Lula Pace Fortune and Sailor Ripley’s romance is the greatest love story ever told. For me at least. I never had any desire to see Wild at Heart; in fact, I was in my late twenties before I saw it for the first time, by chance, on late night television. It was released and won the Palme d’Or in 1990, and Lynch famously left the set of Twin Peaks to make this movie.
I am glad I waited as it became one of my most beloved films, with Lula being somewhat of a kindred spirit. There is no doubt that this is one of Lynch’s most straightforward movies. By the time I saw Wild at Heart my mind was very adept at trying to work out every little moment of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, not to mention Twin Peaks that I had obsessed over for years (and still do). So it was a bit of a shock to the system for me when I could just lay back and soak it up without feeling like I’d been set an exam. The story is based on the novel by Barry Gifford, who co-wrote the script for the movie with Lynch, which is perhaps why there is little to interpret or theorise over. But as this is Lynch Night, I am going to take a look at what the Director brought to the silver screen to make this story his own.
Unlike most of Lynch’s other movies it moves fast along the highway. No darkly brooding, tension building scenes here. No, we are flung with almost cartoon-like ferocity straight into the deep end from the very beginning. Even the opening titles arrive with a slam of WILD!… AT!… HEART! against a backdrop of flames. You can tell he wanted to have a lot of fun with this; perhaps it not being his story gave him some freedom to unleash his wild side.
Follow the yellow brick road
Let’s start with the most obvious addition by Lynch. He is notoriously a great fan of The Wizard of Oz, and with Wild at Heart, he was able to combine two stories he loved, in some more obvious ways than others.
Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) & Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) are a couple crazy in love. Their love may be crazy but it is the sanest part of their world. Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd), Lula’s mother, is a woman possessed by jealousy and the need to domineer everyone in her life. She does not want her daughter to be with Sailor; she will do everything in her power to stop them, including having Sailor killed. As soon as Sailor gets out of prison on parole for the manslaughter of Bob Ray Lemon – the first person Marietta pays to kill Sailor – the lovebirds begin their journey along the yellow brick road to find their Emerald City – in this case, Big Tuna, Texas – with a few stops along the way.
Marietta is portrayed throughout the movie as the Wicked Witch, travelling alongside them on her broomstick, gazing into a crystal ball, keeping an eye on the pair on the run. As they get further away from her and she realises the implications of what she’s done by setting gangster Marcelles Santos on their trail, which will inevitably lead to the torture and murder of Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), her sweet, kind lover. Marietta starts to fall apart, perhaps through guilt, but probably more through fear as she will become Santos’ property. She famously covers her entire face in lipstick in a moment of psychosis, vomits in the toilet, and sits bedraggled on the bathroom floor. Her pointy shoes remind us not to pity her at this moment; this is all her own doing.
A perhaps less noticeable hint to OZ is the colour that bleeds through the film. Every sex scene between Lula & Sailor is tinted; first red, then orange, then pink, until their final, most passionate and climactic session pushes them through all the colours of the rainbow. Marietta’s makeup also mimics this, her lipstick and nail polish colours change in every scene, she wears the horror of the thought of Sailor getting his ‘filthy hands’ on her baby literally across her face.
…and weird on top
As always Lynch adds absurdity to this film, with particularly memorable scenes of George Kovich (Freddie Jones) excitable, Munchkin-voiced bar patron that Lula & Sailor bump into on their travels. In the deleted scenes George will tell us all about his dislike for pigeons. Then there’s Lula’s cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), who we see in several post-coital flashbacks, with Lula telling Sailor about her crazy cousin’s antics. It appears that these scenes were added purely for ‘weirdness’, but in the deleted footage his character is developed further; rather disturbingly, it is Dell who is father to Lula’s baby that she has aborted. In the final cut, it is suggested that she became pregnant after being raped by Uncle Pooch aged 13. (For more info on the deleted scenes see here).
Take a bite of Peaks
Lynch borrowed cast members from many of his previous works as he always does, in particular here reuniting Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini from Blue Velvet. But there is an overwhelming number of Twin Peaks actors in Wild at Heart, most notably Grace Zabriskie who plays Juana Durango, the terrifying, voodooesque, leader of the gang hired by Mr Reindeer to torture and kill Johnnie Farragut. Juana is mother to Perdita Durango (Rossellini) an ‘old friend’ of Sailor’s, which suggests he has a penchant for women with psychopathic mothers.
David Patrick Kelly is also part of the crazy, murderous trio playing Dropshadow. Jack Nance makes a cameo as OO Spool, Frances Bay as the Madam of Mr Reindeer’s ladies of the night. Sherilyn Fenn stars memorably as ‘Girl in an Accident’, and Sheryl Lee plays a role so perfect for her sweetness, ‘The Good Witch’.
There are some other links to Twin Peaks. In the scenes at Mr Reindeer’s house, a violin instrumental version of “My Prayer” by The Platters plays. This will be used during the ‘Got a Light?’ skull crushing Woodsman scene in Part 8 and during the Coop/Diane (or is it Richard/Linda?) sex scene in Series 3. I would guess then that this is a favourite song of Lynch’s or its use in Twin Peaks was a homage to Wild at Heart, as, indeed, references from all of Lynch’s previous works were used throughout The Return.
