Mulholland Drive actually began life as a boob tube candidate specifically, it was a pilot Lynch shot for a proposed ABC series. Of course, once the network suits took a look at what Lynch had concocted (and perhaps mindful of the fact that their previous dalliance with Lynch, the superb Twin Peaks, petered out after a strong first season), they decided to pass on it, relegating it to TV's unseen phantom zone. With his eye now on a theatrical release, Lynch received backing from French financiers to shoot additional scenes to provide the pilot with a semblance of an ending. The result: a high-profile debut at Cannes, as well as the festival's Best Director prize for Lynch (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn't There).
Armed with knowledge of the project's genesis, it's more apparent that Mulholland Drive is a melding of Lynch's two different mindsets. The first two-thirds or so play just like a multi-faceted prime-time drama (like Twin Peaks, or a very warped Dallas), with various characters and storylines appearing one after the other. Take, for instance, the two cops played by Jackie Brown's Robert Forster and A Simple Plan's Brent Briscoe. They appear in one early scene to offer Dragnet-dry comments about a car accident on Mulholland Drive. If this had indeed made it as a TV series, you could imagine these two guys appearing for a few minutes each episode, constantly staying one step behind whatever mystery needed to be solved or whichever villain needed to be apprehended. As it stands, they pop up for this one scene, never to resurface again (a shame, since Forster's screen appearances are always welcome).
While these two gumshoes may be insignificant to the plot, the car crash they're investigating proves to be one of the film's defining events, introducing us to a character we know only as Rita (Laura Elena Harring). It turns out Rita was involved in the auto accident; she's the only survivor, but the experience has left her with amnesia (hence the need for a fake name, which she takes from a poster for Rita Hayworth's Gilda). In a daze, she stumbles into an apartment building she believes to be empty. Instead, its current occupant is Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a fresh-off-the-farm blonde who has traveled from Deep River, Ontario, to LA in the hopes of making it as a movie star. Temporarily shacking up in her aunt's vacant abode, the wholesome Betty allows this complete stranger to stay with her, eventually offering to help her solve the mysteries surrounding her lost identity, a wad of cash stashed in her purse, and a blue key that serves as the film's Hitchcock-inspired McGuffin.
In the other plotline of note, an aloof director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is getting set to cast the principal female role in his movie when he's informed by the picture's shady backers that he must cast a young actress named Cammie Rhodes in the part. After he balks, he's taken to a secret meeting with The Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), a pale figure who insists on the casting decision and states, "If you do good, you'll see me one more time; if you do bad, you'll see me two more times." (The Cowboy is arguably the creepiest character in a Lynch film since Dennis Hopper's psychotic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.) It certainly isn't Adam's day in addition to his celluloid woes, he finds out his wife is having an affair with a hunky handyman (played by, of all people, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus) but the young moviemaker has an epiphany of sorts when, at the auditions, he spots Betty Elms, the fresh-off-the-farm blonde from Deep River, Ontario.