the first 100 were what Lynch shot for the aborted TV pilot and the last 40 was what he added to make it into a movie”). It was put most succinctly in this article at Salon, which sort of became the go-to reference page for figuring out Mulholland Dr. (as much as you could):

Well, it seems that Diane had her girlfriend murdered. Then, in a masturbatory fantasy cum fever dream in the moments before she commits suicide, she reimagines her ruined career and failed relationship with the woman she loves.
The dream begins with Camilla/Rita miraculously escaping the hit Diane had taken out on her. From there, Diane, a product of Hollywood, imagines the story in cinematic fashion: She sees herself as the naive wannabe starlet Betty, who succeeds on sheer talent and solves whatever problems are thrown her way. She even gets the girl!

It’s an anti-Hollywood polemic.

The Salon article also dives deep into the inside-Hollywood angle of the picture, most transparently seen in the subplot concerning Justin Theroux’s film director character, Adam Kesher—an egotistical twit who is strong-armed by pseudo-Mafia hoods and a mysterious, creepy “cowboy” into casting their actress of choice in the leading role of his film. “Are those imaginings the incoherent ones of a cockeyed youngster turned sour by failure?” asks Salon. “Or the unvarnished truth of someone who’d seen it happen, up close and personal?” A theory run-down at What Culture insists these scenes, which seem unrelated to the Diane/Betty fantasy, are in fact part of her reframing: “This creation of a conspiracy is Diane’s way of justifying why she never got the lead role.”

But beyond those specifics, Lynch’s presentation of “old Hollywood,” from the tone to the architecture to the casting (familiar faces like Ann Miller, Lee Grant, and Chad Everett turn up in cameos) is a complex one, owing as much to the cynicism of Sunset Blvd. as Lynch’s previous works. (Similar, and similarly abbreviated, title to boot!) And the story of Betty, the wide-eyed innocent turned (?) dead-eyed castoff, has plenty of precedent; British film critic Phillip French noted, “The young woman, Betty, seems to have come from another world, and her suicide reminded me of Peg Entwistle’s suicide from the Hollywood sign in 1931, which has become a symbol of Hollywood tragedy.”

Salon positions Lynch as less anti-Hollywood than anti-the-way-Hollywood-treats-women. “The network of aging actresses and incoming starlets ineffably captures the implacable Hollywood mill. Lynch seems to accept the manifold processes by which women come in to self-invent themselves: by sheer talent, the way Betty does; desperately, as Diane does; by hook or by crook, as Rita does, plucking a new identity off a movie poster; or sexually, the way Camilla does.” They even tie the film’s famous girl-on-girl action into that theme: “He’s playing explicitly with how Hollywood uses women predominantly as sex objects — except he’s turning the formula on its head, making the women’s world a closed one, at least in Diane’s fantasy of it. But of course, in the end she’s doing the same thing a Hollywood movie normally does to a Camilla — imagining that she’s an empty object that she can possess.”

The old couple are Diane’s parents — or maybe not.

Betty arrives in Hollywood with a charming old couple as her traveling companions; they part ways at the airport, and Lynch holds on the two of them, in the back of a cab as they drive away, for an uncomfortably long time. Later, they reappear just before Diane’s suicide, in tiny, cackling form, before chasing her around her apartment. Who the hell are they? Salon notes, “They appear in the opening jitterbug sequence as well. They may be the judges of the contest she won, or her parents. In the end, they seem to be signs of her innocent past come back to terrorize her.” Time Out’s Tom Charity concurs, “The old couple coming back to haunt her seems like a classic anxiety dream projection – people who are nice to your face but laugh about you behind your back. The fact that they are old may suggest that they are her parents; she is a disappointment to herself, and so her nightmare is of parental disapproval.”

The blue box is Pandora’s Box.

One of the most enduring mysteries of the film is what, exactly, the blue box (and corresponding blue key) is, since it triggers the flip between “fantasy” and “reality” and is present in several key scenes, handled by several key players. The most credible—and simplest, as far as anything related to Mulholland Dr. can be deemed simple—is that it is Lynch’s version of Pandora’s Box, the Greek mythological artifact containing all the evils in the world. On the box’s page on the invaluable theory/analysis site Mulholland-Drive.net, contributor A. Kusich supposes the blue box is “a gateway to evil and the truthful but terrible things Diane has done. The bum unleashes the elderly couple who, representing innocence, are chasing a woman who has committed a vile act. Her innocence has been lost, violently discharged within the evil dream.”

The hit man scene is a metaphor for killing Camilla.

