Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Gay on Film Blogathon: Betty and Rita

So I've started The Gay on Film Blogathon and it's been very well-received. The objective of the blogathon is simple enough, it's about emphasizing well-written gay characters in contemporary media. Naturally since this is an issue I feel strongly about it only made sense to contribute a piece of my own, but first I needed a good pair of characters. Why not use the lesbian couple whose picture remains the first thing anyone clicking on that post will see? Betty and Rita were played respectively by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in what is arguably one of David Lynch's best films, Mulholland Drive

A lot of viewers of Mulholland Drive tend to remember it for its lesbian sex scene. There are actually two scenes of intercourse between the two lead actresses: first one that happens when Betty invites Rita to share a bed, and later on in the final segment (after Rita opens the box and appears to become Camilla) when both women engage in sex, suddenly appearing fully nude, on Diane/Betty's couch. The lesbian elements may be crucial, but it is worth noting that it actually takes a fair bit of time for it to appear. Neither of the infamous sex scenes happen until about three quarters of the way through (in a movie that is almost three hours long). Sure, some men might get sexually aroused by that particular moment but to get there you have to sit through two hours of a brilliant Sunset Boulevard-inspired surreal thriller about the darker side of Hollywood. If you really want to just see two women having sex there's far simpler options. That's what gay porn is for, after all.

I think that may be part of what makes the relationship seen in Mulholland Drive so unusual among other gay couples in film. There is no love at first sight. Betty might not even know she is gay at first (she claims during the first sex scene to have "never done this before"), and the two aren't initially brought together by any form of sexual attraction. They bump into each other by pure chance and at first Betty is more concerned about this stranger unexpectedly turning up in her aunt's apartment. Much of the film is instead their friendship that comes from Betty realizing Rita's trauma of not being able to remember her identity.

The romance is a gradual process, just like a heterosexual romance you'd see in any other movie, including some of Lynch's other films. The romance between Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams in Blue Velvet, for example, isn't a whole lot different. Both meet up in the street and start as friends, bonding together as they get caught up in a mystery, eventually falling in love. Much like Betty and Rita they spend a lot of time together in public areas, sneaking into other people's houses, and discussing their case in a local restaurant. Mulholland Drive is a bit less direct in approaching the romantic aspect, but at its core the basic dynamics between the characters isn't that much different. One could even argue that a similar thing happens between James Hurley and Donna Hayward in Twin Peaks.

Another thing that I think is curious about this particular relationship is that the fact that they're lesbians is not itself a problem. There is never any point in the film where a character is explicitly shown to have issues with same-sex relationships, nor is it established that society as a whole will reject them for it. The closest thing they have to any such issues is when Camilla/Rita tells Diane/Betty "we should stop doing that" and even then it sounds more like an affair with a married woman than anything to do with the fact that they're both the same gender.

In particular, they have to deal with the simple pain of heartbreak, especially Diane/Betty, who watches her lover cheat on her with a man (it's suggested that she is engaging in sex with men to get ahead in the business) and for that matter another woman. Diane, being the young and reckless woman she is, has trouble coping with Rita's affairs the same way any young man or woman might have trouble seeing their lover with someone else. In theory you could swap out either of them with a man and not change much story-wise.

Quite simply, in the end being in a gay relationship really isn't that much different from a straight one, you still have all the same problems even without any exterior pressure. Blue Velvet also touched on similar issues by way of Jeffrey being roped into an affair with Dorothy Vallens, although that one did not end with Sandy contemplating his assassination. In that sense, I think Mulholland Drive is a solid look at a gay couple in that the fact that they are gay is really not that big an issue, at least not story-wise. The "story", if you can call it that, is really about the darker side of Hollywood's filmmaking scene, it just happens to be experienced through the eyes of two women who happen to be gay.


  1. I'm not the biggest fan of this movie, but I admit they are a well written gay couple that doesn't harp on their gender or sexuality. Good choice.

    1. Well, it's not a major focus as far as the story goes. Some critics have argued that the lesbian component has a greater significance on a thematic or symbolic level but I figured it best not to concern myself with that for the purposes of this post.

  2. This is quite interesting and a couple of things you mentioned reminds me of Persona. When the 2 "merge" as it were at the end. I actually am glad that this film seems to be more about the plight of Hollywood's filmmaking than about the women falling in love. This film, from what you wrote, brings an intelligence to a mature romance with the 2 being gay secondary to bigger issues

    1. Well, this being Lynch it's hard to say. Story-wise the fact that they are gay doesn't add a whole lot, but there are some who have argued the significance of the lesbianism from a thematic or atmospheric perspective.