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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006 12:51 am

Mega Watts

Her decade of mediocrity ended with the magnificent Mulholland Dr.

Fay Wray appeared in 96 feature films, but she is so closely linked to King Kong (1933) that the other 95 could be missing from her résumé. Naomi Watts may be following in Wray’s footsteps, but she is not likely to be overshadowed by the big computer-generated ape. Despite her recent rise to stardom, Watts is hardly an overnight sensation. Few people will remember her 18th-billed role in Flirting (1991), an Australian coming-of-age comedy that starred Nicole Kidman, now Watts’ best friend. Watts appeared in several little-known films over the next decade, none of which brought her much attention. Her final film before her breakthrough role was in The Shaft (2001), also known as Down, the remake of the Dutch killer-elevator thriller The Lift (1983). In either case, I recommend taking the stairs instead. Watts’ decade of mediocrity ended with David Lynch’s magnificent Mulholland Dr. (2001). The role was so great that Watts managed to steal the film from her originally touted co-star, Laura Harring. Watts begins the film as a perky starlet and shows little indication of depth. Over the course of the film, though, her character degenerates into depression and madness, a transformation so brilliant that it became clear a star-making role was unfolding before our eyes. The surrealistic and complex nature of Lynch’s films make it difficult for mass audiences to connect with them, and Mulholland Dr. is one of his most baffling. Without going into too much detail on its hidden meanings, suffice it to say that Lynch is playing games with the Hollywood dream. I haven’t seen a better film from this millennium. The Ring (2002) brought Watts box-office success, but it was 21 Grams (2003) that gave her the opportunity for another astonishing performance. Watts, Sean Penn, and Benicio Del Toro inhabit three separate stories that eventually converge with a tragedy. The multistory structure, a form newly named “hyperlink films,” serves to increase the intensity of a powerful film. I think Watts should have won the Oscar over Charlize Theron’s showier role in Monster. Don’t be put off by the awkwardly titled We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004). Watts co-stars with Peter Krause, Laura Dern, and Mark Ruffalo as two married couples whose stability is threatened by adultery. Nothing new may be offered on the subject, but the cast and writing raise the film above most others of its ilk. Next Watts will jump from Wray to a Greta Garbo role, in the remake of The Painted Veil.
New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Jan. 24): Flightplan, Oliver Twist, and The Aristocrats.
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