5. Jack Nance in Eraserhead
Part film school oddity, part metaphor for pre-adulthood anxiety and an almost instant cult classic from the time it initially premiered in 1977, Eraserhead has the distinction of being the film that introduced David Lynch to the world. And in what could in retrospect be regarded as a career-defining role, Jack Nance was also afforded cult icon status for his performance as Henry Spencer, the troubled everyman at the centre of the film.
Functioning as the film’s straight man while the surrealism of the events unfolding before him continues to escalate, Nance was famously instructed by Lynch to “just give me a total blank” when the cameras were rolling. Nance anchors the film, an almost herculean task in a movie that has no discernible rhyme or reason for many of the things that occur within its running time.
Considering that it took Lynch nearly five years to complete the film, with Nance inhabiting the character as needed during that timeframe (all the while maintaining the signature human exclamation mark, finger in a socket hair style), his performance here is truly a wonder to behold as he would essentially become a sort of proto-template upon which many of Lynch’s characters would be based on over the following years.
4. John Hurt in The Elephant Man
John Hurt has inhabited many roles thoroughly over the span of his career, but very few have achieved the resonance he attained as John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Buried beneath layers of disfiguring prosthetics, Hurt brings to life a sympathetic and piteous Joseph (John) Merrick with a touching, anguished beauty.
Recognized by the Academy with a Best Actor nomination for the role (*although he lost to Robert DeNiro), Hurt humanizes the man who was perceived as a side show freak, conveying the untold depths of dignity possessed by Merrick, culminating in the famous “I am not an animal!” outburst in the train station scene.
Hurt is devastatingly powerful here as a truly gentle soul trapped within the grotesque outward visage of a monster, yet possessing more sympathy and compassion than those who shun, abuse and exploit him throughout the film.
His decision to team with Lynch in what was a very difficult film (in terms of the subject matter and the presumed physical demands of the role) resulted in one of the strongest performances of his career and also one of the most heartbreaking and powerful in any David Lynch film to date.
3. Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story
The Straight Story is often viewed as somewhat of an oddity in David Lynch’s career arc (and that’s saying something, considering) as it is a simple story and contains none of the typical “Lynchian” ingredients many viewers have come to expect.
There are no shadowy lunatics, haunting psychopaths, tragic heroines, or dancing midgets to be found here. Instead, there is a touching true story about a man who journeys 240 miles on a secondhand lawn tractor to visit his brother after learning his sibling has suffered a stroke. Actually, upon re-reading that synopsis, perhaps this is the most “Lynchian” of any David Lynch movie.
Gorgeously backlit by the sunsets of a golden autumn, Richard Farnsworth, in what would be his final film role, portrays Alvin Straight with a wonderful, gentle stubbornness. He delivers an emotionally touching, poignant portrayal here that would resonate with even the most jaded filmgoer, as he emits a world weary finality to the character of Alvin that is impossible not to be moved by.
Determined and devoted, he presses on in his improbable journey to make amends with his brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), while encountering many strangers along the way and resonating with them all. Lynch was fortunate to have a performance of this caliber delivered to him here; it remains one of the standouts in both Lynch and Farnsworth’s respective careers.
2. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive
A fascinatingly complex character, Betty/Diane is a testament to Watts’ abilities as a performer. If the first two acts of the movie are Betty’s dream state, then the final reel, as Diane, is her reality, and a terrible reality it is. As we discover that many of the characters within the film are merely figments of Diane’s slowly deteriorating mind, Watts’ performance transforms as Betty/Diane’s non-linear, traumatic memories begin to overcome what remains of her tenuous grasp on reality.
Once she awakens from the comfort of her dream state, the idealism of Betty dissolves and the film is thrust into the characters actual waking life, and as we begin to witness her true self the combination of suspense, mystery and horror culminates in a climax that still shocks.
Watts astounds at every turn of the film (and there are many, many turns here), the complicated duality of the role teetering between both the desired (the hopeful, endlessly chipper Betty), and the actual reality (the bitter, self-delusional Diane) of the character. Indeed, Betty is the antithesis of Diane, and Watts embodies the differences between them with contrasting precision.
This is the epitome of the term “breakout performance”, as it put Watts on the map and helped her establish her career while also providing one of the best performances in any David Lynch film before or since. The only thing perhaps even more unreal than the depth of Watts’ performance here is that she was not recognized by the academy for it.
1. Laura Dern in Inland Empire
While Inland Empire isn’t one of David Lynch’s more widely recognized films (although it is recognized as one of his most infuriatingly non-linear), it just may contain one of the best performances in the entirety of his career as a director. While the film is frustratingly obtuse for many and often summarized as completely nonsensical and inexplicable, the lead performance by Laura Dern as Nikki Grace/Susan Blue is perhaps the most impressive in her entire career.
While her prior collaborations with Lynch are each praiseful in their own right, Inland Empire allows Dern the opportunity to tread beyond her established boundaries as Nikki/Susan. Portraying an actress who has landed her comeback role, Dern shifts from something initially straightforward into something much more compelling as she winds through an incomprehensible narrative where nothing is linear or even remotely logical for the most part.
Constantly in the moment regardless of what that moment may be, where it may exist or what it may contain, she segues effortlessly from one reality shift to the next, never once falling out of line with the plot (such as it is), Laura Dern’s performance here is truly a wonder to behold.
Author Bio: Byron Mulcaster currently resides in one of the rainiest locations in North America. He enjoys reminiscing about the pre-multiplex era of movie theaters, debating the merits of advanced sports statistics and finds the notion of temporal displacement devices to be fascinating. He also has a habit of intentionally employing outdated pop culture phrases and slang, much to the chagrin of those within earshot.