Lost in the Movies: Vivian Niles (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #62)

Vivian Niles (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #62)

*A revised entry will be published separately in 2023 for an updated character series (which will be collected here). This is the original entry written before The Return.

The TWIN PEAKS Character Series surveys eighty-two characters from the series Twin Peaks (1990-91) and the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) as well as The Missing Pieces (2014), a collection of deleted scenes from that film. A new character study will appear every weekday morning until the premiere of Showtime's new season of Twin Peaks on May 21, 2017. There will be spoilers for the original series and film.

Vivian is crisp, calm, and articulate – she will destroy your confidence with artfully phrased passive aggression rather than overt hostility.

Friday, March 10, 1989
Vivian shows up in Twin Peaks on a honeymoon with Ernie Niles. She expresses keen interest in the food at her daughter Norma’s diner, the RR. Norma, initially pleased to see her, quickly grows weary but Vivian seems oblivious or indifferent – maybe both. Norma tells her mother she’s nervous about the arrival of a mysterious food critic, M.T. Wentz, and Vivian asks Norma about her husband “Henry” (everyone else calls him Hank), who just got out of prison. Then she introduces her own new husband to Norma. Later, Vivian returns to the diner to help out in the kitchen. She greets Hank when he reappears after a long absence, eavesdropping on his argument with Norma before cutting in. Hank gets along with his mother-in-law; he chuckles off her needling questions about his criminal record and eagerly accepts her invitation to a meal at the Great Northern Hotel. At dinner, Vivian criticizes the salmon before taking a bathroom break with her daughter. When they return, Hank proposes a toast.

Saturday, March 11, 1989
Vivian sits at the counter for a country breakfast. By now Norma’s irritation is palpable but Vivian keeps plowing forward with her “helpful” comments. She spits out her omelette, teases Norma about the quality of food, and suggests ingredients outside of the RR’s budget.

Wednesday, March 15, 1989
Vivian lingers in town nearly a week after her arrival, having clearly overstayed her welcome. When she arrives at the diner this evening, a distressed Norma is removing all of the fancy decorations. When told that M.T. Wentz wrote a terrible review, Vivian completes Norma’s quotation and confesses, as if it’s all a delightful misunderstanding, “I wrote it.” Norma is horrified to find out that Vivian savaged her own daughter’s business in print but Vivian digs in her heels: “It’s simply not a good restaurant.” Norma responds, “I want you out of my restaurant…and out of my life.” A peeved Vivian finally has nothing to say, and strolls out of the RR Diner as Norma cries.

Characters Vivian interacts with onscreen…

Norma Jennings

Ernie Niles

Hank Jennings

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Vivian
Vivian seems all wrong for this town, and we wonder if she helped raise Norma in Twin Peaks or was mostly absent, leaving the child-rearing to an ex-husband. Certainly, Vivian has no patience for the provincial; her insistence on polished protocol clashes with the easy-going, eccentricity-tolerating flavor of the community. What she tells us about Twin Peaks is mostly through contrast with her surroundings and also with her daughter, who embodies the area’s earthy integrity. On the other hand, Vivian clicks with Hank (unsurprising given her own disingenuous husband). There is, after all, another side of Twin Peaks – a conniving, self-serving undercurrent that Vivian corresponds with all too well. Like many characters on the show, she has a secret/dual identity. The mostly silly M.T. Wentz plot can in fact be viewed as a lighter, more conventionally soapy parallel to the Leland/Bob reveal (a major plot point coincident with Vivian’s own appearance). In both cases, a parent suppresses their hostility toward their offspring by assuming another identity and lashing out behind that mask. On the old alt.tv.twin-peaks forum, Barb Miller observed how Vivian contrasts with the other, much more demure mothers on Twin Peaks (the comment is worth reading in its entirety – scroll down to 7/29/91 in my collection of notable Usenet writing on TwinPeaks). The “devouring mother,” as Miller calls her (noting the term’s literal connotations in this case), feels like a very soapy motif: think Alexis Carrington in Dynasty. The M.T. Wentz storyline, which begins on a sitcom note with Louie the concierge way back in episode 11, has certainly hit a more melodramatic note by Vivian’s revelation in episode 17.

Vivian’s journey
In a way Norma, not Vivian, is the character with a clear arc in this situation (I’ll save that discussion for Norma’s own entry). Vivian doesn’t change much from the time we meet her to the moment she walks out that door, but she does slowly reveal herself. At first we might mistake her for a genuinely affectionate mother but Vivian’s war of verbal attrition takes its toll on us as well as Norma. Furthermore, the quality of her comments decline; when she first tries her daughter’s food (rudely snatching a potato from a customer’s plate) she offers praise. Even her backhanded compliments are, at least nominally, compliments. By the next morning she’s literally gagging on Norma’s eggs and on the final day, she’s entirely dismissive of her daughter’s feelings, presenting a coldly genial front which is the final straw. Vivian has some strong parallels with Hank: like him she declines to declare her intentions upfront. Unlike him, she doesn’t indulge in much flattery. However, they do share a certain brisk “friendliness” that disarms a person like Norma. She approaches the world more straightforwardly, making it difficult for her to fend off their parries. As this mother-daughter catasrophe unfolds over a few days, we witness a crucial snapshot of a much longer relationship; this is a microcosm not only of Norma’s difficulties with her mother, but also her husband.

