Blue Velvet is a 1986 American mystery film, written and directed by David Lynch, that exhibits elements of both film noir and surrealism. The film features Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper and Laura Dern. The title Blue Velvet is taken from the 1963 Bobby Vinton song of the same name. The film was strongly acclaimed by critics, although initially detested by some, if not all mainstream American film critics. It earned Lynch his second Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Blue Velvet is also noted for re-launching Dennis Hopper's career.
After the commercial and critical failure of Lynch's Dune (1984), he made attempts at developing a more "personal story", somewhat characteristic of his surreal style he displayed in his debut 1977 film Eraserhead. The screenplay of Blue Velvet had been passed around multiple times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with many major studios declining it because of its strong sexual and violent content, most of which was considered taboo in Hollywood motion pictures prior to its release. The independent studio De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, which was owned at the time by Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis, agreed to finance and produce the film. Production on Blue Velvet began in January of 1985, and it was released the following year.
Blue Velvet tells the story of college student Jeffrey Beaumont, who discovers a severed human ear in a grass field behind a neighbourhood in his small, humble American town of Lumberton, North Carolina. Jeffrey decides to proceed with the investigation of the ear himself—with the assistance of Sandy Williams—a high school student and daughter of Lieutenant John Williams, a detective in the town. Sandy provides Jeffrey with information she learned from her father which aids them in their investigation of the ear. Jeffrey is eventually drawn into a voyeuristic, crime-fueled underworld, home to Frank Booth, a sociopathic criminal, and leader of a gang involved in murder, rape, kidnapping and drug sales. Blue Velvet remains a leading example of the neo-noir genre, and has become a cult classic.
While attending another of Dorothy's performances at the Slow Club, where she sings the song "Blue Velvet", Jeffrey spots Frank in the audience fondling a piece of blue-velvet fabric he cut from Dorothy's robe. Later, in the car park, Jeffrey watches Frank and his cohorts drive away before going to Dorothy's apartment again. Jeffrey spends the next few days spying on Frank, whom he sees entering a building. Shortly afterwards, a well-dressed man and the Yellow Man exit the building. He concludes the men are criminal associates of Frank. Jeffrey again visits Dorothy, who seduces him and asks him to strike her. When he refuses, she pressures him, becoming more emotional. In a blind rage he knocks her backwards and is instantly horrified, but Dorothy, as a result of Frank's constant beatings, derives pleasure from it. Afterwards, Frank catches Dorothy and Jeffrey together and forces them both to accompany him to the apartment of Ben (Dean Stockwell), a suave dandy and partner in crime (Ben is holding Dorothy's son). In a bizarre but now iconic scene, Ben lip-syncs a performance of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams", sending Frank into maudlin sadness, then rage. Frank takes Jeffrey to a lumber yard and savagely beats him to the overture of "In Dreams". Jeffrey wakes the next day and goes home, where he is overcome with guilt and despair. He goes to the police station, where he notices that Sandy's father's partner is Gordon — the Yellow Man. Later at Sandy's home, her father is amazed by Jeffrey's story, but warns Jeffrey to stop his amateur sleuthing lest he endanger himself and the investigation. After attending a dance party where they profess their love for each other, Jeffrey and Sandy are tailed on their way home. Fearing the follower is Frank, Jeffrey is relieved to discover that it is only Sandy’s jealous ex-boyfriend. A confrontation is averted when the group finds a naked and distressed Dorothy on Jeffrey’s front lawn. Barely conscious, Dorothy reveals that she slept with Jeffrey, causing an upset Sandy to slap Jeffrey, although she later forgives him.
Jeffrey insists on returning to Dorothy's apartment and tells Sandy to send her father there immediately. At Dorothy’s apartment, Jeffrey finds the crudely lobotomized Yellow Man and the dead body of Dorothy’s husband, with a missing ear. When he tries to leave, he sees the well-dressed man coming up the stairs and recognizes him as Frank in disguise. Jeffrey talks to Detective Williams over the police radio, but lies about his location inside the apartment. Frank enters the apartment and brags about hearing Jeffrey's location over his own police radio. While Frank searches for him in the apartment, Jeffrey retrieves the Yellow Man's gun and shoots Frank with it. Detective Williams arrives with Sandy in tow. With their lives back to normal, Jeffrey and Sandy, along with Dorothy and her son, are reunited.
