Movies That Everyone Should See: “Blue Velvet”

“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

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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.

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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.

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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“.

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42 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Blue Velvet”

  1. I’m not the biggest fan of Lynch’s, but I do like this one a lot because it’s weird, strange, mysterious, but also, a pretty good piece of acting where we really see Hopper just let loose like we have always loved from him. Probably my favorite from Lynch, even if that isn’t saying much. Good review my man.

    • Thanks Dan! I understand where you’re coming from, especially since Lynch tends to have so many people that are either hardcore fans or who hate what he does.

      This one though is definitely a stand out. It IS strange and mysterious, lol. To put it lightly. :) And Hopper is off the chain… He’s just ridiculous here!

      Thanks for chiming in Dan-O!

    • Yeahhhhh… in all honesty, I’m expecting mixed results here myself. LOL. So I can totally see that, Tom.

      Its challenging. There’s no doubt. And a lot of people wont “get it”, thus that’s going to turn into backlash… but still, a really great flick, and something everyone should give a shot to. :D

  2. Yet another very fine inclusion Fogs. I’m a big Lynch fan and this is certainly one of his finest moments. Dean Stockwell’s Roy Orbison scene still sticks in my mind to this day. Marvellously deranged stuff. :-)

    • Yeah, totally.

      Something to consider for your Tuesday Trivia… That scene was supposed to be filmed with a regular microphone, but Stockwell was goofing around with the work light while they were setting up the set. Lynch saw and green-lit the change! :D

      It absolutely shifts that scene to a whole new level. A standard mic makes that scene so ordinary in comparison. Lol

    • Thanks Vinnie! I like the fact that that opening scene is almost a suburban parody, you know? with the waving fireman and the literal white picket fences. LOL

      It sure goes darker places, though doesnt it? :)

  3. This one belongs in the MTESS lexicon. I ‘ve sat though so many Lynch works waiting for something to make sense of it all. Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Inland Empire. All shit, or junk if you prefer. Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart are the two that work for Lynchs’ bizarre surrealism. Reminds me of Pulp Fiction for its’ unusual sense of character and place. Wonder if Tarantino was influenced at all by “Blue…”? Great review as always. Nice photo pics, especially Isabella!

    • I was actually thinking of that. WOW. Seriously, that is freaking freaky. Lynch’s characters are all oddball and offbeat… while Tarantino’s are almost hyperstylized badasses. But they both create worlds where no one is “normal”, you know? Everyone is some degree of special, or memorable in some way. WOW. That is way too coincidental… knock it off. LOL

  4. Blue Velvet is probably one of my favorite Lynch films, along with Wild At Heart, and Twin Peaks-Fire With with Me, 3 movies that dare to delve behind the curtain of the great fucked up Oz! That reminds me, I haven’t seen this for some time, I must buy on blu-ray! I’ve been watching too many kid orientated films for sure!
    And they say the 80’s were boring? not a chance, you just needed to know where to look…. Wild at Heart, and weird on top…. indeed

    • Ha. Yeah, Nik, lol. You cant call ANYTHING boring if you’re judging it with this movie in mind. LOL. This flick is really out there!

      I watched it on Blu, it looks great. The special feature have all these deleted scenes, supposedly like an hours worth… I didnt did into those, but I imagine for some people they’d have some allure.

      But, yeah, this is definitely not one to watch with kids!! :D

  5. Fogs, I’m a big David Lynch fan and like most of his work, even the crazier stuff like Inland Empire and Lost Highway. Even so, I’m not a big fan of Blue Velvet. There are moments that I enjoy, but it was underwhelming for me. I will say that it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so it’s possible that my opinion might change with another viewing. I should probably check it out again. It’s probably been 10 years or more since I’ve seen it.

    • Wow… I guess I was just under the impression that most Lynch fans either liked this or Mulholland drive the best! Verrrry interesting.

      Its cool, this is a really kind of… divisive flick. Its very violent, very odd, and its definitely not going to be for everyone. If you do get around to checking it out again, I hope you like it better! :D

  6. I haven’t seen too many David Lynch’s work but I actually have seen this one. Believe it or not I don’t remember much about it so I don’t know if I enjoyed it or not, ahah. It is rather odd though, but what do you expect from Lynch :)

    • Definitely is a strange one, no doubt. Surprising you dont recall that much about it one way or the other, must have been a while ago. I’d think its such an odd, shocking film that it would wind up being memorable. Not always though huh?

