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What is Mulholland Drive about?
In the most straightforward sense, Mulholland Drive is all about the “Hollywood Dream” that is sold to aspiring actors and filmmakers. But on a deeper lever, the film is about the pressure we feel to live a life that is not our own. We are constantly told what is important and what makes life worth living, to the point where we always look forward and never remain present. Oftentimes, we chase a dream that will never be realized—a dream, ironically, we never truly wanted in the first place. We become horses chasing a carrot on a stick, fueling the larger capitalist system that surrounds us. As a result, we fail to build our own personal foundations, to create our own stories, to follow our natural narratives to happiness. David Lynch uses Hollywood as a means of exploring this mental anguish.
The plot of Mulholland Drive may seem complicated because it’s told out of order. But when you view the story chronologically, it becomes simplified: At an early age, Diane wins a dance contest and moves to Hollywood to pursue a career. But before long, she discovers her Hollywood dreams are far tougher to realize than she thought. She begins a relationship with Camilla, who quickly becomes the Hollywood star Diane wanted to be. Camilla also starts to date famous Hollywood director Adam Kesher. Overcome with rage and jealousy, Diane pays someone to murder Camilla. Following that decision, Diane is overcome with guilt and goes to sleep.
What follows is a dream sequence that makes up most of the movie. In this dream, Diane becomes Betty and Camilla becomes Rita. Throughout the dream, we see people from the real world reimagined as new people in the dream world. The entire dreamy narrative follows its own set of rules that exist outside the logic of reality, yet everything that happens in the dream ends up being a reflection of reality. Diane doesn’t want to confront the real world where she’s murdered Camilla, so she escapes into the kind of fairytale land that was sold to her as an aspiring actress. Here, Diane can help Camilla find her identity and remain alive, all while realizing the Hollywood Dream she never achieved.
But eventually, Diane has to come out of the dream. She must confront the terrible sin she’s committed; she must recognize that her Hollywood Dream wasn’t realized; she must admit that she’s in mental disarray, that she’s in need of serious help. Unequipped to process this crippling reality, Diane takes her own life. The movie then ends with a visual eulogy to Diane’s existence as she disappears into the ether like so many aspiring actors have, like so many misguided souls have before her.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Naomi Watts as 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
- David Lynch – Writer and director
The ending of Mulholland Drive explained
A recap of Mulholland Drive‘s ending
The very end of Mulholland Drive involves a strange sequence of events. First, miniature versions of Irene (the elderly woman from the beginning of the movie) and her husband crawl under Diane’s front door. They grow to human size and chase Diane around her apartment. To escape, Diane runs into her bedroom and shoots herself with a handgun. Then smoke fills her room, and out of the cloudiness comes the homeless man that lives behind the dumpster at Winkie’s. Then there are several shots of Diane-and-Camilla/Betty-and-Rita smiling over the cityscape of Los Angeles. Finally, the movie closes with the woman with blue hair whispering “Silencio.”
While that series of shots might seem disconnected, it becomes easier to understand when we break down the various parts piece by piece. Altogether, these shots represent Diane’s inability to deal with both the guilt of taking out Camilla and her failed Hollywood dreams. Each of these shots recalls moments from her dream, which means Diane is dipping further and further back into that dream world and away from reality. And this is how the movie ends—tragically.
To better understand the underlying meaning of the ending, let’s go through the entire final sequence moment by moment.
The elderly couple
Irene and her husband were first featured at the very beginning of the movie during the dance sequence. They stand with Diane and smile in a moment where Diane has won some sort of Jitterbug competition.
We then see Irene and her husband again at the beginning of Diane’s dream sequence. When Betty arrives in Hollywood, she hugs and says goodbye to the elderly couple. Then the couple boards a taxi and smiles in a cartoonish manner. Being figures from Diane’s dream, Irene and her husband represent the overwhelming optimism Diane felt when she arrived in L.A. In a way, they represent the adulation of an audience, of people who love you as a celebrity and root for your career.
But by the end of the movie, Diane’s dreams have been crushed. She didn’t make it as an actress. She has lost her lover. And out of pure jealousy, she has hired a hitman. In the end, Diane has completely compromised herself and her values. Instead of allowing her talent to earn a prosperous career, she went down a darker road.
Because Diane is unable to deal with that reality, Irene and her husband transport from the ethereal world to the real world. From dream to nightmare, the elderly couple becomes a symbol of Diane’s broken dreams and fragmented self. These two people who once represented the optimism of Hollywood and the promise of a profitable career are now driving Diane to her demise.