Blue Velvet is frequently regarded by Lynch as being his most personal film, thus he has admitted to certain autobiographical content in the film:
"Kyle is dressed like me. My father was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture in Washington. We were in the woods all the time. I'd sorta had enough of the woods by the time I left, but still, lumber and lumberjacks, all this kinda thing, that's America to me like the picket fences and the roses in the opening shot. It's so burned in, that image, and it makes me feel so happy.
The actual story of the film originated from three ideas that crystallized in the filmmaker's mind over a period of time starting as early as 1973. The first idea was only "a feeling" and the title Blue Velvet, Lynch told Cineaste in 1987. The second idea was an image of a severed, human ear lying in a field. "I don't know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else...The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind so it felt perfect," Lynch remarked in an interview. The third idea was Bobby Vinton's classic rendition of the song Blue Velvet and "the mood that came with that song a mood, a time, and things that were of that time. Lynch and Roth pitched the script to Warner Bros. Pictures, who showed interest in the project. Lynch eventually spent two years writing two drafts, which, he stated, were not very good. The problem with them, Lynch has said, was that "there was maybe all the unpleasantness in the film but nothing else. A lot was not there. And so it went away for a while."
For the role of Dorothy Vallens, Lynch met Isabella Rossellini at a restaurant, and she accepted the role. Lynch only had one choice for the role of Jeffrey Beaumont: Val Kilmer, who turned the role down, deeming the script he read as "pornography". Kilmer later said he would have done the final version of the film, having become very fond of it. Chris Isaak was offered the role of Jeffrey Beaumont, but he turned it down. Lynch used two songs from Isaak's 1985 debut album Silvertone in the film. Kyle MacLachlan, who had previously starred in one film directed by Lynch, Dune (1984), was asked to play the role of Jeffrey. He instantly agreed. For MacLachlan, who appears in nearly every scene in the film, the intense shooting schedule was exhausting. In an interview, Lynch said that he initially wanted Molly Ringwald, then widely known as a "teen idol", to star as Sandy Williams; but Ringwald's mother objected to her starring in the film due to the graphic content, believing that it would tarnish her then-successful career in the film industry.
Lynch wrote two more drafts before he was satisfied with the script of the film. Conditions at this point were ideal for Lynch's film: he had cut a deal with Dino De Laurentiis that gave him complete artistic freedom and final cut privileges, with the stipulation that the filmmaker take a cut in his salary and work with a budget of only $6 million. This deal meant that Blue Velvet was the smallest film on the De Laurentiis' slate. Consequently, Lynch would be left mostly unsupervised during production. "After Dune I was down so far that anything was up! So it was just a euphoria. And when you work with that kind of feeling, you can take chances. You can experiment." Because the material was completely different from anything that would be considered mainstream at the time, Laurentiis had to start his own production company to distribute it.
The scene where Dorothy appears naked outside after being raped and beaten was inspired by a real-life experience Lynch had during childhood when he and his brother saw a naked woman walking down a neighborhood street at night. The experience was so traumatic to the young Lynch that it made him cry, and he had never forgotten it. Principal photography of Blue Velvet began on February 10, 1986. The exterior scenes of Lumberton were actually filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Feminist psychoanalytic film theorist Laura Mulvey argues that Blue Velvet establishes a metaphorical Oedipal family — "the child", Jeffrey Beaumont, and his "parents", Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens — through deliberate references to film noir and its underlying Oedipal theme. The resulting violence, she claims, can be read as symbolic of domestic violence within real families. For instance, Frank's violent acts can be seen to reflect the different types of abuse within families, and the control he has over Dorothy might represent the hold an abusive husband has over his wife. Michael Atkinson reads Jeffrey as an innocent youth who is both horrified by the violence inflicted by Frank, but also tempted by it as the means of possessing Dorothy for himself. Michael Atkinson takes a Freudian approach to the film, he claims that "Dorothy represents the sexual force of the mother [figure] because she is forbidden and because she becomes the object of the unhealthy, infantile impulses at work in Jeffrey's subconscious".
Frank is the embodiment of evil in both manner and deed whose only apparent means of self-expression are wanton acts of cruelty and sadism. Hopper imbues the character Frank with a maniacal menace that has become iconic and hugely influential among screen villains.
