Lost in the Movies: Gersten Hayward (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #79)

Gersten Hayward (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #79)

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. A new character study will appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday although patrons will have immediate access to each entry a month before it goes public. There will be spoilers.

A prodigy as a child, a mess as an adult, the fleeting Gersten pops in and out of others' lives in both memorable and mysterious fashion.

Friday, March 3, 1989
Gersten Hayward, a young girl who is maybe a preteen or early teenager, stands before her family and their guests seated around the dinner table. The Palmers - Leland and Sarah, who just lost their daughter Laura - are dressed quite formally while the Haywards - Gersten's father Dr. Will, mother Eileen, and older sibling Harriet - appear politely but not dramatically attired. Gersten's big sister Donna and Laura's cousin Maddy are clothed as usual, too cool to follow etiquette. And as for Gersten herself? Clad in a pink, translucent gown, a glittering tiara atop her flaming-red hair and a silver-starred wand clutched in her right hand, she is proud to announce that she has gotten the part of the fairy princess in the school play while acing her recent exams. Precocious but too lively to appear pretentious, Gersten finishes her welcome to "the Hayward Supper Club" on a poignant note, inviting Harriet up to read a poem about the dearly departed Laura. Accompanying this reading with a slow, sad score, Gersten remains at the living room piano, just on the other side of the dining room door, to play Mendelssohn afterwards. The audience watches and listens pensively.

Later in the evening she is still playing the piano while everyone else eats and talks amongst themselves. They now ignore her but she ignores them too, focused on the keys at hand to maintain the tempo of each composition. Only Leland breaks this spell with a request. Gersten only needs to hear and repeat the two-word title to slip effortlessly into a rendition of Harold Arlen's "Get Happy" as Leland stands at the threshold of the two rooms and belts out Ted Koehler's lyrics about getting ready for the Judgment Day. Repeating the central refrain at a pace so manic even the skillful Gersten has trouble keeping up, Leland eventually collapses on the floor. Gersten stops playing and watches as her father races to Leland's side. When the eccentric guest revives, Gersten smiles with relief and amusement.

At some other point in the night, she plays a fast-paced barrelhouse number, upbeat in effect although she appears intent and alone in the act of performance.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016
A couple decades older and dressed much less ostentatiously, Gersten stands in an apartment complex stairwell clutching the arm of Steven Burnett. They've just heard gunshots upstairs following the arrival of Steven's frantic wife.

Sunday, October 2, 2016
High on drugs and deep in the woods, Steven himself now clutches a handgun, rubbing his leg and muttering what sounds like nonsense about rhinoceroses and "coming up". Gersten's efforts at comfort and reassurance do not seem to help; kissing him and trying to push the gun away, she tells him that an unidentified woman, not he, is responsible for whatever just happened. She appears especially distressed when Steven says he's a high school graduate. A man appears in the distance, clutching a dog's arm and running away when the two lovers see him - but not before Gersten herself lets go of Steven and runs around the large base of the tree where they have been crouching. She is there, alone, when she hears a gunshot and freaks out, running her hands over her face and hair, staring up at the tree-obscured sky which appears to spin before her disoriented eyes.

Characters Gersten interacts with onscreen…

Leland Palmer

Steven Burnett

and Laura Palmer is mentioned
*retroactively added in March 2024

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Gersten
What a contrast the two halves of Gersten's story display - and yet what complementary visions. The two Twin Peaks glimpsed through her roles in episode 8 and part 15 are on the one hand communitarian and on the other hand natural. In the second season, Gersten is playing piano in a living room, providing background music for a discussion of the town's fundamental tragedy: the loss of a beautiful girl who Gersten and her sisters might aspire to be. In the third season, Gersten attempts to assuage gibberish under a massive, mossy tree - the tragedy here feels more elemental than social, in language as well as visual features. In both cases, though, the community is deeply troubled; Steven essentially plays the Leland role a quarter-century later, a hapless individual tormented by some past transgression against a family member (it's implied that Steven shot his wife Becky, although other material implies otherwise) for which he tries to compensate through desperate incantations - "Come on, everyone, get happy," and "I'm a high school graduate!" And in both cases, Gersten provides the accompanying counterpoint, albeit with more of a personal stake in Steven's case. As far as Twin Peaks the show goes, Gersten's otherwise wildly disparate appearances are consistent in their Lynchian aspect; she only ever expresses the eerie juxtaposition of earnest engagement with violent spiritual turbulence.