Now this part is interesting. Diane shoots herself in the very bed where she had the dream about Betty and Rita. So by shooting herself in the same exact spot, Diane has chosen to ignore her reality and permanently exist in this imagined world where she can construct her own movie.
The monster behind the dumpster
All of this information will help us understand Lynch’s ninth clue.
We first see the homeless person in the dream world when he scares Dan (played by Patrick Fischler) to death at Winkie’s. At that diner, Dan tells Detective Domgaard (played by Brent Biscoe) about a horrible dream where a homeless person who lives behind the diner’s dumpster. The detective then convinces Dan that he can only move past his nightmares by recreating the dream and confronting the homeless person. Unfortunately, that very act becomes Dan’s demise.
We then see the homeless person one more time, just before the film’s final sequence. Back in the real world, Diane visits the same diner where Dan died in the dream world and hires a hitman to take out Camilla. After he accepts the money, the hitman hands Diane a blue key. And when she asks what the key is for, the hitman simply laughs.
This is when we cut to the dumpster behind Winkie’s. The homeless person is holding the blue box that during the dream sequence served as a portal between the dream world and the real world. We then cut to the blue box resting in a loose paper bag on the ground…and out of that bag walks the miniature figures of Irene and her husband.
The first time we see the homeless person, he represents our inner fears. Detective Domgaard believes Dan can overcome his nightmare by choosing to recreate it in the real world. But remember: this scene exists in Diane’s dream world. And this homeless man represents a portal between that dream world and the real world. And Diane can’t move from that dream world back to the real world until she confronts herself and the terrible thing she’s done—which she is forced to do at Club Silencio.
Thus, Dan becomes this representation of the fact that you can’t just outmaneuver your fear. Detective Domgaard is attached to this idea that your nightmares aren’t real, that you can simply walk up to the homeless person and prove he isn’t real. But your nightmares are real because they represent a part of yourself that you try to bury. You can’t run from your nightmares, and you can’t outsmart them—you must eventually address the fear and deal with it. Otherwise, you’re doomed to this delusional dream world.
Sound familiar? This is Diane’s exact situation. In the end, Diane couldn’t escape her guilt. While in Club Silencio, she realizes her identity as Betty has been nothing more than a dream. Which is why she then finds the blue box in her purse. With the blue key she found earlier, Betty will be able to open this box and wake up, back in the real world, as Diane.
The homeless person’s presence here at the end of the film is a reminder of this entire dynamic. Diane couldn’t live in her dreamscape forever. At some point, she had to come back to reality. And back in reality, she couldn’t overcome what she had done.
The meaning behind the blue box
It’s interesting, then, that we cut from Diane shooting herself to the homeless person (by the way, the following information will help us understand Lynch’s fifth clue). The blue key from the hitman is just an ordinary key. It doesn’t unlock anything, and instead indicates that Camilla has been taken out. But in the dream world, the blue key unlocks the mysterious box held by the homeless person, who then forces Diane to confront what she’s done back in reality.
We can connect this all back to Dan. Dan has a dream, wakes up from it, tries to come to terms with it, and then is completely overwhelmed when he visits the dumpster. For Dan, the homeless person represented the ultimate fear, or the sum of all fears. The EXACT same thing then happens to Diane. She goes through the same motions throughout the course of the film.
It’s also notable that the very image of a homeless person represents “rock bottom.” People travel to Hollywood to achieve fame and build riches…but could strike out and end up with nothing. That’s the big gamble. So what image would represent the opposite of a successful movie star with lots of money and a big house? Someone who has nothing and lives behind the dumpster.
The shot of Los Angeles
This is the saddest shot of the entire movie. After Diane’s demise, we drift further into this post-death ethereal limbo where Diane once again becomes Betty and Camilla becomes Rita. These two lovers are happy as can be, laughing together as a spotlight shines on them and Los Angeles whimsically rests in the background. It’s a moment of pure, unadulterated joy.
But…here’s the thing: Diane is dead. We know this isn’t reality. Rita is once again wearing the blonde wig (more on that in a second) she was wearing in Club Silencio—where Diane realized she wasn’t living in reality, where she was forced to confront the consequences of hiring the hitman. The key then forces her to accept her reality and exit the dream world.
After Diane’s demise, however, she comes back to this dream space. She and Rita are no longer fearful of reality, but instead blissfully living outside of it. They laugh and smile about being together…when in reality they were at odds with each other; the spotlight lovingly splashes on them…when in reality the chase of fame is what drove them apart; Hollywood compassionately hangs in the background…when in reality this city shattered Diane’s dreams. It’s all a lie. A lie that Diane has chosen to make her reality.