Actress: Jane Greer
Twin Peaks features its fair share of Hollywood legends, and Greer certainly belongs in that pantheon – particularly for her work as Out of the Past's Kathie Moffat, one of film noir’s iconic femme fatales. Greer was signed by Howard Hughes as a teenager after posing for LIFE Magazine; she later sued RKO/Hughes, won, and then continued to appear in his films! (This site features a quick rundown of her career with some great photos.) Greer developed her performing skills at fifteen, when her face was partially paralyzed by palsy and she was forced to undergo expressive exercises to restore movement. Her film career petered out in the early fifties, but she was a TV regular for about a decade and continued to act onscreen until semi-retirement in the ninieties (Twin Peaks was one of her last roles). Interestingly, she had a quick cameo in one episode of Saturday Night Live in 1987 – on an episode hosted by Robert Mitchum, her Out of the Past co-star.

Episode 15 (German title: “Drive With a Dead Girl”)

Episode 16 (German title: “Arbitrary Law”)

*Episode 17 (German title: “Dispute Among Brothers” - best episode)

Vivian was introduced in Scott Frost’s teleplay, received one scene in a Mark Frost/Harley Peyton/Robert Engels episode, and was wrapped up by Tricia Brock. She was directed by Caleb Deschanel, Tim Hunter, and Tina Rathborne.

Vivian is onscreen for roughly seven minutes. She is in five scenes (with a costume change for each one) and three episodes, taking place in three days over the course of a week. She’s featured the most in episode 15, her arrival. Her primary location is the RR Diner and she definitely shares the most screentime – all of it, in fact – with Norma...

Best Scene
Episode 17: Vivian’s reveal – and Norma’s shutdown –  provides payoff for the tension developed by the actors and directors for several episodes. This moment is subtler than the broad strokes of the storyline might suggest.

Best Line
“M.T. Wentz…c’est moi!”

Additional Observations

• A close contender for best line, as cavalierly cruel if not as pithy: “Darling, I wanted to give you a good review. But this is just not a good restaurant! I can’t violate my professional ethics.”

• Until Vivian’s final scene, M.T. Wentz seems like a separate character with an independent trajectory. Louie and Ben discuss her (mostly assuming Wentz is a man) as a travel writer for the Seattle Post-Dispatch though by the time Vivian actually arrives, the emphasis is entirely on food criticism. Daryl Lodwick, the state prosecutor, is mistaken for Wentz, as is mysterious “Japanese businessman” Tojamura (actually Catherine Martell in disguise – another double identity in the vicinity of Vivian’s subplot).

• Through Ernie’s dialogue when Vivian is offscreen, we learn he met Vivian at a Republican fundraiser. She thinks he’s a financial analyst. As it turns out, Ernie is a charlatan and ex-con who served time for robbing a Savings & Loan (coincidentally, Hank recognizes him from prison and uses this information to blackmail him). Vivian, so intent on sniping at Norma, doesn’t even recognize the kind of man she's married. Of course, her affection for Ernie and even, it seems, Hank, betrays a weak spot for duplicitous men, sadly passed on to her daughter.

• In fact – I’ll dwell on this point more extensively in Norma’s entry – it’s when Ernie appears that Norma’s interactions with Vivian truly head south. Whether this is because of his personality, a deeper frustration about her mother and men, or simply because it shows that Vivian didn’t just come to town to see Norma, the surprise marriage to Ernie is obviously a point of contention between mother and daughter. Yet it’s never openly discussed by them, left to simmer on the backburner when other issues are raised to a boil.

• Vivian is mentioned twice after she leaves the series. First: when Ernie returns from a “hunting trip” (actually a visit to a whorehouse/casino), Norma tells him that her mother has gone back to Seattle, and he should join her. Second: when her daughter Annie shows up in Twin Peaks and gets a job at the diner. “How’s Mom?” Annie asks. “Well, we could talk about her or we could feel good for a change,” Norma mutters. “I vote for the latter.”

• In Mark Frost’s novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Norma’s mother appears several times. There’s only one problem: the mother we meet in this book is an entirely different character. Named Ilsa Lindstrom, she works as a waitress at the very diner “M.T. Wentz” savages… and dies in 1984, five years before the events of Twin Peaks. This is possibly a simple oversight – Frost has said he didn’t rewatch the series much after it aired and he may have forgotten the existing character when sketching in Norma’s family history (to be honest, I didn’t even notice until someone else pointed it out). That said, Vivian-related material covers a sizable chunk of season two, stretching from the first comical mention of M.T. Wentz to Ernie’s involvement in the Dead Dog Farm standoff. Is it possibly Frost wrote her out of Twin Peaks history on purpose? Annie is also missing from the book, though she isn’t replaced – a fate that only Vivian experiences in the entire Twin Peaks ensemble.

SHOWTIME: Greer passed away in 2001. We can only imagine what happened after episode 17. Did she find out about Ernie’s criminal history? (Considering his involvement with a hostage situation in Twin Peaks a few days after she left town, this seems likely.) Did she and Norma ever mend fences? How did she react to the violent kidnapping and hospitalization of her other daughter, Annie? Given her erasure in Mark Frost’s book, we’ll probably never know. Update 2019: Or will we? Check out Vivian's revised and re-published entry, reflecting her appearance in Frost's follow-up book, The Final Dossier, which attempts to straighten out this discrepancy.

Tomorrow: Jonathan Kumagai
Yesterday: Teresa Banks

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