In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Mulholland Drive, we answer questions you have about the movie. If you’re curious about plot explanations, meanings, themes, lessons, motifs, symbols, or just confused by something, ask and we’ll do our best to answer.
As a primer, be sure to check out David Lynch’s ten clues about Mulholland Drive. The director provided these clues as a helpful guide since the movie’s plot was so confusing.
- Naomi Watts – Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn
- Laura Harring – Rita/Camilla Rhodes
- Justin Theroux – Adam Kesher
- Ann Miller – Coco
- Mark Pellegrino – Joe
- Robert Forster – Detective McKnight
- Brent Briscoe – Detective Domgaard
- Dan Hedaya – Vincenzo Castigliane
- Angelo Badalamenti – Luigi Castigliane
- Michael J. Anderson – Mr. Roque
- Bonnie Aarons – Bum
- Monty Montgomery – The Cowboy
- Melissa George – Camilla Rhodes
- Billy Ray Cyrus – Gene
- Patrick Fischler – Dan
Mulholland Drive | Questions and Answers
What is the chronological order of Mulholland Drive?
Let’s go step by step through the movie—not in the order as it’s presented, but in actual chronological order from Diane’s perspective:
- Diane wins a dance contest.
- Inspired, Diane moves to Hollywood.
- Diane struggles to land roles.
- Diane loses a role to Camilla.
- Diane begins to date Camilla.
- Camilla becomes a star and dates Adam Kesher.
- Diane, heartbroken and jealous, decides to put a hit on Camilla.
- Diane hires a hitman.
- The hitman delivers a blue key as a sign the hit happened.
- Diane spirals out of control.
- Diane lies down and dreams about Betty and Rita.
- Diane wakes up.
- Diane is completely overwhelmed by the dream, by the life she could have lived as Betty if only Hollywood had gone differently for her.
- Diane takes her own life.
What is the dance sequence at the beginning?
Here, we’ll address Clue #1 from David Lynch: “Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: At least two clues are revealed before the credits.”
One of the first two clues revealed before the credits happens during the Jitterbug dance scene. Towards the end of the film, at Adam’s party, Diane reveals she won a Jitterbug contest, which led to her pursuit of an acting career. So perhaps the “clue” is that simple: this Jitterbug scene is the impetus of Diane’s career.
But here’s where things get complicated. If you listen closely during that Jitterbug scene (and turn the volume way up like I did), you can hear somebody yell, “Betty!” That’s the character from Diane’s dream.
Which is…confusing. Because Diane won that Jitterbug contest. Not Betty.
The simplest explanation is that Diane made up this story. She never won any sort of contest, and instead just uses that story to build herself up.
But what if Lynch’s clue goes deeper than that? I mean, look at that image from the Jitterbug scene. Does it remind you of another moment in Mulholland Drive…
That’s right: the aesthetic used at the very beginning of the movie is recreated at the very end of the movie when Betty and Rita appear in a white haze over Los Angeles.
At the beginning of the film, Diane has set out to become an actress. The positivity she shares with Irene and her husband at that Jitterbug competition has hopeful energy. But as we discussed in the ending explanation section, this closing shot shows that Diane cannot deal with reality. Instead of accepting that she hired a hitman, Diane has chosen to escape into a dream world where they can be together forever; instead of accepting that her Hollywood dreams have been shattered, she imagines a new world where she gets a second chance. This contrast in tone between the opening and closing scenes captures exactly what Lynch is trying to say about Hollywood and how it strips away promise from young, aspiring actors and filmmakers.
So what if this is the clue: that Diane was destined to fail, to be stripped of all hope and wonder—to die at the hands of Hollywood? That white haze represents Diane’s demise at the end of the movie…so why couldn’t it represent her eventual demise at the beginning of the movie?
On top of it all, people are literally yelling Betty’s name at the Jitterbug contest. It feels like Lynch is trying to help us make the connection between reality and dreams, between who Diane wishes to be and who she actually becomes. And in the end, Diane chooses to become Betty by taking her own life and existing in the dream world. She becomes permanently washed in that white haze.
This opening scene is also a classic moment of Lynch nostalgia. By showing people dancing to the Jitterbug, a fad associated with the 1940s, he evokes mid-twentieth century attitudes held by people like Irene and her husband—a narrative technique Lynch uses quite often in his films. Projects like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks feel like they’ve plucked their characters from a ‘50s TV show and plopped them in modern settings. This style allows Lynch to pit stereotypes associated with mid-twentieth century values, like good manners and diplomacy, with an increasingly selfish world that’s leaving those values behind.