Side note: the movie’s connection to Rita Hayworth
Before we move onto the very last moment of Mulholland Drive, I think it’s important to talk about one very important symbol we haven’t addressed yet: Rita’s name.
When Rita is standing in Aunt Ruth’s bathroom, confused about who she is and why she’s in Los Angeles, she looks up at a poster of the film Gilda. She observes the lead actress’s name, Rita Hayworth, and decides to call herself Rita.
This is certainly meant to be a symbolic moment from Lynch. Rita Hayworth was a famous actress back in the 1940s and 1950s. So famous that the American Film Institute ranked her 19th on a list of the 25 greatest female screen legends of American film history. And she is most well known for starring in Gilda. Men adored her (she was famously a pin-up girl for military servicemen) and the press constantly reported upon her life. So you could argue that she enjoyed a fruitful career.
But here’s the thing: Rita Hayworth also had a troubled life. She was abused by her father as a child, which she says led to her difficulties with relationships. She famously married five different men during her lifetime, including Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan. And for all the high moments she enjoyed with her studio contracts, she struggled just as much. She would often battle with studio heads (like Harry Cohn at Columbia) and her star status dwindled in the latter half of her career.
In fact, she only experienced a resurgence in popularity when something tragic happened: she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Little was known about the disease at the time, and her popularity led to increased federal funding for Alzheimer’s research. To this day, the Rita Hayworth Gala, an annual fundraiser for Alzheimer’s research, has accrued more than $80 million.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Rita from Mulholland Drive is experiencing amnesia and can’t remember who she is.
That’s the simplest connection we can draw between Mulholland Drive and Rita Hayworth. But we must also consider Rita Hayworth’s erratic career. She enjoyed great successes as an actress…but also many, many troubles. From a distance her life seemed fantastic—but up close, you could see the cracks in the armor, the crippling nature of Hollywood on display.
Remember that Rita doesn’t choose her own name in Mulholland Drive. This is Diane’s dream, which means Diane picked the name from her own knowledge of Rita Hayworth. This is Diane’s subconscious at work. Diane buries the ugliness and danger of Hollywood in the character of Rita—the very woman whom Betty is trying to save in the dream. This gives hope to Diane’s plight, gives her an avenue to find success in the face of defeat.
But that ugly reality she buried deep in Rita will eventually force its way out. Rita was supposed to represent an escape from that reality, but instead forces Diane to confront it when she puts on that blonde wig and becomes Diane’s doppelganger. Rita becomes the manifestation of Diane’s innermost fears—which instantly connects Diane with Rita Hayworth’s story. Diane chose this glamorou
Ending with Club Silencio
The movie concludes in Club Silencio (by the way, this will help us understand Lynch’s seventh clue), the very place where Diane previously had the realization she was living in a false reality. Fittingly, the woman’s hair at Club Silencio is colored blue—the color of the dream-world key that led Diane back to reality, and the color of the hitman’s key that signaled Camilla’s death. Thus, blue becomes symbolic for confronting yourself and your decisions.
The first time we saw the blue-haired woman, she was watching the performance at Club Silencio from a balcony seat. Betty and Rita attend a show at Club Silencio where people pretend to sing and play instruments. But, as the presenter states, it’s all “an illusion.” He says, “no hay banda,” which translates to “there is no band.” This brings up many questions about Diane’s life, regarding both her pursuit of the Hollywood Dream and her jealousy of Camilla. Can something be beautiful, be artful, be profound…if it’s a lie? An illusion? You have to eventually confront reality, to evaluate yourself and the choices you’ve made.
Naturally, then, we see Betty go through a wave of states and emotions during the performance. At first she’s confused by the cryptic presentation. Then she convulses when the man signals the sound of thunder. Then she’s in awe and weeps at the woman’s beautiful singing voice. And finally, in the end, she’s devastated to learn that the woman’s voice isn’t real—this also happens to be the moment she finds the blue box in her purse.
Let’s remember how Betty got to Club Silencio in the first place. Rita wakes up in the middle of the night, seemingly possessed, whispering things like “silencio” and “no hay banda.” These are words that will be repeated at Club Silencio. This is Diane’s subconscious breaking through the dream, driving Betty towards Club Silencio where she will find the blue box.