Gersten’s journey
How on earth does that happy, gifted child become this tormented, overwhelmed adult? The same way such transformations always occur of course; despite the infinite external variables, some toxic mixture of pressure, uncertainty, curiosity, and sensitivity opens too many wrong doors - just as, with some slight tweaking and better luck, they can open all the right ones. We aren't shown the path from glowing A to sordid B (though we can read about this, at a distance, later), so what's left is two polarities to compare and contemplate: a unique artistic vantage point on one of the great human themes. What also emerges when we place the two big events side by side is an underlying similarity: in both situations, Gersten is trying to work with a troubled collaborator who is crushed by the weight of his own desperate words, pulling her along with them until - for better or worse - she can't hang on. Ultimately their interactions are interrupted by a third figure (in both cases played by a Frost!) who is able to have a more direct effect on the other man's status as Gersten merely observes from the sidelines. Perhaps the great character flaw of Gersten Hayward is not anything inherent in her own make-up but rather her placement in the overall ensemble: her potential star power is relegated to unsustainable support status. She always ends up as attaché to another protagonist's doom.

Actress: Alicia Witt
Unsurprisingly, like the character she played, Witt was also a child prodigy - a brilliant pianist who finished high school at fourteen. Unlike Gersten, however, the actress went on to a prolific and eclectic career - albeit alongside her own trials and tragedies. Her first foray into the spotlight was on a 1980 episode of the variety show That's Incredible! in which she recites Romeo & Juliet. One of the viewers was David Lynch, who cast her in Dune several years later in the memorable role of Alia Atreides. In 1993, she played the lead against Crispin Glover in Lynch's "Blackout" sketch, part of the HBO anthology film Hotel Room. Only a few years after she appeared as a little girl in Twin Peaks, the still-teenaged Witt portrays an emotionally fragile woman grieving the loss of her child with sensitivity and conviction. Prior to this her only non-Lynch film had been Liebensraum (which inspired Lynch to cast Pamela Gidley as Teresa Banks) but afterwards she went on to roles in Mr. Holland's Opus, Bodies, Rest & Motion, Urban Legend, and as the star of Fun for which she received special recognition at Sundance. Tough several years longer than most of Twin Peaks' other twentysomething alums she was like them very much part of the Gen X-heavy indie scene in the nineties. Her most mainstream exposure came through playing Zoey Woodbine, daughter of the main character in the popular sitcom Cybill which ran for four seasons and eighty-seven episodes beginning in 1995. In the zeroes and teens, Witt showed up on episodes of The Sopranos, Ally McBealTwo and a Half Men, and The Walking Dead alongside films like Playing Mona Lisa, Vanilla Sky, 88 MinutesCold TurkeyAway From Here (co-starring Ray Wise), and the recent Alice. She had recurring roles as Nola Falacci on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Cheryl Sproles on Friday Night Lights, Wendy Crowe on Justified, Autumn Chase on Nashville, Nicole on The Exorcist, and Zelda in Orange is the New Black.

Over the past decade, Witt has made a specialty of Christmas films: three in 2013 including her first Hallmark special, followed by eight years in a row of annual Hallmark Christmas films. This trend culminated in 2020 with Christmas Tree Lane which she wrote, produced, and performed her own music on. Throughout this entire period, Witt has recorded albums and given concerts as both a classical pianist and singer-songwriter; in early adolescence she was even a competitive pianist. In addition to all of these achievements, Witt was on Wheel of Fortune the same month as Twin Peaks, modeled the world's most expensive hat a decade later, and recently authored a book about plant-based foods. She was sadly also in the news when her parents passed away in an improperly-heated New England home that they refused to accept any help with. The couple had encouraged Witt's interests and pursuits from an early age and had their own legendary aspects - Witt's mother made the Guinness Book of World Records in the late eighties for the length of her hair. Following this tragedy, Witt was diagnosed with, and then successfully treated, breast cancer which she announced in an Instagram post in mid-2022. (program pictured: The Sopranos, 2000)

*Episode 8 (German title: "May the Giant Be With You" - best episode)

Part 11 (Showtime title: "There's fire where you are going.")

Part 15 (Showtime title: "There's some fear in letting go.")

In her single episode of the original series and two appearances in The Return, Gersten is only ever written and directed by Mark Frost and David Lynch, and directed by David Lynch. That said, Frost's season 2 premiere script contains no Hayward sisters or supper club - just a quiet dinner with the two couples. And the character's final scene feels fully Lynchian with its surreal non sequiturs. Of course, Frost is there in form if not spirit given his cameo as the man who disrupts Steven's and Gersten's reverie, causing her to race around the tree and him, perhaps, to kill himself.

Gersten is onscreen, either directly or through the sound of her piano-playing, for roughly twelve minutes. She is in five scenes (including the end credits bumper) and three episodes scattered over twenty-seven years. She's featured the most in episode 8, when she entertains during a family dinner. Her primary location is the Hayward home. She shares the most screentime with the Haywards and Palmers, particular emphasis on Leland. She is one of the top five characters in part 15.

Best Scene
Episode 8: Gersten gets to be both the center of attention and a background element, standing out from the rest of the room thanks to costume and talent.