This becomes a perfect preview of the movie. In the beginning, Diane is dewy-eyed and believes in herself. When she arrives in Hollywood, she’s super friendly and polite to everyone. But before long…the world turns on her. In both the dream world and reality. In this light, both the Jitterbug and the elderly couple become a representation of Diane’s naïveté, of her blind positivity in the face of a cruel, dispiriting world.
What is the meaning of the red pillow?
The second part of Clue #1 is much simpler to explain. Following the Jitterbug scene, there’s a hazy first-person sequence where somebody stumbles around their bedroom and then falls onto a red pillow in a bed. After this scene, we head right into the film’s opening credits.
As we’ll find out after the dream sequence, this bedroom belongs to Diane. After visiting Club Silencio, Betty uses the blue key to open the blue box. As we discussed in the ending explanation section, these objects represent the link between the dream world and the real world. After the box is opened, Diane wakes up from the dream, back in her bed. So this opening shot with the red pillow is Diane lying down to experience the dream we’ll then see for the first two-thirds of the movie.
So, basically, that’s the clue: Lynch is letting you know that what you’re about to see is a dream.
Who is the dead woman that Betty and Rita find?
Let’s recall Clue #2 from Lynch: “Notice the appearance of the red lampshade.” I know this seems ridiculous, but this clue will help us figure out who the dead woman is.
We see the red lampshade twice. (Note: There actually is another red lampshade that appears in the scene where the hitman talks to the prostitute. The lampshade is shown faintly in the background and isn’t given much attention. So for that reason, I don’t assign any weight to it.) The first appearance occurs during the “Byzantine Conspiracy” portion of Diane’s dream. And before we can move forward with my interpretation, we need to dissect this very convoluted section of the movie.
In her dream, Diane invents this scenario where the mysterious Mr. Rocque seizes control of Adam Kesher’s film. Diane has likely invented this storyline as payback against Adam, who, in real life, has entered a romantic relationship with Camilla. So in Diane’s dream, Adam is forced to give the lead part in his upcoming movie to another actress named Camilla Rhodes—even though it’s made clear that Betty is such a good actress that she could have earned the part herself if given the chance.
Also remember that, in real life, Diane believes Camilla wooed a director named Bob Brooker to give Camilla the lead role in The Sylvia North Story over Diane (this is the name of the movie that David Lynch references in the third clue). The “Camilla Rhodes” in Diane’s dream world is an unknown actress played by a completely different woman than the real Camilla Rhodes. At first glance, it appears the dream version of Camilla “belongs” to Mr. Rocque, who apparently forces prominent directors to give starring roles to his team of actors.
But not everything is as it appears…which is where things get more complicated. Let’s review.
The first scene of the dream sequence is Rita’s car crash. The men in Rita’s car point a gun at her—which is when the accident happens and Rita loses her memory.
Later in the dream sequence, we learn that Mr. Rocque is looking for a “girl” who he says “is still missing.” While we don’t know exactly who he’s talking about, we can assume he’s referencing Rita. This would mean that Rita is an actress that belongs to Mr. Rocque—an actress he no longer requires. And when he’s done with an actress, he gets rid of her.
This is pretty reflective of the Hollywood system, right? Actors often come up through the ranks, they earn bigger and bigger roles, they become household names…and then they disappear. Maybe they choose some bad movies, or maybe they get too old, or maybe they simply don’t fit in with the movie zeitgeist anymore. It’s often not fair or kind, but it happens. All the time. Actors fade away, and new ones come in to take their place.
With that in mind, let’s now focus on Diane, who is fabricating this Byzantine Conspiracy in her mind.
When Diane first arrived in Los Angeles, she believed that talent alone could manifest a successful Hollywood career. That’s why she takes time in the dream to show that Betty is actually a fantastic actress with a promising future. But after Camilla wooed Bob Brooker in real life and became Adam’s star pupil, Diane came to believe larger powers were at play besides talent. This belief stirred jealousy and anger, which led to her taking out Camilla—much like Mr. Rocque wants to take out Rita in the dream world.
