The arrival of a new season of Feud brought with it much excitement for me, at least far more than one would expect from a board-certified Ryan Murphy skeptic. The story of Truman Capote’s fall from social grace felt like an ideal opportunity to tackle myriad themes of gender, class, queerness, and American society on the dawn of a new era. You can read my review in the link above for my full write-up (spoiler: I liked it, but it is spotty.) Mostly, I admit, I was excited to see Naomi Watts, an actress I love, get a role worthy of her largely under-utilized talent. As Babe Paley, the queen of Capote’s so-called swans, she is regal, heartbreaking, and charismatic, the epitome of the elite figure stuck in a gilded cage and expected to be nothing more than a trophy. Frankly, I felt almost relieved watching Feud and seeing Watts actually be given something to do. How are such instances so uncommon for an undeniable powerhouse of the field?
When asked what I believe to be the greatest film performance of all time, I offer my answer quickly and confidently: Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. There are few films I remember watching for the first time with the clarity that I do for David Lynch’s masterpiece. I bought it on DVD for about £4 from HMV with no knowledge of Lynch’s work. It just had a cool box and five stars from Empire Magazine so I knew it must be good. Of course, I was not prepared for what would follow, but suffice to say, it changed my life.
As a naïve teenager who had no experience with the Lynchian realms, I had to learn how to watch his work. That meant grappling with the performance of Naomi Watts, our protagonist who plays (or does she?!) a wide-eyed all-American gal who moves to Hollywood to become a star. When she is first introduced to the audience, arriving at the airport with a spring in her step and a Pollyanna-esque smile, I wondered why this performance seemed so off. It was… bad? Surely, it wasn’t good acting, right? It seemed so artificial, so by-golly-gumdrops and out of step with the darkness that had preceded it. But then that moment comes where you wake up and realize what’s happening (or don’t because this is a David Lynch film and easy solutions and narrative closure aren’t his thing.) Then, I realized, that what Naomi Watts was doing was truly phenomenal. I hadn’t seen anything like it as a 15-year-old. I simply did not know that actors could or were allowed to do that.
Since then, I’ve been an eager fan of Watts. She’s one of the few actors working today whose career I have a curious personal investment in. That’s a difficult situation for any person given that no actor, regardless of talent and opportunity, has a perfect filmography to their name. Everyone has flops, failed chances, and big swings that simply missed the mark. Even Daniel Day-Lewis did Nine. Watts, sadly, doesn’t seem to be doing the kinds of projects I and many others think she is capable and deserving of. It’s almost a joke to some, with many in Film Twitter circles seeing her as the recipient of Nicole Kidman’s cast-offs (the pair are actually good friends.)
Watts always seems to sign onto the ‘right’ project, at least on paper. She’s worked with notable directors, often in their follow-ups to breakout work, where the hype is at its peak. She landed the leading female role in Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated remake of King Kong, which performed solidly but wasn’t exactly elevated to masterpiece status. Ideas that seem right in theory, like a biopic of Princess Diana, fall apart in execution. Blockbuster darling Colin Trevorrow cast her in his return to his indie roots… but that film was The Book of Henry. For every acclaimed experience with a beloved auteur at the top of their game — David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises — there are as many misfires — Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. Yet there’s this sense among many film lovers that Watts’ career is in irreparable shape, even when her acting is acclaimed and moments of quiet brilliance, such as the drama Luce, sneak up on us.
Watts has the range, there’s no doubt about that, but her best work has come from descents into the unreal, preferably directed by Mr. Lynch himself. As well as Mulholland Drive, she stole the show in Twin Peaks: The Return as Dale Cooper’s accidental wife. It’s a performance, much like Lynch’s magnum opus, that defies categorization. Is it soap opera? Actual opera? Parody? Comedy? Drama? It’s a surprisingly cohesive amalgamation of it all! She’s the straight woman, in part, to Dale’s catatonic Dougie, but she’s also a woman of immense emotional strain (seriously, if she’s not more surprised by her husband suddenly forgetting how to be a person, what else is going on in her life?) In a series loaded with impeccable actors playing total oddities, Watts ends up being the beating heart at the warped center of it all. She’s familiar, even while drenched in strangeness. Her character seems keenly aware of the Lynch ethos, perhaps more than anyone else in Twin Peaks: The Return. Either you’re with it or you’re not, but either way, trying to question it all is futile so get on with it.
This is what makes Watts so intriguing as an actress, but also perfect as a star of horror. Aside from Mulholland Drive, her mainstream breakout role in the early 2000s came in Gore Verbinski’s surprisingly good remake of The Ring. Befitting a Lynch star, her scream is bloodcurdlingly perfect. She has the allure of a woman who can be believably steely in the face of danger yet convey terror without descending into helplessness. To see her transform from sturdy to decimated is an endless thrill. My kingdom for a Watts/Ari Aster collaboration.
Watts is now 55, still going in a business that took far too long to accept that women mustn’t disappear from the public eye once they turn 35. Things are incrementally improving but it still feels as though the lion’s share of juicy, complex, and radical roles for older women go to a mere handful of performers, and Watts is sadly not among them (come on, it can’t all be Kidman, as prolific as she is.) I cannot help but hunger for Watts to get a role as good as her one in Mulholland Drive, one so seismic that it rearranges our understanding of what a great performance can do. When you give the greatest performance of all time, it’s only fair that you get at least a few more opportunities to live up to that. Come on, David Lynch, just one more project. Do it for Naomi…