David Lynch a master of conjuring uncanny, dreamy atmosphere, of terrifying viewers with films that aren’t quite horror movies, of blending genres into swirling nightmares that defy pat analysis. This is the stuff of which the term “Lynchian” is made. But let’s not forget that he is also an expert conductor of actresses and actors, and he has superb taste in them despite his cheeky use of specimens like Billy Ray Cyrus every now and then. The emotional and logical demands of a David Lynch script require remarkably talented interpreters and very often result in thoroughly unique, flat-out stunning performances. Here are ten of the greatest.
1. Jack Nance as Henry Spencer in Eraserhead
Jack Nance would deserve a place on this list if for nothing but his commitment. Eraserhead famously took five years to make as Lynch kept running out of money. That meant Nance had to both remain in character for five years and wear Henry Spencer’s—ummm—distinctive hair style for five years. Nance’s work in the film is far more than that though. With a bare minimum of dialogue, he relies on his subtly expressive face and masterfully controlled body language to convey the real emotion roiling away beneath Henry’s placid surface as he contends with his monstrous, mocking baby. The slightest smile conveys a flash of fatherly pride, the upturn of eyebrows conveys his despondency with his lot in life, his restful expression at the end of the film let’s us know that he finally feels loved, and it is a most moving climax. And when Nance does speak, his choked delivery draws out the film’s humor and sadness with expert balance. Lynch regards Nance as one of the most expert actors with whom he’s ever worked and handed roles in almost all of his films to Nance until the actor’s death in 1996.
2. Freddie Jones as Bytes in The Elephant Man
Control is also the dominant acting style in Lynch’s second and first truly mainstream film. The Elephant Man is home to several truly fine performances of carefully calibrated emotion and steadfast dignity. Anthony Hopkins is great as the mentoring Dr. Treves, and John Hurt accomplishes the nearly unthinkable by transmitting all of John Merrick’s humanity from under a face-paralyzing makeup job. Yet Freddie Jones is the actor most likely to steal a scene by essentially parodying all the stiff-upper-lip-ness of The Elephant Man. Carnival curator Bytes is an utterly undignified man desperately attempting to emit dignity, trembling with anger, drunkenness, and desire. As cruel as he is to John Merrick, we also get the sense that he may love him a little too, that he harbors a deep fear of being left alone by the man he so wickedly mistreats. This does not forgive Bytes’s villainy, but it helps us understand him a little and humanizes a character that does unthinkably inhuman things. Some of that was probably on the page, but so much of it is due to a brilliant, brilliant performance by Freddie Jones.
3. Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet
In Blue Velvet, Lynch created a villain even more repellant than Bytes. As embodied by Dennis Hopper, Frank Booth is a truly vile individual: rapist, murderer, torturer, drug dealer, noxious gas huffer. But even more explicitly than Bytes, he is driven by a twisted notion of love. He does much of what he does because he is in love with Dorothy Vallens. We see this in the tortured expression on his face while he listens to Roy Orbison’s powerfully romantic “In Dreams” and in the lovelorn look he gives Dorothy as she serenades the patrons of the Slow Club while he strokes a piece of blue velvet clipped from her robe. Of course, that twisted love does not excuse the horrible things he does to Dorothy and her family, which make Frank a Lynch villain only trumped by Killer BOB in terms of pure evil. Hopper fully committed to both the wayward romanticism and the evil of Frank Booth, making him a fully complex villain.
4. Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet
From villain to victim, Dorothy Vallens is an equally complicated person. Just as Frank’s concept of love is twisted, she is twisted by his concept, finding an uncomfortable level of pleasure in his mistreatment. As he plays baby and daddy during their weird sex games, she plays the abuser and the abused when she finds young Jeffrey Beaumont hiding in her closet. It’s a dicey role, and the only way to approach it is to dive right into the deep end, and that’s precisely what Isabella Rossellini does. With just a few acting jobs under her belt, she delivers a performance of utter commitment and utter mastery. Dorothy is heartbreaking when cowering beneath Frank or appearing nude and beaten on Jeffrey’s front lawn. She is also terrifying when she first discovers him and wields a kitchen knife to keep him in line. She derails the artificially happy ending of the film with a look that says she will forever be haunted by her harrowing experiences. As realized by Isabella Rossellini, Dorothy Vallens is David Lynch’s first completely multifaceted female character. As we shall see, many more will follow.
5. Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper in “Twin Peaks”
In Blue Velvet, Kyle MacLachlan was Jeffrey Beaumont, the college boy who might have been a pervert or might have been a detective. There’s nothing perverted about master detective Dale Cooper, an unashamed embodiment of everything good. He is the polar opposite of a Bytes or a Frank Booth, a character who could have been nothing more than a cartoon good guy as those other characters could have been cartoon bad guys. Kyle MacLachlan makes Agent Cooper flesh and blood, a romantic, a sensualist, a paragon of morality even when tempted by the very tempting Audrey Horne. MacLachlan delights in the role with each sip of damn fine coffee and each bite of heavenly cherry pie. He is the Lynch character you’d most want to protect you… or maybe just share a meal with you. I can’t imagine another actor playing him with as much enthusiasm and nuance as Kyle MacLachlan. That we never got to see where the actor would take his creation next after undergoing a shocking transformation in the final moments of “Twin Peaks” is one of the tragedies of the show’s early cancellation.
6. Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer in “Twin Peaks”
With a cast as vast as that of “Twin Peaks” there’s a lot of room for great performances. Among the finest are those of Ray Wise, Sherilyn Fenn, Piper Laurie, Michael Ontkean, Madchen Amick, and Dana Ashbrook. But my vote for most undervalued player goes to Grace Zabriskie. As Laura Palmer’s mother, Sarah, Zabriskie was riveting. TV has always been littered with corpses, but we rarely felt the consequences and grief of death as we did when Sarah first intuited her daughter’s death while on the phone with husband, Leland. Her shriek is without artifice. As her husband seems to get a semblance of his old self back over the course of the series, Zabriskie plays out Sarah Palmer as a husk. Even when matters are not focused on Laura, we can always detect the sadness echoing inside of Sarah. It is a devastated performance, and quite a contrast from the wacko Grace Zabriskie played in Wild at Heart during a break in making “Twin Peaks”.
7. Laura Dern as Lula Pace Fortune in Wild at Heart
Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch’s most heightened films. Its Southern gothic landscape is populated by such almost-over-the-top oddballs as Elvis worshipping Sailor Ripley, awful mom Marietta Fortune, black angel Bobby Peru, and Christmas-o-phile Jingle Dell, a guy who really likes the way cockroaches feel in his underwear. Dell’s cousin is Lula, who is introduced as another strange item with her Marilyn Monroe, sex-kitten act. As the film rolls along, Lula emerges as its most fully human character (with the possible exception of Harry Dean Stanton’s Johnnie Faragut). As things get grim for Sailor and Lula, her façade drops, and Laura Dern’s acting prowess bursts through. We realize the talent necessary to transition from Lula’s self-assured sexiness early in the film to the sadness and difficult decision making that complicates her character toward the end. Dern remains one of Lynch’s very favorite actresses, and he’d spotlight her with something approaching awe many years later with INLAND EMPIRE.
8. Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
On the “Twin Peaks” series, Sheryl Lee got to make a few enticing appearances in flashbacks as Laura Palmer but did the bulk of her work as Laura’s identical cousin Maddie. In the prequel feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, she finally got to really play the character for which she is most famous. Although Lee is clearly too mature to be playing a high school girl, she delivers a performance so layered that no other actress could have been more right for the job. Laura is simultaneously a good-hearted teenager working for the Meals on Wheels program, a jaded prostitute and drug addict, a caring friend, a passionate girlfriend (to two guys, of course), a beaten-down victim of sexual abuse, and a master manipulator. Lee plays each layer of Laura Palmer perfectly, uniting all those various facets into a believable whole. Many have denounced Fire Walk with Me as too lurid and bizarre, but the film would rise above such gripes if only for Sheryl Lee’s riveting work. The rest of the movie is actually pretty great too.
9. Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight in The Straight StoryFrom one of the most off-the-hook starring performances in a Lynch film to the single most reserved one. The Straight Story is a very different film for the director, and even he couldn’t quite see himself making it at first. But its screenwriter and Lynch’s then girlfriend Mary Sweeney convinced him to do it. The result is a most unexpected collaboration between the director of Eraserhead and Disney. Now that’s bizarre! The Straight Story is not completely unrecognizable as a David Lynch film, but this true story about a man who travels from Iowa to Wisconsin on a riding mower to see his ailing and estranged brother lacks most of Lynch’s “weird” hallmarks. So does Richard Farnsworth, the everyman who plays Alvin Straight. This is a return to the reserved dignity of Lynch’s other true story, The Elephant Man, but more so than that film’s heroes, Farnsworth allows us to see flashes of his character’s darker side, his regrets, even his anger. These emotions never boil over; he never becomes Frank Booth. However we can always see them on his face, sense them turning over in his brain even when he’s just piloting his John Deere down a long stretch of road for what seems like forever.
10. Naomi Watts as Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Dr.The setting of Mulholland Dr. is ostensibly Hollywood. As the film unfolds, we come to learn that the real landscape is a psychological one. Naïve, beautiful ingénue Betty has traveled from Ontario to L.A. to make it big in the movies. When she meets sexy but damaged amnesiac Rita, Betty discovers that delving into a real-life mystery and striking up a romantic relationship with her new friend are more rewarding and exciting than any role in a fictional film. But then Betty’s concept of reality crumbles and it becomes apparent that everything we’ve seen up until this point was a dream. Betty is no aspiring starlet. She’s not even a Betty. She’s hardened, failed actress Diane Selwyn, and Rita is actually her former lover, Camilla Rhodes, who has decided to pass her by in favor of a career-furthering marriage to director Adam Kesher. The transformation of sweet Betty into seething Diane halfway through Mulholland Dr. is utterly crushing. Part of this power derives from Lynch’s direction and script, but a great deal of the credit must go to Naomi Watts. When I first saw Mulholland Dr., I thought, “Gee, she’s cute, but she’s not a very good actress” as Watts enters the film as the kind of two-dimensional “I’m gonna be a big star!” rube one might see in a thirties musical. Then came the famed movie-audition scene, which forced me to completely reevaluate that opinion. Lynch obviously intended the revelation that goofy Betty is actually a superb actress to be a shock, but that surprise would have fallen flat completely had Watts not been able to shift gears so radically while remaining true to the character she’d already established. After waking from her Betty-dream to become the character’s true self, Diane, Watts shifts again to stunning effect. She really had a lot to tackle in this film, metamorphosing from a sweet and naïve starlet to a deft actress to a cagey Nancy Drew-wannabe to an open-minded and uninhibited lover to a jilted, jaded woman at the end of her rope. I would say that Naomi Watts gives the best performance in a David Lynch film if that didn’t completely underestimate what she actually accomplishes in Mulholland Dr.: it’s the finest acting I’ve ever seen.