David Lynch asked Dean Stockwell to play Ben, the creepy pan-sexual pimp and drug dealer who appears in only one scene in the film. But with all the scary crap that happens in that movie, that scene – and its absurdity – with everyone in it obeying a set of rules that are opaque to us in the audience – is the scariest. Who is Ben? The script says very little. All we know about him is:
— Frank Booth is scared of Ben and looks up to him. We all know that Frank Booth is a psychopath – so this should give us SOME clue of what Ben is capable of.
— He appears to be in charge of a bevy of overweight prostitutes.
— He keeps a kidnapped child locked up in the back room.
— He gives Frank Booth drugs.
— He has some kind of emotional/sexually charged arrangement with Frank that involves lip-synching. I mean, what? It’s never explained to us – it is just something these two apparently do. Frank tells him what song, and Ben goes into drag-queen lip-synch mode. Perhaps it helps take the edge off of Frank’s insanity – but again, that’s just a guess. The script does not say WHY these two do this.
Stockwell gets the script. There is no character description in it. The script does not say: “Ben enters, a man wearing white face makeup, eyeliner, and a little hoop around his ear. He wears a satin smoking jacket, and one of his hands has an Ace bandage around it. He is always on the verge of falling asleep. He is completely mellow at all times.” The script said NOTHING about him. Lynch knew that whatever Stockwell came up with, in terms of inventing Ben, was going to be great – he just trusted him with the character (a rare thing. Most writers and directors OVER explain characters because they’re nervous that the pesky little actors are going to be ruin everything with their interpretation).
Stockwell went to work. He created that guy’s look on his own – the makeup, the clothes, the energy … He hasn’t made too many mistakes in his career. He hasn’t over-reached, or missed the mark too much in his 100 plus films, which is quite a record. Who has seen Blue Velvet and doesn’t remember Ben? Not possible. Also – doesn’t it seem as though Ben HAD to have been written that way? The whole character seems completely inevitable … and perfect. Of course he wears makeup, of course he dresses like that, of course he stands around in large groups with his eyes closed – communing with candy-colored clowns in the ether of his brain. But no: none of it was set out in the script. Stockwell MADE that guy. I think that is so hysterical, so wonderful. It must have been such fun.
He also said, later, “You know, I was basically just imitating Carol Burnett.”
Watch the scene again, and think of those words. It makes the whole thing even creepier, and funnier.
Apparently, he ran into her a while later at some event – and they chatted – and he said, “You know, in Blue Velvet, I was basically just doing YOU.” She thought about it for a second, imagined the scene, and then burst out laughing.
Also, one last word: one of his defining characteristics – since he was a kid – is this thing that happens with his eyes when he is deep in thought, or getting an idea, or things are getting intense inside of him. His eyes widen. If you’re familiar with him at all, you’ll know what I’m talking about. His eyes widen – it’s like he’s getting ready to change tack, or go to a new level, or say what’s in his heart.
Here in Blue Velvet – he takes that natural characteristic – something he habitually does – and turns it inside out, abstracts it, makes it into a “bit”. Now that’s quite a hat-trick, that involves self-knowledge (“okay, so there’s that thing that happens with my eyes … lets play around with that, see what I can create …”) – and also a sense of parody. He is parodying Carol Burnett – but also parodying himself. Because Ben stands around – like a horse sleeping on his feet. He’s either high, or just in some naturally Zen-like state, waiting … waiting for the violence … the crisis … whatever. And then when he speaks, he can barely open his eyes … until at some freaky moment, whoosh – eyes open REALLY wide. It’s incredibly creepy – he is terrifying. He has taken a “gesture” that is in his repertoire, and inflated it, so that it has become something completely “other”. I love that.
For example, if you see the movie again – please just watch how he says the simple line: “Fine, Frank, fine, how are you?”
First of all, it’s a hilarious line reading, completely bizarre. He is the ULTIMATE mellow. Drawling, eyes closed, slightly swaying on his feet … and then at the very end – when he says “how are you?” – eyes open reaaaaaally wide. You feel like he’s a cobra, about to kill you – even though what he is saying is totally benign.
Great little cameo all around.
Like – what??? hahahahahaha
To me, the look on his face in the shot above is almost more frightening than all of Frank Booth’s open manic violence.
Here’s the clip of him lip-synching
Sheila- I have really been enjoying your Dean Stockwell obsession. He has always disturbed me, as an actor. I just want to run out of the room/theater sometimes he hits me on such a viceral level. Yet I can’t take my eyes off him.
As for Blue Velvet, I have a special connection there since I once dated a guy in an improv group named Frank Booth. I also went to see Blue Velvet on a date ( when it was 1st released) because a friend of mine heard it was really sexy. No one got lucky that night.
Kelly – hahahaha No, not a really good date or get lucky movie, is it?? Unless you’re into oxygen masks.
I think I remember Frank Booth, actually!
Carol Burnett = HOT! Nice looking dame, no lie. QUESTION: What movie did she and Walter Matthau star in, wherein they got busy and she had a child? I watched part of it on T.V. once apon a time.
Carol Burnett = HOT! Nice looking dame, no lie. QUESTION: What movie did she and Walter Matthau star in, wherein they got busy and she had a child? I watched part of it on T.V. once upon a time.
Hit it again, that’s what he said. Sorry.
Oh, this is great stuff on Stockwell, especially about how his eyes widen as his mind takes on a new focus elevating his persona into a yet newer frame. And yes, it is sure hard to listen to people when you already know all too well what they are going to say. So how do you listen with freshness bringing new life into the experience??? I am waiting!! Anywho, you surely have an extremely keen writer’s eye as you do know how the use of precise language brings life into the experience. That’s the real deal, art de-novo, and it lands on you like a fallen timber making you sit upright and take notice of the world’s latest incarnation around you. You know, there is a huge difference between action writing and vibrant writing. Art versus craft, being part of the observation, versus the sketch artist. So what you are saying is Stockwell was an artistic actor at the very core. Actually pretty amazing how you got there if you re-read it. Thanks for the insight and the his detailed background. You do deliver!
Brian – thank you, thank you. What an articulate comment – thanks!
I too have an obsession with this scene, I think Dean Stockwell is absolutely brilliant in it.
the entire character that dean stockwell portrays here…is interesting…yes he has a sort of control over frank booth…the whiteface singing of candy colored clown…by droplight…is over the top…the eyelid motions…he will not let you forget him…he takes a small scene and gives a raging dennis hopper a run for his money…
Here’s to Ben!