Ranking performances in David Lynch films seems like an impossible task. Perhaps more so than with any other director, it feels highly subjective. Or maybe that’s just my personal opinion becomes Lynch is my favorite director. Through many scribbled notes and jotted down names, I’ve come up with my list of 10 favorite performances in David Lynch films, a list I’m about to share with you, and I encourage you to share yours with me!
10. Justin Theroux—Mulholland Drive
Theroux’s character of Adam Kesher to me embodied David Lynch’s fears about the Hollywood “machine”: loss of creative control, having your film and decisions about it taken away from you by those who lurk in the shadows, the dark side of Hollywood. Theroux carried this passionate intensity, occasionally losing control (but who could blame him?) and in a film that wasn’t about his character, became an emotional core, something to gravitate towards as we weaved through a complex narrative.
9. Laura Dern—Inland Empire
Dern’s performance in Inland Empire evokes a wide range of emotion. In some ways, this is acting at its purest level. The film was shot in an unorthodox manner, with Lynch writing on the fly, and that level of improvisation is felt in Dern’s performance. I’m not sure exactly how many characters she played in this film, and she might not know either, but she tapped into a special place for some of these scenes and delivered a performance that won’t easily be forgotten.
8. Nic Cage—Wild at Heart
Anyone that has seen Wild at Heart is likely to remember a certain quote from Cage’s character of Sailor Ripley pertaining to his snakeskin jacket and an Elvis song or two to boot. While it’s easy to look at the character of Sailor as being over the top, there is a ton of depth there that I think often gets overlooked when people look at characters from David Lynch films. Cage’s acting style in this film has been described as being “jazz like”, in terms of how unrestricted and free-flowing he could be. Few times in the history of film has someone immersed themselves into a character like this, leaving behind all traces of themselves and allowing this persona to absorb them, which is exactly what Cage did with Sailor Ripley.
7. Patricia Arquette—Lost Highway
One thing I’ve noticed about Arquette’s performance as Renee/Alice in Lost Highway is how attracted I am to her. Not just in a physical, sexual attraction kind of way, but Arquette’s characters have this secretive, seductive quality to them that’s intoxicating. You know that Renee/Alice knows something you don’t. You know that they won’t tell you, but you’re dying to know. She’s filled with secrets and has this dream-like charm to her. Lost Highway isn’t an easy film to digest by any means and, much like the characters of Renee and Alice, can often times feel hypnotic. Arquette serves as an anchor through the madness and she’s an anchor that you’re more than happy to follow.
6. Richard Farnsworth—The Straight Story
Farnsworth, as Alvin Straight, is reminiscent of Jack Nance in Eraserhead in terms of how much he can convey through facial expressions and body language. Alvin chooses his words carefully and makes them count but still conveys ample emotion and character with the slightest strokes, the true sign of a master of one’s craft. Scenes such as Alvin in the bar speaking to another veteran and the conclusion of the film, with Harry Dean Stanton, are moments that make a lasting impression, among several others. While to some, The Straight Story doesn’t seem as “Lynchian” as other David Lynch films, I would argue that point ferociously, but that’s a story for another day (article).
5. Naomi Watts—Mulholland Drive
An undeniably brilliant performance, Watts burst onto the American scene with Lynch’s 2001 film, Mulholland Drive. Much like Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, Watts played two characters, although the differences between Watts’ characters were far greater, and the levels of intensity required (especially in the film’s third act) were phenomenal. From wide eyed and hopeful to desperate and destroyed, Watts managed to encompass the entire range of human emotions from opening credits to closing credits, forever earning her place as one of the most memorable performers in David Lynch films.
4. Jack Nance—Eraserhead
Recently watching Eraserhead again for the first time in many years, my biggest takeaway from the film was exactly how good Jack Nance was in this film. As critics, writers and fans of film, we often remark on the performance of actors but here, Nance embodied this iconic role, much like Nic Cage did with Sailor Ripley. From the walk, to the pronounced silences before speaking, to these facial expressions that told a thousand stories with one look, Nance created a character unlike any other, one that couldn’t be imitated or duplicated ever.
3. Dennis Hopper / Isabella Rossellini—Blue Velvet
Am I cheating here? Perhaps, but Blue Velvet has been immortalized by the terrifying performance from Hopper and haunting performance from Rossellini, and there’s no way I couldn’t have them both towards the top of the list. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen trauma performed on-screen before or after like Rossellini did with Dorothy Valens, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been as afraid of a villain on-screen as I have of Hopper’s Frank Booth. They both left the kind of cinematic mark on me as a viewer that I don’t particularly want to think about, but that’s not to take anything away from their performances. It’s a dark space their characters occupy in Blue Velvet and in the legacy of David Lynch films.
2. Laura Dern—Wild at Heart
If anyone was going to make the list twice, it had to be Laura Dern, right? This choice will inevitably draw some criticism, as for some reason, Wild at Heart is considered to be “Lesser Lynch”, a claim I will always refute. Dern as Lula made me feel things I never expected to in a film. Her bubbly personality, wisdom beyond her years, deep sense of love and commitment, all with years of trauma from what had been a really difficult upbringing all meshed together to create something truly remarkable. Lula might have been victimized throughout her life but she was not willing to stop or give in, no matter how hard things got. She was a strong woman who pushed forward no matter what, or no matter how wild at heart and weird on top the world was. Wild at Heart is what a David Lynch love story looks like and Lula is the ultimate romantic.
1. Sheryl Lee—Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Laura is the one. She had to be here. The character of Laura Palmer was dead and gone by the time Twin Peaks hit the air on ABC but the 1992 prequel gave her a chance to walk, talk and make us fall in love and break our hearts at the same time. Fire Walk With Me doesn’t shield us from the hard truths about the underlying narrative, and Sheryl Lee portrays the trauma of a teenage incest victim in ways that those who came for the pie and coffee weren’t prepared for. Lee, as Laura Palmer, faced her abuser and died for doing so. We watched the last week of Laura’s pain-filled life and Lee took her performance to the limit, not shielding us from anything. It was the role of a lifetime, the performance of a lifetime and my favorite performance in a David Lynch film.