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Film

Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman discuss the “sexiest movie” ever made

Before Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic passing in 2014, aged just forty-six, the actor was a long time collaborator with director Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, Anderson can remember the moment he ‘fell in love’ with the actor, after seeing him star in Scent of a Woman (1992). Talking about the star, Anderson said “I knew what love at first sight was. It was the strangest feeling sitting in a movie theatre and thinking, ‘He’s for me and I’m for him.’ And that was it.”

Anderson wrote parts specifically for Hoffman, who went on to star in five of the director’s films, including The Master, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia. Even after Hoffman’s passing, Anderson cast his teenage son Cooper Hoffman as the lead male in his latest film Licorice Pizza. It is clear that the two had a strong bond, and this dynamic can be seen in a clip from Cannes Film Festival all the way back in 2002, during a press conference for Punch Drunk Love.

An audience member from InStyle magazine asks the panel what their favourite romance movie is, followed by the sexiest movie ever made. Anderson skips past the question of romance, and comedically answers after a long pause, “I would say… E.T. is pretty sexy.” However, Hoffman chimes in with the answer “Mulholland Drive is pretty sexy” to which Anderson replies, “Oh Phil. It’s great. You like that, don’t ya?” An awkward air prevails over the room, with uncertain laughter coming from the panel – Hoffman’s choice is unsurprisingly male, as the ‘sexy’ element of David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive is the sexually charged relationship between two women – Rita (Laura Harring) and Betty (Naomi Watts).

The film centres around a glamourous amnesiac Rita, who stumbles into the home of Betty’s aunt Ruth, who has let Betty, an aspiring actress, temporarily stay there. The two go on a search for Rita’s identity, which in Lynchian fashion is incredibly surreal and subsequently terrifying. At one point, the pair engage in lesbian sex and, as the ending suggests, Betty (now Diane) has been deeply in love with Rita (now Camilla) the whole time, who is in love with director Adam (Justin Theroux).

There has been much debate regarding the film’s lesbian context, with some arguing that Mulholland Drive is a film about Hollywood, betrayal, and desire – lesbianism just happens to be a part of it. On the other hand, some reviewers have criticised the film for perpetuating stereotypes of lesbianism by featuring the classic ‘schoolgirl’ and ‘femme fatale’ types that make up lesbian stock characters in much of cinema. Academic Heather Love identified the depiction of lesbianism in the film as falling prone to multiple clichés, including portraying it as “one big adventure, an entrée into a glamorous and unknown territory.”

Furthermore, the film presents a classic love triangle between a beautiful yet unavailable bisexual woman, and an obsessive lesbian. Love also states that “reviewers rhapsodized in particular and at length about the film’s sex scenes, as if there were a contest to see who could enjoy this representation of female same-sex desire the most.” The fact that a lesbian sex scene was directed by a man is inherently problematic, as it elicits a fetishizing quality, whether that was Lynch’s intention or not. However, as Love points out – and evident in the conversation between Anderson and Hoffman – the scene has become a point of interest for male viewers who revel in watching two women – who until this point, ‘appeared heterosexual’ – have sex.

Although the portrayal of lesbianism is a point of much debate, it is undeniable that Mulholland Drive is an incredible film, not only one of Lynch’s best, but also one of the best neo-noir thrillers ever made. The surreal nature of the film serves to complicate audience perceptions of what Mulholland Drive is actually about – even Watts has called the lesbian sex scene “curiously erotic” yet also stated that she “doesn’t see it as erotic.”

One person who certainly did was Philip Seymour Hoffman but while the actor knew his stuff, Anderson was clearly interested in things outside this universe.