Lost in the Movies: Judge Clinton Sternwood (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #82)

Judge Clinton Sternwood (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #82)

The TWIN PEAKS Character Series surveys one hundred ten characters from the series Twin Peaks (1990-91 on ABC and 2017 on Showtime as The Return), the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and The Missing Pieces (2014), a collection of deleted scenes from that film. The series will be rebooted in 2023 to reflect the third season (and patrons will have immediate access to each entry a month before it goes public), but this entry will remain intact. There will be spoilers.

Sternwood is an outsider but not a stranger to Twin Peaks; his every word and gesture conveys a love for the town so great it may ultimately blind his judgement.

Monday, March 6, 1989
A flash of lightning illuminates a tall, striking figure entering through the double doors of the Twin Peaks sheriff's station. Circuit Court Judge Clinton Sternwood, clad in a long slicker, bolo tie, and cowboy's rumpled fedora, has arrived inside the small town's warm, dry, cozy headquarters. He embraces Lucy Moran, the receptionist suffering some private sorrows, and reminds her that "Life is hard, dear. Still, it's harder in most places than in Twin Peaks." Sheriff Harry Truman shows up and seems troubled too; Sternwood right away recognizes that his mind is on a lady. FBI Agent Dale Cooper joins them, and Harry notes wryly, "You two should have a lot in common." Cooper expresses his pleasure with Twin Peaks and Sternwood, who also clearly loves the town, reminds him that "This week, heaven includes arson, multiple homicides, and an attempt on the life of a federal agent." Sternwood then presides over a meeting with a confessed murderer in the conference room. Leland Palmer is an old friend, an admired legal colleague who lost his daughter and killed the suspected perpetrator in a fit of rage. Sternwood expresses his admiration for Leland, as well as his recognition of the duties incumbent upon him. A bail hearing will be set for the morning, and once Leland has returned to his cell, Sternwood sighs, "We have hard jobs." His mood brightens when his tall, beautiful assistant Sid arrives and they hustle off to the Great Northern Hotel together.

Tuesday, March 7, 1989
Court is held in the Road House tavern, with chairs arranged along the peanut- and sawdust-strewn floor, while Sternwood is seated at a tall table on the red-curtained stage. The prosecutor, Daryl Lodwick, argues that Leland should not get bail given the violence and premeditation of his crime as well as his unstable state of mind. Harry, however, stands up for Leland's character, reminding the court of his deep roots in the community and the stress that he's been under. Sternwood sympathetically releases Leland on his own recognizance, demanding only that he stay in town and check in with law enforcement until a future court date arrives. Most of those in the room nod in agreement, happy that this unfortunate man has received such a generous ruling. Sternwood's second case provides more difficulty: Leo Johnson, comatose after a gunshot wound, is accused not only of arson and attempted murder but also the murder of Laura Palmer, Leland's daughter. The prosecutor pushes to take Leo to trial so that Twin Peaks can receive justice in the loss of its beloved homecoming queen. An irritated Sternwood calls a recess and, while drinking Yukon Sucker Punches at the bar with Cooper and Harry, reflects on the best course forward. Cooper naysays Leo's guilt so Sternwood declares Leo not competent to stand trial, dismissing the charges so he can go home and be cared for by his wife. While Harry informs the young woman, Sternwood tells Cooper, "I'd advise you to keep your eyes on the woods. The woods are wondrous here. But strange."

Characters Sternwood interacts with onscreen…

Lucy Moran

Harry Truman

Agent Cooper

Leland Palmer

Daryl Lodwick

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Sternwood
Here's a character who doesn't technically belong to Twin Peaks, yet seems more at home there than anyone else we've met so far. It's not hard to see why Harry links Sternwood with Cooper: both are outsiders who belong in Twin Peaks on some fundamental level. Yet both have a tendency to over-romanticize its rustic charms (even as they occasionally recognize the grimmer truth), and it may be Cooper's self-awareness that causes him to keep a slight distance. In their several scenes together, I never quite sense the chemistry one would expect between the two characters. Cooper seems quiet, Sternwood occasionally a bit gruff, though they clearly respect each other. Perhaps they see their own flaws in one another, alongside the similar charms and perceptions. Like Cooper, Sternwood has a mystic, magical vibe. His first appearance is timed to a bolt of lightning as if electricity has manifested him out of thin air (shades of Fire Walk With Me), he has the near-psychic ability to sniff out Harry's "filly troubles," he calls upon the imagery of Valhalla to honor Leland, and his last words to Cooper remind him of the woodland's supernatural aura. With Sternwood on hand, Twin Peaks fully embraces its down-home, old-fashioned, fairy-tale-wrapped-in-Americana spirit, tiptoeing on the edge of parody (the Road House as a court house?) but not quite spilling over thanks to Royal Dano's bona fide western cred. If Sternwood represents the idealized portrait of Twin Peaks as an honest, good-natured community, it's fitting that he also represents its shadow side: a sense of self-satisfied authority/social structure that doesn't actually protect the vulnerable, an inability to see past the reassuring surface to tease out the darkness underneath. This is one area where Cooper potentially surpasses the wise old man, but he too can fall prey to this blindness.

