There's a long list of actors who crash and burn, or just plain disappear, after a single star-making, early-career performance. Cuba Gooding Jr. may be the prototype, but see also Jaye Davidson, Linda Blair, Linda Hamilton, etc. But every bit as frustrating as an obviously talented performer who never again does anything of note after making an initial splash is the actor who gives a single indelible performance and then goes on to a successful, entirely respectable career without ever recapturing that magic. I know no better example of that phenomenon than Naomi Watts, a bona fide superstar who has been competent and thoroughly unremarkable in a long string of big-time Hollywood roles, but has never lived down – or even approached – the performance that made her a somebody in the first place.
It's arguably inevitable that I would feel this way, since I consider Mulholland Dr. to be one of the greatest films ever made, and anyone in any way associated with it walks on water as far as I'm concerned. But Watts's performance as Betty Elms / Diane Selwyn is so fearless, so committed, so entirely submerged in the movie's terrifying freakshow universe, that it's in a class by itself – as essential to the film as Lynch's singular aesthetic. The obvious reference point is the incredible audition scene, which is at once hilarious and deeply disquieting (as well as thematically pivotal), but what sticks out in my mind is Betty's arrival at LAX, her face a perfect vision of the wide-eyed excitement and sense of possibility that brings countless young people to the shark tanks of LA and New York on a daily basis.
That sense of wonder is, of course, what Lynch then proceeds to dismantle and transform into dread. Watts comes along with him, at first eagerly playing gumshoe with Betty's new friend Diane, then slowly realizing that something, somewhere has gone deeply wrong (a pervasive feeling that is Lynch's specialty), then going off the deep end entirely as Lynch reveals the truth behind the dream world that she occupies. She is our (sometimes deceptive) guide through the film, and it's a monumental achievement. Watch the also-legendary "Llorando" scene below, and marvel: Rebekah Del Rio is marvelous, of course, but Watts' silent performance epitomizes this film.
So why hasn't she been able to do anything remotely this memorable, ever again? The obvious answer is that Watts hasn't been in another movie remotely as memorable (though, for my money, King Kong comes close); she certainly has never had a role that crackerjack. But there's something else: almost all of her post-Lynch performances have been oddly morose, subdued; she has never again exhibited the energy, alternately giddy, frightened and angry, of Betty / Diane. Eastern Promises, in which she plays a woman journeying through the Russian mafia underworld in London, might have given her the opportunity to recapture some of that, but no dice – she plays fairly bland second-fiddle to Viggo Mortensen and David Cronenberg.
I mostly blame the directors. Watts's work has been nothing but competent and plausible, but no one since Lynch has seemed to want to do anything interesting with her; to integrate her into their visions the way that Lynch so brilliantly did. Instead, she is left giving tediously respectable low-key performances in middling roles. It's a shame. Someone needs to give her a chance to deliver on the incredible promise of her star-making role.