      Oh well. :D

  7. Fantastic choice. Blue Velvet is one of the best films of the 1980s (in my view, Frank Booth is the single best screen villain of that decade, edging out Clarence Boddicker). It galls me to read Roger Ebert’s unimaginative whining above, but I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. I first saw Blue Velvet when I was 16-years-old and I remember it putting a genuine knot of fear in my gut at times (especially when Jeffrey and Booth first meet). It freaked people out at the time for being simultaneously surreal and too real, in terms of the sexual violence, and in that sense alone remains an astonishing accomplishment. David Lynch is one of the greatest living American filmmakers, without a doubt.
    (I own Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive t-shirts, to give you an impression of where I’m coming from on this).

    • LOL thinking of Clarence Boddicker as best villain… cmonnnnn :D

      Booth is probably, though.

      You know, Ebert was old guard. I kind of understand where he’s coming from even though I dont agree. I’ve had the benefit of this movie being able to grow on me, you know? Im not sure what I would have said if I had to have a review up a couple days after I first saw it.

      Well, it would probably be “WOW” lol, but… :D

      This movie IS surreal and freaky… I can totally see where half the people would be running for the door, you know? Of course, those of us that arent see the awesomeness.

      I guess you are a big fan, huh? Thats alright, Lynch is worthy.

      • It’s more than alright!

        And Clarence Boddicker was a phenomenal screen villain. Disagree? Come at me, bro!

      • All set. ;) No worries.

        Meanwhile, Boddicker was fine, sure. But I wouldn’t have to go far to point out he didn’t register much with people… I bet 7 out of ten people wouldn’t be able to name what movie he was from, if just given the name…

        Best or greatest needs to make more of an impression for me, you know?

        Booth is much more notorious. And more memorable, too. Far more unique, stands out more in the great crowd of villains if you will.

  8. You know, I’m a fan of Blue Velvet, and I enjoy most Lynch films. I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan, and this movie was clearly the thematic progenitor of that show. And Hopper’s Frank Booth is sensational.

    That said, I don’t know if it quite rises to my own MTESS list. In fact, just for Lynch films I’d probably put The Elephant Man and Mulholland Drive ahead of it as to what I would recommend to a movie muggle.

    • Movie muggles should be molded into movie wizards. :D Thus, they should see “Blue Velvet”.

      It has a higher place in pop culture than the other two, if nothing else. Mulholland Dr may see its day in this series too eventually, I have to double check. Been wayyyyyy too long since I’ve seen “Elephant Man” I don’t recall anything except what he looked like…

      • I guess it’s a question of why you want to introduce a movie to a muggle in the first place. There’s a lot of great movies out there. Movies That Everyone Should See IMO should be the ones that, if someone doesn’t see them, they simply miss out on “getting things”.

        And I know, that limits the number of movies, making this series of blogposts somewhat short.

        Also, you should revisit The Elephant Man. :)

  9. But wait… if everybody sees it… is it still a cult film? :D

    Anyway, this one is on my list, even though I’m not sure if it’s one I’ll wind up liking or not. But I appreciate the great write-up regardless, since really all I knew of the film was the old Far Side cartoon captioned “[Family name] learn the hard way that Blue Velvet is not the sequel to National Velvet.”

    • Thanks Dave, personally I dont know that I’d hane it that particular crown, myself, but I’d have no problem with it being in the discussion.

      Definitely is interesting seeing the wide variety of opinions its drawing… :)

  10. She wore bluuuuuuuuuue velvet…

    Great choice, man. I saw this earlier this year for my project and loved it. It has my new favorite movie quote:

  11. Hi, Fogs and company:

    Lynch specializes in the weird and off putting. And this film covers that in spades! With Dennis Hopper, who made a cottage industry out of being Weirdness Personified. Along with Kyle MacLachlan as a young novitiate to that arena.

    I saw the film when it first hit the big screen and really don’t have a desire to see it again. Good topic of discussion, though.

    • Lynch’s penchant for the weird and off putting “put you off”, huh? LOL :)

      Its understandable. Definitely.

      Hey, It’s “Movies that Eveyone Should See”. Not “Movies That Everyone Should Rewatch Annually” LOL :D So, having seen it, you’re all set! ;)

  12. Pingback: Blue Velvet | The Soul of the Plot

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