The most consistent symbolism in Blue Velvet is an insect motif introduced at the end of the first scene, when the camera zooms in on a well-kept suburban lawn until it unearths, underground, a swarming nest of disgusting bugs. This is generally recognized as a metaphor for the seedy underworld that Jeffrey will soon discover under the surface of his own suburban, Reagan-esque paradise. The bug motif is recurrent throughout the film, most notably in the horrific bug-like oxygen mask that Frank wears, but also in the excuse that Jeffrey uses to gain access to Dorothy's apartment: he claims he is an insect exterminator. One of Frank's sinister accomplices is also consistently identified through the yellow jacket he wears. Yellowjacket happens to be the name of a type of wasp, which double-layers the symbolism on yet another level, as the economically dominant groups of the United States are WASPs — White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Finally, a robin eating a bug on a fence becomes a topic of discussion in the last scene of the film. Some believe that this is just "one bug" and that there is still a criminal underworld left. The severed ear that Jeffrey discovers is also a key symbolic element; the ear is what leads Jeffrey into danger. Indeed, just as Jeffrey's troubles begin, the audience is treated to a nightmarish sequence in which the camera zooms into the ear canal of the severed, decomposing ear. Notably, the camera does not reemerge from the ear canal until the end of the film. When Jeffrey finally comes through his hellish ordeal unscathed, the ear canal shot is replayed, only in reverse, zooming out through Jeffrey's own ear as he relaxes in his yard on a summer day.
Entertainment Weekly ranked Blue Velvet's soundtrack on its list of the 100 Greatest Film Soundtracks, at the 100th position. Critic John Alexander wrote, "the haunting soundtrack accompanies the title credits, then weaves through the narrative, accentuating the noir mood of the film." Lynch worked with music composer Angelo Badalamenti for the first time in this film and asked him to write a score that had to be “like Shostakovich, be very Russian, but make it the most beautiful thing but make it dark and a little bit scary.” Badalamenti's success with Blue Velvet would lead him to contribute to all of Lynch's future full-length films. Also included in the sound team was long time Lynch collaborator Alan Splet, a sound editor and designer who had won an Academy Award for his work on The Black Stallion (1979), and been nominated for Never Cry Wolf (1983).
At the 1987 Academy Awards, Hopper was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the film Hoosiers. However, many critics thought the Academy was really giving Hopper a nod for his performance in Blue Velvet, but thought the role was too disturbing and went with Hoosiers instead.
Looking back in his Guardian/Observer review, critic Philip French wrote, "The film is wearing well and has attained a classic status without becoming respectable or losing its sense of danger. Blue Velvet holds a 90 percent "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes and holds a consistently high rating on the Internet Movie Database. Peter Travers, film critic for Rolling Stone magazine, named Blue Velvet the best film of the 1980s, and referred to the film as an "American masterpiece". Film critic Gene Siskel included Blue Velvet on his list of the best films of 1986, at #6.
Nevertheless, Blue Velvet was not without its detractors. A general criticism from critics in the United States was the film's often vulgar approach to sexuality and violence that detracts from the film's serious side. One of the film's most notable detractors, Roger Ebert, noted film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, supported that view, although he praised Isabella Rossellini's performance as being "convincing and courageous". Ebert criticized how she was depicted in the film, even accusing David Lynch of misogyny: "degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film".
Blue Velvet now appears in various critical assessments of all-time great films, as well as rankings as one of the greatest films of the 1980s. In a poll of two American critics ranking the "most outstanding films of the decade", Blue Velvet was placed third and fourth, behind Raging Bull (1980), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and the German film Wings of Desire (1987). In a 1999 Entertainment Weekly magazine special ranking the greatest films of all time, Blue Velvet came in at thirty-seven. The film was ranked by the The Guardian in its list of the 100 Greatest Films. Film Four's ranked it on their list of 100 Greatest Films. In a 2007 poll of the online film community, Blue Velvet came in at the ninety-fifth greatest film of all time. Total Film ranked the film one of the greatest of all time, in both a critics list and a public poll, in 2006 and 2007, respectively. In December 2002, a UK film critics poll in Sight and Sound ranked the film #5 on their list of the 10 Best Films of the Last 25 Years.
The American Film Institute has awarded the film three honors in its lists: one on 100 Years... 100 Thrills in 2001, selecting cinema's most thrilling moments and ranked the film's villain Frank Booth, as one of the 50 greatest villains in 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains in 2003. And in June 2008, the AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Blue Velvet was acknowledged as the eighth best film in the mystery genre. Premiere magazine listed Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, as #54 on its list of The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time, calling him "the most monstrously funny creations in cinema history". The film was ranked #84 on Bravo Television's four-hour program 100 Scariest Movie Moments (2004). It is frequently sampled musically and an array of bands and solo artists have taken their names and inspiration from the film.