Sternwood’s journey
Sternwood is a great character and not just because he has so many damn good lines. At first glance, he's a well-played cartoon - the classically grizzlad lawman of the frontier, updated slightly for the modern era but not too much. However, the more time we spend with him (not just over the course of his several scenes, but on repeat viewings), more subtle, ambiguous gradations emerge. Little moments allow us to glimpse chinks in his armor, but nothing convinces us that he was misguided more than what happens after his arc has ended: Leland, who killed Laura, kills again. And in Sternwood's gestures of compassion and trust, we see a microcosm of the whole town's inability to discern the truth of Laura's abuse, the cold fact that evil can exist not just in their midst but in the presence of one of their most beloved citizens. Why is Sternwood fooled? Does the traveling judge simply long to believe that life really is harder in other places, that Twin Peaks is a refuge of decency in a troubled world? Does his disarming manner conceal a deep-seated sense of sexist patriarchy (see his slightly condescending manner with Lucy and his "if they don't take the saddle, you got two options" comment about women to Harry)? Does the perpetual drifter identify so deeply with the ethos of the rooted Palmer clan, as cited by Harry, that he wants to irrationally push back against the brash universalist logic of the prosecutor? We can think of many reasons, some much more justifiable than those listed, why Sternwood might not consider Leland a risk but the fact is...Lodwick is right. Leland is crafty. Leland is deeply imbalanced. And Leland is a violent criminal. With that in mind, Sternwood's arc ends not at the comfy Road House bar, but on the bloody floor of the Palmer living room.

Actor: Royal Dano
Dano was a frequent presence in cinema and television from the fifties to the early nineties, bearing a chiseled face and gravely voice perfect for westerns, historical dramas, and horror films. He played both Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, but it was another Civil War-era performance that may have been his biggest missed opportunity: a death scene in John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage was apparently so powerful that it alienated the test audiences and was cut. (Huston, who regretted the decision, later cast Dano as Elijah the grizzled Nantucket madman/prophet in Moby Dick). Dano also appeared in Alfred Hitchock's The Trouble with Harry and as Saint Peter in King of Kings. One prevalent myth is that he played the chief Winkie in The Wizard of Oz (the one who declares, "She's dead! You killed her!" when Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch). In fact, while the voice and facial structure are vaguely convincing, Dano was still a high school student in New York when Oz was shot; he wouldn't make it to Hollywood for another decade at least. (This thread does a good job clearing up the confusion.) Filmstuck has a good, illustrated run-down of his career though it seems to get a few dates and ages mixed up. (film pictured: The Trouble With Harry, 1955)

*Episode 11 (German title: "Laura's Secret Diary" - best episode)

Episode 12 (German title: "The Orchid's Curse")

Sternwood's introduction is credited to Jerry Stahl, Mark Frost, Harley Peyton, and Robert Engels, while Barry Pullman writes his courtroom scenes. He is directed by Todd Holland and Graeme Clifford.

Sternwood is onscreen for roughly eleven minutes. He is in four scenes in two episodes, taking place over two consecutive days. He's featured the most in episode 12, when he holds court in his primary location, the Road House. He shares about equal screentime with Cooper and Harry. He is one of the top five characters of episode 12 and one of the top ten characters of episode 11.

Best Scene
Episode 11: Sternwood consoles Leland, laments the difficulty of enforcing the law, and departs cheerfully with his assistant Sid.

Best Line
“Before we assume our respective roles in this enduring drama, just let me say that when these frail shadows we inhabit now have quit the stage, we'll meet and raise a glass again together in Valhalla.”

Additional Observations

• Sternwood is a member of a nearly extinct tribe, the "traveling judge" who would "ride circuit," traveling from town to town on a regular basis to hear cases that had arisen in the interim (one wonders how long a suspect could be held before a judge arrived to set bail). This was especially a phenomenon of the Old West, which is no doubt what the writers hoped to evoke with this character (is there any genre Twin Peaks *doesn't* touch upon?).

Sternwood and Sid drive around in a Winnebago motor home from town to town, so it can probably be assumed they have no permanent address. Winnebago Industries (named after the Iowa county where its Forest City headquarters are located) was launched in 1958 to give a boost to the declining local economy, and the brand name has since become synonymous with RVs. Sternwood tells Cooper and Harry he's going to "hook up the Winne" after arriving at the Great Northern; will they use its electricity and dining facilities without reserving a room, spending the night in the car? There's certainly something romantic about this lifestyle, which compellingly offsets and motivates Sternwood's attachment to the rooted nature of Twin Peaks.

• Ray Wise (Leland Palmer) loved working with Dano, noting in Brad Dukes' book Reflections that "he sort of looks like Abraham Lincoln. I believe he actually played him at one point and he was a great character actor, especially as the lightning rod salesman in Something Wicked This Way Comes, a great Ray Bradbury story. I was just thrilled to be in the scene and actually have dialogue with him because I had admired his work in movies from the time I was a little kid. I was a bit starstruck with Royal in that scene."

• Update 2023: This entry was written in 2017, before the third season, and did not need to be revised as Sternwood did not re-appear. Only the description/intro at the top and the ranking were updated. In the original character series, Sternwood was ranked #54, between the Mountie and Emory.

SHOWTIME: No, Dano is not on the cast list for 2017. He died in 1994 from a heart attack following an argument over a car accident (his son, a disabled Vietnam vet, had died earlier that year). Sternwood is a character I both would and wouldn't want to know more about after his appearance on the show. On the one hand, how did he react to the news that Leland killed Laura? Or that those woods he warned about had some sort of supernatural involvement with the terror seizing Twin Peaks? Would he feel guilty for his role in facilitating the murder of Maddy? On the other hand, Sternwood's involvement is perfect just as it is. He wanders into town as the wise man, makes an incredibly unwise decision, and wanders off before the ramifications of that decision can be felt. Somehow this feels like the perfect metaphor for a town whose collective heart may seem to be in the right place, but whose vision is dictated by what it wants to see rather than what's there.

Next (available now): Emory Battis

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