Best Line
“Also, I got the highest scores in mathematics and English this midseason term, just as my sisters Harriet and Donna did before me, so now I don't have to worry about being ashamed anymore.”

As with other characters, The Final Dossier fleshes out what we've seen and fills in the gap between the old and new material. Placing a great deal of emphasis on the Haywards' violent climax in season 2 - when Doc smashed Benjamin Horne's head into a fireplace - Frost's book reveals that the family collapsed at this point with the previously solid and reliable father abandoning them completely. Though Tammy can only guess at the reason, we know (well, more or less) that Benjamin had revealed his paternity of Donna. The fallout from this can be discussed in greater detail in other entries, but we learn that Gersten was perhaps the schism's greatest casualty. Heading off to Stanford at just sixteen after a whirlwind childhood, "Gersten suffered what was diagnosed as a severe nervous collapse and emotional breakdown." Treated at a psychiatric hospital and then returned home under the supervision of her disabled mother, the young woman turned to drugs and dysfunctional relationships, all the more so after Eileen's death in 2009, culminating in her potentially deadly affair with Steven. These paragraphs do not address the incident that Cyril Pons witnessed out in the woods; Tammy leaves us with a warrant issued for Steven and other local drug dealers but "Gersten has not been seen since and is believed to have left this area."

Additional Observations

• Gersten is one of only two characters to be promoted to a full official entry after first appearing as a capsule in the "Top 30 'Hidden' Characters of TWIN PEAKS" round-up for the original series. Back then, she had fewer than three scenes with dialogue (and, for that matter, less than ten minutes of screentime, though that wasn't the criterion at the time). The other character is Diane, who is more of a concept than a person until season 3, leaving only Gersten to achieve this advance - ironic, considering the onscreen descent which earned her this write-up!

• Gersten also has another rare accomplishment - thumping away on the piano in a medium shot, she's one of the few individuals to be featured under the end credits of an original series episode. That's an honor usually reserved for Laura's portrait although other exceptions include the Man From Another Place dancing, a still shot of Cooper superimposed over the Road House curtains, the Horne family in a 1940s home movie, and Laura herself coming into focus in a Red Room coffee cup.

Update in February 2024: Initially I included Gersten's private audience among "character interactions", but this was not reciprocated in their entries and creates complications for other characters who give speeches to larger crowds. So I've now removed it from that section but for the sake of posterity, here is the image:
Other than Leland, who speaks directly to her later on, this means she has no official interaction with these characters - yes, including her own sister and father right there in the room with her!

• There has been some speculation that perhaps Gersten's season 3 material was initially meant for Donna. After all, the characters undergo similar tribulations in The Final Dossier (though Donna rises higher and longer than Gersten before falling into addiction and mental illness), suggesting that perhaps Frost gave the more prominent character a happy ending only after Lara Flynn Boyle declined the creators' offer to return. Considering what appeared to happen with Audrey and Sylvia Horne, and what we know for sure happened with Harry and Frank Truman, could one Hayward sister have been swapped for another one? Maybe, although given Lynch's affection for Witt, he probably would have created a role for her regardless of Donna's presence. Viewers can also easily miss the fact that Steven's mistress is someone from the old show, and even if they do notice it's a decidedly secondary feature of the subplot. Donna would have been much more of a distraction in that regard, changing the whole balance of the storytelling.

• Despite being several years younger than Boyle, Witt is still significantly older than Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Steven (he was twenty-five at the time of shooting, while she celebrated her fortieth birthday just weeks before production). While hardly an implausible age gap at all, it did lead some viewers to wonder - especially in conjunction with his high school line - if she'd once been his teacher, perhaps even a piano instructor. The book simply states that she hooked up with local druggies and leaves it at that. Regardless, her efforts to comfort and calm Steven down are all the more resonant now that she' old enough to be a potential mentor, a role she's unable to fulfill.

• Gersten wears a key around her neck. Why? Thematically and aesthetically it's a nice, winking embodiment of how little we know about what's going on with these characters and this town. Beyond that, I don't know...does Gersten have the potential to unlock some greater mystery if only anyone - including herself - thought to try? She certainly feels like a figure of untapped potential and where the story leaves us, we're no closer to realizing that potential.

• If Lynch ever does return to Twin Peaks (again), I imagine the cast and scope of the story will be immensely pared down. Still, if there are even a handful of familiar faces, I would not be surprised to see Gersten among them. The ambiguity and unresolved nature of her final scene could offer continuation for the same reason it could also serve as an effective farewell, offering us and Lynch, if not poor Gersten herself, room to dream.

Next (active on Monday, February 6 at 8am): Beverly Paige

To immediately read a month of upcoming entries, updated weekly to stay a month ahead...

(at the time of publication, this includes full entries on new or revised characters among #78 - 52)

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