Now let’s talk about Lynch’s second clue. The first time we see the red lampshade, it’s sitting next to a ringing telephone. A phone call comes in, but nobody answers. We then cut to Betty’s arrival in Los Angeles.
Let’s first note the timing of this phone call. The first scene of the dream sequence is Rita’s car crash. After the crash, she forgets who she is, then wanders into Los Angeles and sneaks into Aunt Ruth’s apartment. Then we move to the scene where Dan sees the homeless man behind the dumpster and collapses. We then cut to a shot of Rita sleeping in Betty’s aunt’s apartment.
Then we get the events that lead up to the first appearance of the red lampshade: Mr. Rocque calls an unknown man on the phone and says, “The girl is still missing.” Then that guy calls another random guy with a yellow telephone and says, “The same.” Then the yellow telephone guy calls the telephone that rests next to the red lampshade. A telephone and a lampshade that we later learn…belongs to Diane Selwyn!
So wait…Mr. Rocque is trying to reach a character that exists outside the dream? Does this mean that the dream world and the real world have converged?
To me, the simplest interpretation of this phone call is that Lynch has cut from the dream world to the real world to establish the mental connection that exists through Diane’s mind. Everything in Diane’s dream is fake, yet everything we see in her dream is a symbolic representation of the troubles she faces in real life.
Think about it. The Byzantine Conspiracy posits a world where great actresses don’t earn their roles in movies through sheer talent. Diane, who is jealous that Camilla became a big star by wooing Bob Brooker and Adam Kesher, invents this story where Rita (who represents Camilla) is spared from this system and Betty (who represents Diane) has a promising career thanks to her immense talent. This all indicates that Diane has refused to accept the actual reality she lives in: Camilla is part of this unfair system, and talent didn’t earn Diane a fruitful career.
Now back to that telephone chain we see in Diane’s dream. Mr. Rocque is searching for “the girl.” We assume, according to the logic of Diane’s dream world, that he’s talking about Rita. But here’s the thing: “dream logic” is completely unreliable, right? Dreams are not really in our control. Dreams are instead a manifestation of our innermost fears and desires. They unfold at their own will and force us to confront truths about ourselves.
So yes, Rita could have been an actress that Mr. Rocque wanted to terminate. But that doesn’t mean these telephone calls were necessarily about Rita. What if the call was about Diane? What if Diane is the one “missing”? And if Diane is the one missing…
Then what does all of this mean???
Now let’s focus on the second time we see that red lampshade. Back in the real world, Camilla calls Diane’s apartment. This is when we learn that Diane’s phone is the same phone we saw Mr. Rocque’s team call during the dream sequence. Camilla is calling Diane to make sure she attends Adam’s party. This is the party where Camilla and Adam announce their engagement, which will drive Diane to hire the hitman.
And where is this party located? Why, it’s located at…6980 Mulholland Drive!
Which brings us back to everything we talked about in the title explanation section. The first time we see Mulholland Drive, it’s when Rita has her car accident. After this scene, Mr. Rocque says “the girl is still missing.” But the second time we see Mulholland Drive, it’s right after Diane gets a telephone call from Camilla. And by this point, Diane is completely off the rails. She is depressed about losing Camilla, about the failure of her career. And this party becomes the last straw for her mental stability. Mulholland Drive then becomes a representation of the cruelty of the Hollywood Dream.
So when Mr. Rocque’s team calls that telephone, could it be Lynch’s symbolic way of merging the dream world and the real world? Is the dream world trying to locate Diane, who is “missing” mentally? Who has lost herself in her chase to become a star actress?
That might sound too bizarre to be true. But let’s remember this: when Rita sees that the waitress’s name is “Diane,” she suddenly remembers the name “Diane Selwyn.” Betty and Rita then look up Diane Selwyn in the phonebook and go to her address. And this dream version of Diane Selwyn lives in an apartment that’s an EXACT replica of the real Diane Selwyn’s apartment. And in that apartment…we find the dead body of Diane Selwyn!
So if dreams are a fictionalized representation of our real lives, then the decaying body of fake Diane Selwyn indicates that the real Diane Selwyn is completely lost. There’s no turning back. And the only possible ending for her is a tragic one: extinction.
So when Mr. Rocque calls Diane’s apartment, that’s why nobody answers: because she is dead. Diane’s subconscious knew this would become her dismal end while dreaming. That or she had axed herself as a symbolic representation of her failed career.
