“I believe Lynch is a talented director, and that in ‘Blue Velvet’ he has used his talent in an unworthy way. The movie is powerful, challenging and made with great skill, and yet it made me feel pity for the actors who worked in it and anger at the director for taking liberties with them.”
- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, October 2nd 1986
In 1986, in the middle of the Ronald Reagan conservative America era, David Lynch released “Blue Velvet”, a film portraying a seedy, surrealistic underside of suburbia. Voyeurism, masochism, drug abuse, murder.
In it, a young man named Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) happens upon a severed human ear in an abandoned lot in his neighborhood. After bringing it to the police, Beaumont begins his own investigation. The daughter of the detective he brought the ear to (Laura Dern) points him in the direction of a woman in town the police are suspicious of, a chanteuse named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). As he investigates her, he stumbles on to a bizarre, eye-opening world full of drugs, sex and violence.
At the heart of which is a man named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Booth is a violent, sexually deviant man who frequently utilizes a portable tank and gas mask to huff an undisclosed gas – presumably Amyl Nitrite or Nitrous Oxide. Booth is involved in organized crime and is blackmailing Vallens… for sexual favors.
MacLachlan’s Beaumont is a wide-eyed innocent as the story begins, stumbling upon a small thing, signifying great horror, and his curiosity not allowing him to let it go.
The film portrays suburban America as a veneer over a rotting core of deviance. As if the severed ear was a tiny scab over a major wound. Jeffrey picks it up and it becomes a portal to a world he’d never imagined… right up the street, behind closed doors. There, people act out; mingling sex, drugs and violence. The easy to draw inference is that such an underside exists in every neighborhood. Beneath the Norman Rockwell posturing, behind the white picket fences, lies an aggressive, pent-up, angry layer of kink.
There’s also a considerable amount of sexual fear portrayed. Beaumont and Sandy (Dern’s character) have a quaint, almost 1950s style innocent relationship. She has a beau, they talk about life in the car… but the world Beaumont peers into through Vallens’ closet is a darkly sexual one. He winds up being dragged into it, himself. And he’s certainly not unafraid. To me, there’s a great deal of symbolism revolving around sexual maturation there. From the innocent into the knowing. Ahead lies a confusing world, Beaumont doesn’t wish to “hurt” Vallens… in spite of her requests. As sick as it is, Booth and Vallens are always using “Mommy” and “Daddy” sexually. It’s a portrait of a period of change, in a way. Our hero fears and doesn’t understand the adult sexual acts, and takes a frightened, only semi-willing step into adulthood. The fears revolving around sexual maturity, as symbolized here via the grotesque.
This is David Lynch’s vision of a noir tale. “Blue Velvet” takes noir conventions that audiences were comfortable with, and uses them to tell a bizarre story involving violent, foul-mouthed, perverse characters and discomforting themes. And of course, it’s also populated with Lynch’s trademarked odd flourishes. Lobotomized cops, a lip syncing pimp in makeup, an overweight hooker dancing atop a car, full nudity, close-ups of insects, phony looking mechanical birds.
Lynch was coming off of “Dune”, a critical failure and a massive bomb at the box office. “Dune” received scathing reviews from critics, and failed to recoup its $40 million budget (for comparative purposes, “Return of the Jedi”, released a year earlier, cost $32.5 million).
So, “Blue Velvet” was a return to smaller, more personal films for him. In fact, several scenes (including Rossellini walking totally naked down the street) were based on Lynch’s actual personal experience. Lynch, who is also a painter, admits that the script came together in fragmented fashion. He had ideas for scenes… images. The severed ear, spying from a closet revealing a mystery, the aforementioned naked woman… then he worked until he could bring them together as a story, a process that took several attempts.
He had a supporter in producer Dino De Laurentiis. Even then, however, Lynch was restricted to a strict budget ($6 mil). In exchange, he arranged final cut (via a handshake agreement), and the actors worked for reduced pay in order to come in on target.
It helped that Lynch went with relative unknowns and smaller stars. Isabella Rossellini was appearing in only her second film. The daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini was better known as a model at the time. MacLachlan was the lead in Lynch’s “Dune”, but as mentioned earlier, the film had been a flop. Though she had been acting as a child Dern hadn’t yet turned 20… and “Blue Velvet” was easily her biggest role to date.
The film’s biggest star was Dennis Hopper.
I’d used drugs and alcohol so long as an acting device that I was really sort of terrified of acting again. But I went back to basic Lee Strasberg and it worked much better than anything I’d been doing before. – Dennis Hopper, 2002
Hopper was fresh out of rehab, and in need of career rejuvenation. In spite of being advised against it by his representatives, Hopper insisted on taking the controversial role of Frank Booth. Hopper believed that Lynch was an important director, and that working with him would bring high-profile exposure. He was correct. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics would all fete him for the part. It would become the signature role of his career.
It wasn’t easy, however. Frank Booth was both violent and strange. He was constantly cursing, he raped Rossellini’s character while stuffing his mouth with her robe, and did lots of drugs. Notably gas. Per Hopper, Lynch initially intended the gas was initially to be helium. Hopper suggested that the gas be drugs, instead. He claims to have been proud of that contribution for years, until it struck him at one point just how psychotic and strange it would have been to have the character walking around simply changing his voice.
In order to get the film into theaters, De Laurentiis had to set up his own distribution company. No one else was willing to distribute it. The film’s widest release was 113 theaters, nationwide.
At the time of its release, though many critics hailed it, others reviled it (as evidenced by the Roger Ebert quote in the lead). It drew a great deal of controversy for its scandalous content, but developed a following when it hit home video.
It has since earned a reputation as one of the greatest cult films of all time. AFI selected Frank Booth the #36 villain on their 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains, their listing of the 50 greatest heroes and villains. They also chose “Blue Velvet” as the eighth best film in the mystery genre in their “Top Ten” series. This last August, on Sight & Sound latest list of the 250 greatest films of all time, “Blue Velvet” came in at #69.
It’s a challenging film from one of the most odd, visionary directors there is. It’s full of twisted characters and a dark plot, but is also overflowing with talking points and themes to ruminate on. It’s one of the most legendary cult films of all time.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.