At the club, Rita wears a blonde wig that is strikingly similar to Diane’s hair. In the dream world, Rita represents a second chance for Camilla to live on. But the blonde wig is once again Diane’s subconscious at work, as Rita is nothing more than a projection of Diane’s guilt for hiring the hitman. When Rita drives Betty to Club Silencio, it’s really Diane driving herself to Club Silencio. Diane must eventually confront what she’s done, just as she must confront the falseness of the Hollywood Dream.
This ties back to the wave of emotions we see from Betty during the performance. The confusion, the convulsions, the weeping—it all represents what is “felt, realized, and gathered” at Club Silencio.
Everything happening to Diane in these moments makes me think of Lynch’s interview with Chris Rodley:
This particular girl—Diane—sees things she wants, but she just can’t get them. It’s all there—the party—but she’s not invited. And it gets to her. You could call it fate—if it doesn’t smile on you, there’s nothing you can do. You can have the greatest talent and the greatest ideas, but if that door doesn’t open, you’re fresh out of luck. It takes so many ingredients and the door opening to finally make it. There are jokes about how in L.A. everyone is writing a script and everyone has got a résumé and a photo. So there’s a yearning to get the chance to express yourself—a sort of creativity in the air. Everyone is willing to go for broke and take a chance. It’s a modern town in that way. It’s like you want to go to Las Vegas and turn that one dollar into a million dollars.
The second time we see the blue-haired woman is here at the very end of the movie. Knowing how Lynch feels about Hollywood from that Rodley interview, the blue-haired woman whispering “Silencio” could be the director’s way of saying, “We, as a society, are collectively silent about these terrible things that keep happening to young, aspiring filmmakers and actors. We brush these sad stories under the rug and continue to worship Hollywood.”
No, Diane’s dream isn’t reality—but she can keep telling herself that it is. In that light, the ending becomes a representation of Hollywood’s great lie. This dream the town inspires continues to persist and persist and fill people with hope…when in reality, this false reality becom
The themes and meaning of Mulholland Drive
Buying into the Hollywood Dream
At the very beginning of the movie, we watch several people dance. As we’ll find out later in the movie, this was a Jitterbug dance contest that Diane won in her Canadian hometown. This triggered a desire to become a movie star, so she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams like her Aunt Rita. Diane has dewey-eyed visions of what Hollywood is like, how amazing it will be to become a movie star. After all, she has talent. Why wouldn’t she make it?
But things don’t go Diane’s way. She fails to land lead roles in audition after audition, and loses a huge part to Camilla in Adam Kesher’s new movie. Diane falls in love with Camilla, perhaps because she so deeply romanticizes the idea of becoming a movie star that she decides to date one. But that affection soon turns into jealously and rage as Camilla starts to date Adam and her career takes off. This rejection from Hollywood pushes Diane to hire a hitman to murder Camilla.
This entire character arc is a condemnation of the “Hollywood Dream” sold to many young, aspiring actors and filmmakers. )Lynch himself discussed this in depth during the interview with Chris Rodley I referenced earlier.) When you go to Hollywood, you’re taking a huge chance. The “movie star life” that’s been sold to so many only comes to fruition for a precious few. Meanwhile, everyone else is fighting for scraps. Lynch uses Mulholland Drive (which also the name of a famous winding road where many celebrities have lived and many people have died in car crashes) as a cautionary tale for people who have bought into Hollywood’s giant lie.
The thin line between fantasy and reality
We can extend the above theme beyond Hollywood. This is a familiar feeling to which anybody can relate. We feel pressure to excel in our jobs, in our hobbies, in our intellect. Sell more. Write more. Read more. Do more. Achieve more. And if you don’t achieve more, then you’re a failure.
This is nothing but a lifestyle that’s sold to us—a fantasy. And when you don’t achieve this fantasy, it can lead to isolation, anxiety, depression. And the only way to combat all those negative emotions is to confront the lie that you have to accomplish more to be more. You can define success for yourself and be happy with the trajectory of your path.
Diane is a hopeless case who never tended to her mental needs. She bought further and further into the Hollywood Dream, and allowed it to dominate her mental scape. So instead of congratulating Camilla on her hard work, she decides to eliminate Camilla. Instead of recognizing that the Hollywood Dream is a scam, she dreams an entire movie where she succeeds an actress. Instead of forging a healthier path for herself, she takes her own life.
Diane thinks she imagines a better life when she lays down to sleep. But in that dream, she’s confronted with all the same negativity that flooded her real life. She can’t escape her reality. She can’t accept that life is ugly and full of unfair moments. The “fantasy” sold to us is nothing more than an image, a mirage. It looks nice and welcoming, but once we’re in it, it doesn’t shield us from the universal struggles of life. The further and further you dip into that fantasy, the harder and h
Why is the movie called Mulholland Drive?