This recalls what we talked about in the ending explanation section. The homeless man controls the blue box and serves as the link between Diane’s dream world and reality—this establishes a tried and true connection. But the telephone next to the red lampshade attempts to establish that connection as well. The dream world is trying to reach Diane through the exact phone that led Diane to the party where she decided to take out Camilla…oh the irony. The phone call that passed (or tried to pass) between those two worlds was literally a cry for help.
What is the significance of the robe, the ashtray, and the coffee cup?
This is a very interesting clue. Because I think the reason Lynch points us towards these objects is very simple in terms of plot. But the symbolism behind each of these items is much more interesting.
So which robe, which ashtray, and which coffee cup is Lynch specifically pointing out? Because there are multiple instances of each item throughout the movie. Betty wears a pink bathrobe in the dream sequence, while Rita wears a black and red one; multiple people smoke and use ashtrays throughout the movie, and there’s an ashtray that rests next to that red lampshade we talked about earlier; and there’s a ton of coffee drinking throughout the movie, from the Castigliane brothers’ espresso to the coffee Diane and Rita drink at Winkie’s.
While I think all of those recurring symbols are significant, I believe with this particular clue Lynch is referencing a specific robe-ashtray-coffee-cup combination we see in a single scene: when Diane first emerges from her dream. She wakes up and puts on a dirty white bathrobe; then her friend, who appears to be an ex-girlfriend, comes over to collect her piano ashtray; then Diane pours herself a cup of coffee and walks over to the couch.
What happens next? We then cut to a flashback of Diane’s life. Her coffee cup becomes a whiskey drink, which she sets next to the piano ashtray, and she is now topless as she lies down to make out with Camilla.
I believe Lynch uses this “clue” to note the time jump. The ex-girlfriend just took the piano ashtray that now sits on Diane’s coffee table—which tells us we’ve gone back in time. That means everything we’re about to see is leading up to the final scene.
But it’s important to remember all the other instances we’ve seen of robes and ashtrays and coffee cups. Because everything up to this point has been Diane’s dream. Which means all of these items are actually symbolic of fears and insecurities in Diane’s life.
In her dream, Diane wears a bright pink bathrobe while practicing for her first big audition, which coincides with her overly cheerful, optimistic attitude about Hollywood. And during that exact same scene, Rita wears a black bathrobe with vibrant red accents—symbolic of the temptation of Hollywood, of what drove Diane to become jealous of Camilla. Plus, lots of coffee and cigarettes were shared at Winkie’s diner—the place Diane hired the hitman to take out Camilla.
Are Betty and Diane the same person?
Diane Selwyn (played by Naomi Watts) is an aspiring actress who moved to Hollywood to become a movie star. When she arrived in Los Angeles, she had stars in her eyes. But…things quickly went array. She had trouble landing roles. And eventually lost a huge audition to Camilla Rhodes (played by Laura Harring) in a Bob Brooker film.
After that, Diane had even more trouble getting work. She started to date Camilla, who became a big movie star and helped Diane receive side roles in her movies. Diane became suspicious that talent didn’t win Camilla her parts—especially once Camilla started dating one of Hollywood’s hottest directors, Adam Kesher (played by Justin Theroux). Eventually, Diane grows so jealous of Camilla that she hires a hitman to take Camilla out.
Distraught by what she’s done, Diane lies down to sleep and has a dream where she becomes Betty. This story makes up most of the movie.
Betty seems to be a cartoonized version of Diane’s early days in Hollywood: wildly talented as a dramatic actress, blindly optimistic about her chances of becoming a big movie star, and naively trusting of everyone around her. Betty tries to help a character named Rita solve the mystery of her true identity. Rita looks exactly like Camilla, which signifies that Diane made up this story to deal with the guilt of hiring the hitman.
Eventually, Diane is forced to wake up from her dream and come back to reality.
Are Rita and Camilla the same person?
Unlike Diane, Camilla is thriving in Hollywood. She was seemingly a much more capable actress than Diane when trying out for a lead part in a Bob Brooker film—although she may have earned the role through other means (we never know for sure).
And while Camilla started to date Diane and helped Diane land minor roles, Camilla also became romantically tied to Adam, which led to leading roles in his films as well. The entire time, Camilla continued to string Diane along—which eventually drove Diane to hire the hitman. Camilla is dead by the time we enter Diane’s dream.
