Almost 30 years after its debut, it is difficult to believe that Twin Peaks, suffused with David Lynch’s oddball, surrealist brand of Americana previously honed in the arthouse staple Blue Velvet, became a bona fide cultural phenomenon. The show’s popularity left an array of pop culture detritus in its wake, from a Saturday Night Live parody with Chris Farley as the volatile Leo Johnson to controversial wall calendars. Public interest in the show also rippled out into the careers of all the cast members. Veterans and relative newcomers alike suddenly had a nationwide audience interested in their past work and the work they were to make in the coming years.
BAMcinématek is planning for a resurgence of this interest with the upcoming return of Twin Peaks to television. The film series Peak Performances revisits cast members’ most memorable roles outside the show, crossing decades and genres in its tribute. More than 10 years before the show aired, Michael Ontkean (Sheriff Harry S. Truman) performs an on-ice striptease in George Roy Hill’s hockey comedy Slap Shot. The gang members in The Warriors are invited to “come out and play” by David Patrick Kelly, who would play Laura Palmer’s Uncle Jerry. Before embodying Agent Dale Cooper, Kyle MacLachlan plays another Lynch leading man in Blue Velvet. Jerome Robbins’ musical West Side Story features two of the show’s cast members: Richard Beymer (Ben Horne) and Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Lawrence Jacoby.) Ray Wise plays the human scientist who becomes the titular monster in Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing.
No matter which Twin Peaks actors are your favorites, BAM offers the opportunity to think about them in a different context. Two selections screening after the third season’s premiere on May 21 — Iguana and Afterglow — offer glimpses into two cast members’ careers before and after the cult classic changed their lives.
The 1988 pirate horror tale Iguana features a lead performance from Everett McGill, who would become much more commonly known two years later as gas station owner “Big” Ed Hurley on Twin Peaks. The film features McGill as Iguana Oberlus, a deformed sailor who creates his own island kingdom. The newfound sovereign kidnaps unfortunate individuals who cross his path and subjects them to never-ending torture in exchange for their fealty; among the captives is a young Michael Madsen who — in an inversion preceding Reservoir Dogs — finds himself bound and threatened with disfigurement. Iguana conscripts his hostages in a war against his former pirate comrades who spurned him.
Making a humanoid monster the protagonist of a film could prove a risky gambit for maintaining audience sympathies, but director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) dictates the reactions to Iguana through the way he frames the actor’s body. From the opening close-up of a tattoo on Iguana’s arm, the character is segmented and branded by the mise-en-scène, establishing his downtrodden place among his pirate cohorts, who actually brand him, and engaging the viewer’s compassion. When it comes to the whole body, Hellman repeatedly favors shots of the deformed despot traversing cliff faces on his island, climbing rocks like his namesake while waves crash against the craggy surface that resembles the mottled texture of his face. In these shots, Iguana is typically dwarfed by the sprawl of nature, which paints him as an underdog in his violent struggle against outlaw society. While McGill plays a convincing monster, oozing menace as he enacts his demented standards of justice, Hellman’s clever framing is just as crucial to winning the audience’s support of Iguana as McGill’s haughty, imperial performance.
The 1997 sex farce Afterglow, which counts Lara Flynn Boyle, Laura Palmer’s best friend Donna Hayward, among its cast, arrived after the peak of the Twin Peaks phenomenon, but its greatest influence lies deeper in the annals of American film history. Multitalented filmmaker Alan Rudolph learned his trade under the tutelage of master director Robert Altman, working as an assistant director on the classics The Long Goodbye and Nashville. Traces of Altman’s cinematic DNA, like the slow, methodical, but meandering movement of his camera, often make themselves apparent in Rudolph’s films.
Afterglow is no exception. Its interest in infidelity and relationships in crisis was part and parcel of Altman’s own work and life. The mentor’s tendency to trust talented actors and allow them to work their magic informed the mentee’s collaboration with Julie Christie and Nick Nolte, who play an older married couple tempted by adulterous affairs with younger, richer spouses played by Boyle and Jonny Lee Miller. Christie was nominated for an Academy Award for her raw emotional earnestness, and Nolte matches her scene-for-scene with an intensity that likely informed his own nomination the following year for Affliction.
Juxtaposed against their older counterparts’ career-best work, however, Boyle and Miller’s performances suffer. Their characters barely register as two-dimensional yuppie caricatures. In her scenes with Nolte, Boyle’s affectless delivery pales in power next to his natural patter. She fares even worse during her screentime with Christie. When Boyle’s character, unaware that she is speaking to her lover’s wife, brags about her relationship with Nolte, she is unable to engage the dramatic irony of the situation. The film ends with a shot of Christie and Nolte in a cathartic release of emotional turmoil; despite spending equal time with the other couple, Rudolph knows where to find the gravitas necessary to stick the landing on this compelling film.
Each film presents a unique perspective on paths not taken in the actors’ careers. If Twin Peaks hadn’t reconceived McGill as an adulterous small-town businessman, could he have become a creature-feature staple along the lines of Boris Karloff or Doug Bradley? If Boyle had delivered clunkers like her turn in Afterglow earlier in her career, would Lynch have been unable to see her as the confidante of a dead girl wrapped in plastic? In considering Twin Peaks’ characters through the lens of their actors’ most eclectic roles, Peak Performances offers up enough “what if?”s to get fans excited for the return of a series dense with double lives and parallel worlds.