Mulholland Drive is a famous road in the Santa Monica Mountains of California. Many celebrities have lived on that road over the years, from Madonna to Jack Nicholson to John Lennon to Bruce Willis to—yeah, you guessed it—David Lynch.
When construction engineer DeWitt Reaburn built the road back in the 1920s, he said that “The Mulholland Highway is destined to be one of the heaviest traveled and one of the best known scenic roads in the United States.” With views of downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood Sign, the road was meant to beautify the Southern California landscape. People could drive amongst the Hollywood Hills and bask in the glory of the movie capital of the world.
Here’s where it gets more complicated: because Mulholland Drive is also a dangerous place. Perched high on the rolling hills of California, these winding roads have been home to dozens upon dozens of car and motorcycle accidents over the years. There’s even one section of Mulholland Drive that’s nicknamed “The Snake” for its incredibly sharp hairpin twists and turns. This hazardous road has hosted many adrenaline-junkie actors over the years as well, from James Dean to Steve McQueen.
While this nine-mile stretch of road was built as a celebration of Southern California, it has come to symbolize the danger of Hollywood as well. So for a film where a woman sets out to become a movie star but ends up in a deep, irreversible depression, you can see the inherent tension that comes with titling your film Mulholland Drive. It’s a beautiful road, but it can also end your life—the same goes for Diane’s Hollywood dreams.
In that interview with Chris Rodley, David Lynch expanded on this idea when he compared Los Angeles to Las Vegas—the Hollywood Dream with gambling, the ambition to become a movie star with the risk of losing all your money. It’s fine to dream about becoming a famous actor. But stardom can come at a cost, can force you to compromise your ideals, can squander your drive and energy. Hollywood can be cruel to your dreams and cause you to become a cruel person who does anything to get ahead of the competition.
So, essentially, you can view this as the reason the film is called Mulholland Drive. The road has come to represent the dangers of Hollywood. And two very important scenes take place on Mulholland Drive that highlight this theme.
The two scenes that take place on Mulholland Drive
The first scene takes place in the dream world and features Rita getting into a traumatic car accident and forgetting her name (this will help us understand David Lynch’s fourth clue). The second scene takes place in the real world and features Diane driving to the party where she will learn about Camilla and Adam’s engagement and decide to take out Camilla.
Before we get to the significance of each of those scenes, I want to highlight one really cool thing about this film: when you play those scenes side by side…they almost perfectly match up. Below I’ve created a video that shows Lynch was purposely trying to connect these two scenes.
So what’s the point of connecting these scenes together? I’ll explain.
Rita’s car accident marks the very beginning of Diane’s dream—a journey where Betty is a hero and fights for Rita to find her identity. But really, this is Diane’s way of dealing with the regret of hiring the hitman. She creates a movie-like situation where Camilla has the chance to regain her identity, to be Diane’s lover once again, to gain a second life. Diane becomes her guiding light in the form of Betty.
But…Betty isn’t real. Betty is Diane’s way of forgetting the reality of her situation and what she really did. So the Mulholland Drive scene in the dream world is Diane pushing away from reality, while the Mulholland Drive scene in the real world is an actual representation of her decisions. The fictional story of who she wants to be is profoundly different from the truth.
The movie Diane fabricates is nothing more than a “Hollywood Dream.” It’s not real. It’s a symbolic representation of what that famous road has come to represent about Hollywood: while beautiful and welcoming on the surface, it’s ultimately a place where dreams go to die. Nothing more than a fantasy.
The car crash, then, becomes a symbolic break from that reality. In the dream world, the car that brought Diane to that fateful party is demolished and Camilla is completely stripped of her identity. Camilla forgets her name and becomes Rita—a lost puppy who needs Betty’s help. With this storyline, Diane and Camilla’s love can begin anew, and Diane can have another shot at stardom. Mulholland Drive represented the promise of fame and fortune. But in the end, that famous road became Diane’s demise.
When we think of these two scenes being connected, it makes the energy more palpable. As Diane is led up the hill by Camilla to the party, we know that tragedy and despair awaits her. At the party, she will learn of Adam and Camilla’s engagement—which will hit her with the same ferocity as a car crash. The promise of finding love and making it in Hollywood comes to an end at that very moment.
There’s one more avenue we can travel down to understand why Lynch called this movie Mulholland Drive: the classic film Sunset Boulevard.