Then there’s Lula. She’s not like Laura Palmer, but there are elements of her in her character, as I’m sure there are in all of us. They had similarly difficult childhoods; abused from a young age, both with, it would turn out, very troubling mothers. Lula doesn’t keep a diary but she does relay her thoughts daily to Sailor. She doesn’t need a response from him when she tells him her secrets; she just needs to get them out there. She doesn’t want him to go nuts, offer her pity or even comfort; she just needs him to understand her. Once they are shared with the one person she trusts, they are not such a burden anymore.
Love Me Tender
The major alteration Lynch made from the book to the movie was that he gave Sailor & Lula a happy ending. In the book, Sailor walks away from Lula, and that’s it. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Lynch talking about writing the script in 1990.
“[The first draft was] depressing and pretty much devoid of happiness, and no one wanted to make it. It honestly didn’t seem real, considering the way they felt about each other. It didn’t seem one bit real! It had a certain coolness, but I couldn’t see it.” The ending was then altered to have Glinda the Good Witch come in and talk some sense into Sailor, convincing him to go back to Lula and raise their child together. “It was an awful tough world and there was something about Sailor being a rebel. But a rebel with a dream of the Wizard of Oz is kinda like a beautiful thing.”
That is what makes Wild at Heart my favourite love story. It is Lynch’s vision of true love. He, like me, didn’t believe that a love as strong as Lula and Sailor’s could be broken that easily, not after everything they went through.
Lynch stuck pretty much to the book when bringing Sailor and Lula to life. He fell in love with the characters which is why he wanted to make the film; it was always going to be Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern to play those roles in his mind as stated in this fascinating interview from 1990. There were some additions he made though, like making Sailor a small town rebel Elvis. Inspired by talking about Elvis and Marilyn Monroe while on set, he asked Cage to sing some songs, which he happily agreed to, and he did a great job too. It was Cage himself that asked to wear the snakeskin jacket—a symbol of his individuality and personal freedom.
Lynch loved Sailor and Lula’s romance because it was real. He portrayed their relationship as larger than life because that is precisely how true love feels when you are in it. They are far from perfect individually, but their flaws don’t matter to each other; together, they are a storm.
Lula writhes like a cat on heat in the mere presence of Sailor—he makes her feel sexy and beautiful and everything she wants to be. She’s ditzy and may not be the brightest spark intellectually, but emotionally, she is very wise. She has great empathy for others, she worries about the effect of pollution on the planet, can’t bear the awful things she hears about on the news, and when she witnesses the girl in the accident die in her front of her, she takes this as a bad omen for her and Sailor. Her concerns for others far outweigh those for herself; she has no self-pity, she doesn’t dwell on the terrible things that have happened to her, she shares them matter of factly with her partner because she needs him to know everything and still love her. She would wait for a million years for her man; you know she would have woken up every day of his two stints in prison just happy that she was one day closer to being with him again.
She may be young and a little naïve but when Sailor tells her about his sexual exploits with another woman she has the maturity not to get jealous; she can imagine herself in that scenario and it gets her “hotter than Georgia asphalt”. Her imagination will help her survive the traumatic sexual assault inflicted on her by the repulsive Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). While it is happening she clicks her feet together like Dorothy—“there’s no place like home”—but home isn’t with her mother in Cape Fear; no, her home is Sailor, and putting him in her mind during her ordeal will make her stretch out her fingers in orgasmic ecstasy. Her blazing passion for Sailor will get her through anything.
Sailor is a dreamer. He wants big things for him and his girl and he would literally kill someone with his bare hands to protect her. He is fierce, makes some dubious decisions but always with the best of intentions and with Lula and later his unborn child in mind. He knows exactly how to please her, both sexually and emotionally; he doesn’t shy away from public displays of affection—he sings Elvis songs to her in front of a club of swooning metallers, he doesn’t care about looking cool, and that makes him cool. He wants his ‘Peanut’ to feel adored, wants the world to know she’s his queen. In turn, she makes him feel desired and inspired.
Together they fit perfectly, and their connection is deep. They laugh, they dance (ridiculously), and they don’t care who sees them. He adores her cute and silly thoughts, she loves his goofiness and that he reminds her a little of her dearly departed dad. Their forced separation proves that they can live independently—but they don’t want to.
It was Lula throughout who was haunted by the cackle of the Wicked Witch, and we all assumed that if she were to be beaten it would be Sailor to do it, but no, it is Lula that faces up to her and destroys her by pouring water over her picture. It will be Sailor who is visited by the Good Witch while he is knocked unconscious by a gang of thugs. It is then that he realises they truly have a shared dream, and that their love is worth fighting for.
This is what made Lynch fall in love with this story; it brings hope to everyone living in this dark and violent world. It certainly inspired me to never settle on a love that makes me feel anything less than wild at heart.