Sheryl Lee Is Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s “Fire Walk With Me”
By Stuart Mitchner
Writing about Twin Peaks in May of 2014, I made special mention of Angelo Badalamenti’s score, how from the first note, the mood created by his music is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful, with a subtle undercurrent of menace and dread that comes into play whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura Palmer’s home. Above all the music is about Laura Palmer, whose murder is what sets the machinery of the Twin Peaks project in motion with the simplistic but effective tag-line Who killed Laura Palmer? and the answer delivered toward the end of the series’ second season: her father.
What Badalamenti’s music says is that no matter how sordid her secret life or the circumstances of her murder, Laura was adored, a darling of the community, its most beautiful child. The emotional chemistry of the score and the show is articulated by Laura’s best friend Donna when she says “It’s like I’m having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once.”
Bringing Laura to Life
Explaining the motive behind the full-length film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) made in the aftermath of the flawed second season of the series, David Lynch said: “I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move and talk.”
On its release, Fire Walk With Me was roundly reviled, allegedly booed and jeered at Cannes (not so, witnesses say), and given a rating of 28 (“generally unfavorable”) on metacritic. Because of its sheer cinematic brilliance and Sheryl Lee’s bravura performance as Laura Palmer, however, the picture deserves serious reassessment, a process underway with Criterion’s release of a 25th anniversary DVD, reviewed last week in Cinapse as “David Lynch’s underrated masterpiece that crucially redefines Laura Palmer.”
In a 1995 essay, novelist David Foster Wallace considers “the transformation of Laura from object/occasion to subject/person” as “the most morally ambitious thing a Lynch movie has ever tried to do.” The late author of Infinite Jest suggests that Fire Walk With Me “required complex and contradictory and probably impossible things from Ms. Lee,” who “deserved an Oscar just for showing up and trying.”
Sheryl Lee does more than show up and try: she devotes herself to the role with an emotionally unstinting depth of passion and commitment.
“He Hit a Nerve!”
With the media still processing the aftershocks of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Lee’s recent comments about the challenge of playing Laura Palmer have a certain resonance. “What I see now,” she tells Entertainment Weekly, referring to Laura’s dilemma, “is all of the signs, and no one reaching out to help her. Every single day that happens to the girls in our country, in real life.”
As for the critical treatment of Fire Walk, the German-born actress says, “I know that different works of art often ignite controversial opinions …. It’s knowing, ‘Oh wow, he hit a nerve! What is that nerve? What is that undercurrent? What is that shadow aspect that’s being mirrored back, that is uncomfortable?’”
Asked about the problematic ending of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return, which ended its 18-episode run early last month, she admits, “I’m still in the unknown. And I’m not uncomfortable with the unknown.”
Laura Palmer herself couldn’t have said it better. Or David Lynch, for that matter. Clearly, he found his perfect Laura in Sheryl Lee.
When Lynch says he was in love with Laura, he doesn’t mean it casually. His love is an inspirational and unrelenting force. As much as he may adore and delight in his character, he subjects her to horror; in that sense, he’s the demon inhabiting Laura’s father (Ray Wise), for it’s Lynch and Lynch alone who can create and destroy her, and then lift her to heaven.
Sitting up till after 4 a.m. watching Fire Walk With Me for the second time in two days, I did my best to keep track of Laura’s movements. When she enters, smiling and beautiful, on her way to school, Badalamenti’s theme enters with her and if you love Twin Peaks, there’s no way not to be moved; the same thing happens when Dale Cooper finally comes awake as himself in The Return: the music marks the moment.
On her way to school Laura meets up with her soulmate and best friend Donna (Moira Kelly, who replaced Lara Flynn Boyle). The rapport between the two is absolutely convincing. You think they must have bonded as children. For all the erotic charisma that makes Laura devastatingly attractive to males of all ages, including boyfriends like hothead Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) and secret lover biker James Hurley (James Marshall), Laura’s true love, albeit platonic, is Donna. But at school, the first thing Laura does is to duck into the toilet; the prom queen, whose portrait sits in a place of honor among the trophies in a display case, snorts cocaine. Next thing we see, she enters with a towel around her naked body and has sex with James even as Bobby stands on the other side of the wall mouthing kisses at her photograph. When James gets tender, she gets cold; when he says “You always hurt the one you love,” she says, “You mean the ones you pity.” When Bobby pounces on her (“Hey where were you for the last hour?”), she cuts him with a lie, “I was standing right behind you but you’re too dumb to turn around.” Then, when he moves in, the tough guy, as if he’s going to hit her, she says “Get lost” and melts him with a smile. It’s a smile for the ages. Lee’s star quality is all over it. Bobby backs off, grinning, shaken, unmanned, gasping “Love you, baby,” as she walks away.
Next we see Laura and Donna lounging in Donna’s living room. When Donna wonders whether “if you were falling in space … you would slow down, or … go faster and faster,” Laura says, “Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. And then you’d burst into fire. Forever …. And the angels wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.” This is Sheryl Lee speaking Lynch’s language with perfect pitch.
At home Laura climbs the stairs under the sinister ceiling fan Twin Peaks faithful will remember from the first season. In her bedroom she pulls out her diary and lounges on her bed reading it, at once girlish and erotic. Pages have been torn out. The demon’s work. She drives off to see her shut-in confidant Harold (Lenny Von Dohlen), to tell him about the missing pages, and in that scene, another virtuoso piece of acting, she’s hysterical, terrified, tender, tearful, and then possessed, her teeth bared, face to face with her ever confused, ever sympathetic friend as she utters in a voice not hers, “Fire … walk … with … me!”
If you’re watching this scene between 3 and 4 in the morning, you know that “hair-raising” is no mere figure of speech. But what you feel most of all is admiration for the actress.
Beauty and Horror
Laura’s fate is on the wall of her bedroom: a framed picture showing a half-open doorway, the stuff of nightmares, nothing but horror is going to come through that doorway, and yet she’s hung it there next to a quaint little scene of children at a table set for a meal being presided over by a beautiful angel. It’s an old-fashioned image she’s grown up with and found consoling, a benign presence. On her last night when the angel disappears, you recall her words to Donna “and the angels have all gone away.”
As Laura approaches the end of her life, in a scene lit with a red glow, she encounters the seer of Twin Peaks, otherwise known as the Log Lady, who tells her, “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.”
Audiences at showings of this film years ago may have laughed at the over-the-top Lynchian poetry of the scene and perhaps laughed even louder at the denouement following horrific visions of rape and murder, with Laura sitting in Lynch’s alternate reality, the Red Room, watching in joy and amazement as the angel rises before her, and she’s smiling, then laughing, to see that she’s the angel.
It’s Lynch’s vision, the beautiful dream on the other side of the nightmare, and for the magnitude of the moment even Badalamenti’s music isn’t enough. Instead, Lynch uses Cherubini’s Requiem in C Minor. And as much as the confused, dazed, angry audiences who came to Fire Walk With Me expecting another Twin Peaks may have mocked the spectacle, some may have been moved in spite of themselves to realize that the exhausted woman on the screen is laughing and crying because she knows she has just given the performance of her life.