David Lynch’s inspiration from Sunset Boulevard
You know that quote I used from Lynch just a few paragraphs up? Well, there’s one key sentence I left out.
In a response to Chris Rodley’s question about the duality between Diane and Betty, Lynch says:
“There are jokes about how in L.A. everyone is writing a script and everyone has got a résumé and a photo. So there’s a yearning to get the chance to express yourself—a sort of creativity in the air. Everyone is willing to go for broke and take a chance. It’s a modern town in that way. It’s like you want to go to Las Vegas and turn that one dollar into a million dollars. Sunset Boulevard says so much about that Hollywood Dream thing to me.”
Sunset Boulevard is a famous film from Billy Wilder about the sick nature of Hollywood. The movie follows an aged, has-been actress named Norma Desmond who refuses to accept that her career is finished. She continues to live in an extravagant mansion and pretends that her glory days aren’t behind her. But each time she’s forced to confront the reality of her flailing career…she loses a piece of herself mentally. And over the course of the movie, we witness her fully descend into delusional chaos.
In the midst of Norma’s mental unwinding, she meets a man named Joe. At first, Joe takes advantage of Norma’s delusion and enjoys her riches. But before long, her loosened grasp on reality drives him wild and he begins to challenge her. This only further spirals Norma into insanity.
Oh, and how does the movie end? Norma shoots Joe dead in her backyard pool.
Oh, and where does Norma live? On Sunset Boulevard, of course.
The parallels with Diane’s story are resounding. Diane has also bought into the Hollywood Dream to unhealthy levels. And like Norma, that dream causes Diane to completely forget who she is as a human being—and, ultimately, take out her lover. The delusion in Sunset Boulevard exists purely in Norma’s head. But in Mulholland Drive, we see that delusion play out in the form of Betty.
Then consider Sunset Boulevard, a famous thoroughfare that connects Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Much like Mulholland Drive, many famous people (such as George Lucas, Jennifer Aniston, Ronald Reagan) have lived on Sunset Boulevard. And much like Mulholland Drive, the road has become a pop culture symbol of everything that is glorious about Hollywood—which is why Billy Wilder chose to explore the dark underbelly of that illustrious boulevard.
Important motifs in Mulholland Drive
Lynch cites Sunset Boulevard—a movie about a delusional woman in Hollywood who commits a murder after losing her mind—as a huge inspiration for the Mulholland Drive. In many ways, Lynch is updating that classic film’s damning commentary about the Hollywood Dream and the adverse affect it can have on aspiring actors.
There are several other references to the unforgiving nature of Hollywood. Lynch names Camilla’s character “Rita” in the dream sequence. This is a reference to the actress Rita Hayworth, who also had a contentious relationship with Hollywood. Also, the movie is called Mulholland Drive, which is a famous road in California where many famous people have lived and many people have died in car crashes.
Red & Blue
There are two colors you’ll see consistently throughout the film: red and blue. In Mulholland Drive, red is often associated with fantasy and the promise of Hollywood, while blue represents reality and your failed dreams. Pay attention to the characters and situations associated with those colors. Those instances tell us a lot about Betty and the trajectory of her journey.
The most notable instance of color blue as a motif is the blue key, which serves as the pathway between fiction and reality. At some point, Diane must confront her reality and the terrible decisions she’s made. While a striking use of red is the red pillow and red lampshade, which both rest in Diane’s room. The pillow is where she lays down to have her dream, and her
By the end of the movie, several characters will have swapped names, roles, and identities. These shifts tell us something about each of the characters (specifically Betty) and the movie’s main commentary on the “dream” associated with Hollywood—a place where actors regularly pretend to be people they aren’t. To deal with the trauma of missing out on her Hollywood dreams, Betty herself dreams a life where she can make it as an actress and save Rita at the same time. It’s a fantasy life she wishes to escape into—but that’s not reality. Her real life and fantasy life blend together, just like a movie.
Read more about the characters’ multiple identities here.
The Monster Behind the Dumpster/The Homeless Person
Early on in the movie, there’s a terrifying sequence that involves a homeless person/monster that lives behind the dumpster at Winkie’s. Notice how their introductory scene is associated with nightmares. As we’ll eventually discover, most of the movie we’re watching is a dream that, in the end, becomes a nightmare. As this character continues to pop up throughout the movie, they will come to represent the separation of dreams (aka the promise of the “Hollywood Dream”) from nightmares (aka the reality of the “Hollywood Dream”).
Questions & answers about Mulholland Drive
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.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Mulholland Drive? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!