screen gems

Is this the strangest drag number in screen history?

Blue Velvet

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Kinky: Blue Velvet

Kyle MacLachlan seems to be having a ball this week amid the lunacy of Joe vs. Carole. In honor of said nuttiness, we hereby refer you to one of his earliest–and strangest–cinematic outings.

Blue Velvet blindsided audiences back in 1986 with its mix of mystery, satire and graphic sexuality. The plot follows Jeffrey (MacLachlan), a college student who returns to his small, middle-American town after his father has a heart attack. On a routine walk, he discovers a human ear in an empty field. That leads him onto the trail of a mystery involving organized crime and a leggy nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Jeffrey conspires with the daughter of the local police chief, Sandy (Laura Dern), to spy on Vallens. When Jeffrey sneaks into her apartment, he witnesses Dorothy ritually raped by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a local drug lord. Jeffrey tries to comfort the distraught woman after, and she seduces him into a sadomasochistic sexual encounter.

Director David Lynch scored a Best Director Oscar nomination for Blue Velvet, thanks to the quirky style he brings to the proceedings. Blue Velvet channels The Hardy Boys to send up the castrated, squeaky clean attitude of the 1980s. The scenes involving Frank and Dorothy, by contrast, channel classic film noir in the way they mix graphic sexuality and extreme violence. Indeed, Rossellini gives one of the bravest, most uninhibited performances we’ve ever seen. Scenes require her to endure torture and full-frontal nudity, but her commitment never wavers.

Blue Velvet also features one of the most bizarre drag performances in the history of the movies. It involves Jeffrey visiting a brothel and meeting Ben (Dean Stockwell), a pimp dressed in full kabuki make-up and women’s jewelry. Ben proceeds to perform a weird lipsync to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Don’t ask us what it all means…we just know it’s amazing.

So is the rest of the movie. Blue Velvet’s exploration of kinky sex and veiled references to AIDS will also resonate with an LGBTQ audience. In the 80s–and indeed, today–straight audiences still view kink and STIs as taboo subjects. The film also underlines the hypocrisy of the era. Reagan, the Religious Right, etc. all demonized sex and “deviants” (in other words, the queers) as societal aberrations. Lynch and Blue Velvet know that no matter how clean the veneer, darker human emotions, and impulses still churn beneath the surface.

Movies don’t get more stylish or twisted than Blue Velvet. Love it, hate it, laugh or scream: all reactions are totally valid.

Streams on Amazon, VUDU, Paramount+, Hulu, and YouTube.