If you’ve ever worked as a film publicist, you know that your daily To Do list can be quite surreal:
- Write press release
- Organise screening
- Ring Dennis Hopper in L.A. and charm him
The last task (I was supposed to arrange an interview with him) stayed on my list for days. Why? Hands up: as a student I’d seen David Lynch’s shocking Blue Velvet and Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of the sociopathic, madder-than-a-bag-of-spiders, amyl nitrate-sniffing villain, Frank Booth. Think Darth Vader’s respiratory issues, a hint of sulphur plus added nausea-inducing sexual perversion.
Would you want to pick up the phone to call Frank?
Fast forward to today. Blue Velvet is thirty years old this month and is now recognised as a masterpiece and stylistic triumph from David Lynch, one of the greatest modern movie directors.
There isn’t anything else like it for sending a shiver down your spine. For an 80’s film featuring teenagers, it was totally unlike any 80’s film featuring teenagers. Blue Velvet as released the same year that the fairytale Pretty in Pink came out. The same year Ferris Bueller had his (fairly innocent) day off.
Whatever else Blue Velvet might be, it’s certainly a hallucinatory and intoxicating brew. No spot cream and prom angst here – just murder and darkness aplenty.
The plot tells the story of naive Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), his innocent romantic interest Sandy (Laura Dern) and their clumsy attempt to investigate the mystery surrounding the glamorous nightclub chanteuse Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her tormentor Frank Booth (Hopper). Setting the macabre tone, the film begins with the discovery of a severed ear.
Using Bobby Vinton’s crooning (and sweetly romantic) cover of ‘Blue Velvet’ as a starting point, Lynch did something new in cinema. He re-calibrated 1960’s picket-fence suburban cosiness to present a neo-noir story of kidnapping, violence and (perhaps most troublingly for audiences at the time) sexual deviance and sadomasochism.
On release, the film’s challenging subject matter immediately caused a sensation. In the UK, screenings were picketed. In the US, Rossellini, who had shown more than a little bravery in portraying the terribly abused Dorothy, was abruptly dropped by her talent agency when they saw the film.
Despite this, its cult reputation has grown. Lynch specialises in evoking the feeling that there’s always something sinister happening beneath the surface of everyday life. He continued to explore that in Mulholland Drive and of course, his famous television series, Twin Peaks (the return of which we can look forward to on Showtime next year).
It could all have turned out very differently. For a start, Lynch had always envisaged Helen Mirren in the role of Dorothy until he met Rossellini in a restaurant through mutual friends and told her, “you could be the daughter of Ingrid Bergman.” She was the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and had that old-style and slightly over-the-top Hollywood glamour in her genes. It’s difficult to imagine the film without her.
Try imagining 80’s sweetheart, Molly Ringwald in the Sandy role – it was Ringwald that Lynch had in mind for the part. Thankfully, her Mom found the script so offensive she didn’t pass it on to her daughter, allowing Laura Dern’s incredible performance to shine.
And the music that’s so much part of the mood of the film? According to Lynch, “It wasn’t the type of music I liked. But there was something mysterious about it. It made me think about things.” When Frank goes to cohort Ben’s apartment, Ben lip-syncs to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. If Lynch hadn’t heard this song at the right time, though, we would have had Orbison’s ‘Crying’ instead, which would have entirely altered the meaning of that pivotal scene.
Back to Dennis Hopper. Was he at all like Frank? Well, not surprisingly, no. When I finally got the courage to call, I found a very polite man, passionate about photography and the complete opposite to Frank.
I bet he didn’t even have a gas mask in the house.