In the dream world, the character that looks like Camilla loses her memory. But she decides to call herself Rita after seeing a movie poster for Gilda starring Rita Hayworth (we’ll dissect that bit of information during the ending explanation). Rita was part of a terrible car accident and can’t remember who she is. Teamed up with Betty, she sets out to discover her true identity.
Who is Adam Kesher?
The last major connection between fiction and reality in Mulholland Drive is Adam Kesher—who remains himself in both realms. In the real world, Adam is a successful Hollywood director who is respected by everyone. He is on top of the world, and has no problem landing Camilla as a lover. Diane is insanely jealous of both his success and his relationship with Camilla.
But in the dream world, where Diane is in control of each and every character, Adam constantly runs into trouble. He mysteriously loses control of his film to Mr. Rocque; his wife cheats on him with Billy Ray Cyrus; he is constantly flustered and bewildered by his increasing lack of authority; and he never meets Rita.
Essentially, these two versions of Adam relate to Diane. In the real world, he represents the smugness and unfairness of Hollywood that Diane observes. But in her dreams, Diane is able to put Adam in his place and allow her own talent to win out.
Who is the cowboy?
Many many many people are tripped up by minor characters that appear in Mulholland Drive—especially the cowboy. Luckily, David Lynch himself explained why we see people like the cowboy in both the dream and real world. And it just so happens his explanation explains pretty much every random character.
In his interview with Lynch, Chris Rodley says, “The movie is full of obvious clues, but there are many other things that are important visual and audio indicators that are not obvious. So at times it does seem as if you’re delighting in teasing or mystifying the viewer.”
“No,” Lynch responded. He went on to say:
“You never do that to an audience. An idea comes, and you make it the way the idea says it wants to be, and you just stay true to that. Clues are beautiful because I believe we’re all detectives. We mull things over, and we figure things out. We’re always working this way. People’s minds hold things and form conclusions with indications. It’s like music. Music starts, a theme comes in, it goes away, and when it comes back, it’s so much greater because of what’s gone before.”
“Sometimes an idea presents itself to you and you’re just as surprised as anyone else,” Lynch continues. “I remember when I was writing Mulholland Drive, the character of the cowboy just came walking in one night. I just started talking about this cowboy. That’s what happens—something starts occurring, but it wasn’t there a moment ago.”
Rodley, who knows that the cowboy character confuses many people, follows up: “Do you then get anxious about how this idea is going to fit in with everything else?”
“No, because you’re just in that world yourself. You’re just going. There is no movie yet. Until the process completes itself, you’re just going to carry on. Somewhere along the way, when it looks like it’s taking some sort of shape, the rest of the ideas all gather around to see if they can fit into that shape. Maybe you’ll find out that that thing isn’t going to work, so you save it in a box for later. You’ve got to be the audience for most of this trip. You can’t second-guess them. If you did, you’d be removing yourself from yourself. Then you’d be out there in really dangerous territory, trying to build something for some abstract group that’s always changing. I think you’d fail. You’ve got to do it from the inside first and hope for the best.”
For me, this simplifies the act of watching Mulholland Drive. The cowboy is only confusing if we remove ourselves from the viewing experience and try to define his presence. In Lynch’s mind, however, the cowboy is simply passing by as Lynch works towards the message of the film.
In this light, the cowboy’s significance is almost boring in its simplicity. Just like he’s wandering through Lynch’s mind while writing the film, the cowboy is also wandering through Diane’s mind as she dreams about Betty and Camilla. Diane saw the cowboy in real life, so he became a convenient stand-in for a hard-nosed character that threatens Adam—the man who stole Camilla from Diane.
So…who exactly is the cowboy? Who is the waitress? Who are the Castigliane brothers? Who is Coco? Who is Dan? Who is Detective McKnight? Who is the other Camilla Rhodes? Who is Gene? Who is the hitman? Based on Lynch’s own words, there are no clear, definable answers to any of these questions. Plot-wise, these side characters just reinforce how Diane brought elements from her real life in Hollywood into the dream version of Hollywood. She re-casted everyone and directed them accordingly.
Individually, you could try to find symbolic parallels—but nothing’s quite as definitive as Diane’s story. Does the cowboy signify some Hollywood trope or archetype? Maybe. But it doesn’t impact the main plot or theme in a meaningful enough way that deserves explaining.
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