One of the stranger scenes finds the long-haired hitman joking around with his buddy before randomly plugging him, and then continuing to kill the unfortunate bystanders who wander in front of his bullets or into his field of vision. It’s a bleakly funny scene, but what does it have to do with the “plot”? Salon’s theory: “The guy he shot so perfunctorily made some remark about a car accident. The implication seems to be that he was in one of the joyriding cars that hit the limo, and that he ended up with some sort of black book that the guys who were about to kill Rita possessed. In the logic of Diane’s dream, the hit man needed that as a lead to where she was.” Makes (enough) sense! But What Culture insists it’s not as literal as that, calling the scene “Betty’s imagination of the hitman killing Camilla” and pointing out that the friend’s gunshot wound is in the same place as Rita’s post-accident head injury.

The terrifying bum is… Diane.

Everyone’s favorite scary scene concerns poor Dan meeting the face behind his “god-awful feeling,” who lives at the dumpster behind Winkie’s Diner. He reappears in the “reality” portion, playing with the blue box and unleashing the old couple that drives Diane to suicide. And then he appears once more, as noted by an uncredited M-D.net contributor: “After Diane’s death, we see the monster superimposed on top of the smoke. And then we see his face fade out while Betty’s/Diane’s face fades in. This last appearance of this ‘man’ is especially instructive because with the connection between his face and Diane’s face we are being told that this monster is yet another persona of Diane. And so we realize that it is not a ‘man’ at all. He is a she.” Lending surprising credence to this theory: according to the film’s credits, the role of “Bum” is played by… actress Bonnie Aarons.

Mulholland Dr. is Lynch’s interpretation of the notorious “Black Dahlia” case.

James Ellroy’s novel about the famously unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short was in development for twenty years before it was finally made by Brian De Palma in 2006. Lynch was reportedly one of the filmmakers who flirted with adapting it, and while he ultimately passed, some have noted the similarities between that 1947 murder and the film he made in 2001. Short, like Betty, was a small-town girl who wanted to make it in the movies; her family and friends called her “Betty,” and her body was discovered by a woman named Betty Bersinger. But on the other side of the coin, the hair, make-up, and costuming of Camilla/Rita bears a remarkable resemblance to Short. And one of the key clues in the LAPD’s failed investigation of the murder was a stolen address book.

Mulholland Dr. is Lynch’s interpretation of The Wizard of Oz.

Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart was full of references to the 1939 classic, but fans have noted numerous parallels between that film and Mulholland: the dream structure (both Diane and Dorothy have extended dreams in which everyone in their lives has a different name and identity), the Jitterbug (the vintage dance that opens the movie was the centerpiece of a famously deleted scene from Oz), the arrival sequence (like Dorothy, Betty arrives in this new land full of wonder and awe, and begins her journey in a yellow cab—echoing the Yellow Brick Road), the presence of little people (the Munchkins in Oz; Mr. Roque in Mulholland), the qualities of illusion and escape (“Just as Dorothy could only get home after she had discovered the fraudulent nature of the wizard in whom she had put her trust,” writes Alan Shaw, “so too does Diane only leave her dream after she has been to the wizard-like magician at Club Silencio who acknowledges that everything is a fraud as well”), and the importance of “Winkies” (the diner where evil lives in Mulholland; the chanting protectors of the Wicked Witch of the West in Oz).

Mulholland Dr. is Lynch’s remake of an obscure 1965 Carroll Baker movie.

A key piece of both the fantasy and reality is The Sylvia North Story, the feature film that Betty declines to audition for (and which Adam must cast they mystery starlet in), and where Diane and Camilla first met. But who is “Sylvia North”? Salon shrugged, “Beats us.” The folks at Mulholland-Drive.net discovered that while The Sylvia North Story isn’t a real movie, there was a 1965 movie called Sylvia , with Carroll Baker—who played doomed starlet Jean Harlow in 1965’s Harlow and doomed starlet Dorothy Stratten’s mother in 1983’s Star 80—as the geographically-scrambled character “Sylvia West.” (The “North” may have been a parallel shout-out to the character of Jennifer North in the doomed starlet movie Valley of the Dolls, a character played by doomed starlet Sharon Tate. THERE ARE MULTIPLE LAYERS HERE.) As contributor “ctyankee” explains, “the movie recounts how the title character was raped by her step-father at the age of 14, and how she became a prostitute when she was older. She survived her ordeals while she was a prostitute through her close friendships with other women, and she ultimately leaves prostitution and goes on to become a successful poet. Except for the ending, the story is amazingly like the life story of Diane, who you could say was the Sylvia who came from the north. Thus, we get Sylvia North.”

None of it means anything.

As Neil Roberts told The Guardian: “This wasn’t meant to be a feature film to start with, you know, and with Lynch you need to be careful. Even in Twin Peaks he was making it up as he went along. The important thing is that you are still talking about the film three days after you saw it. We should be careful not to let all this analysis detract from a fantastic film.” Amen.