Film and TV

Forget Joan: A New Version of Mildred Pierce Stays Close to the Text

This week's big movie may be found on TV. Arch-independent filmmaker Todd Haynes makes a characteristically sidelong move toward the mainstream with his five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce, which starts this Sunday on HBO.

Haynes, the most academic yet mass-culture-minded of U.S. indie directors, began his career in the late Reagan era with an unauthorized Karen Carpenter biopic, enacted by a cast of Barbie dolls; his most recent feature, I'm Not There, explicated the Bob Dylan story using five different "Dylans" of various races, ages, and genders. His Mildred Pierce, co-written with Jon Raymond, addresses another sort of star text, exhuming a Depression-set popular novel by tough-guy naturalist James M. Cain that, first filmed in 1945 by Michael Curtiz, provided Joan Crawford with her quintessential role (and only Oscar).

Anyone familiar with the Crawford Mildred Pierce might assume Haynes's remake would resemble the faux-Douglas Sirk of his reimagined 1950s weepie Far From Heaven. But the attitude is quite different--there's neither camp nor irony nor reference to the Crawford vehicle. Unfolding over six and a half hours, the rise and fall of a hardworking young mother who divorces her deadbeat husband and parlays a knack for baking into a chain of 85 cent chicken-plate eateries--only to let her hard-won empire crumble away--is epic domestic drama with intimations of historical tragedy.

Mildred Pierce trailer

Cain, of course, imagined himself a debunker of fake pieties--including those attached to motherhood. His self-made Mildred is "one that lov'd not wisely but too well," pampering her bratty, musically talented daughter, Veda, while keeping a polo-playing Pasadena gigolo named Monte on a long leash. Newspaperman, editor, and screenwriter, Cain followed his enduring sub-literary masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) with other scandalous bestsellers--including the adultery-murder tale Double Indemnity (first serialized in 1936). Mildred Pierce (1941) was his most ambitious novel, in which Cain abandoned his trademark first-person narration to more objectively focus on social milieu and sexual pathology.

The New York Times book review of Mildred Pierce began by asserting that "the entire cast of this novel is made up of Southern California abominations." Hollywood-morals czar Joseph Breen warned mogul Jack Warner that the book was unfilmable. A bevy of screenwriters downplayed the adultery angle, murdered Monte, and turned Veda into a film-noir femme fatale. Haynes's version, which begins with a close-up of capable Mildred (Kate Winslet) rolling out the dough, brings it all back home: The miniseries is far more faithful to the tawdry class shenanigans of Cain's novel than any of the author's characters are to each other.

Original 1954 theatrical trailer

Economic reality rules. It's 1931, the Depression is deepening, and Bert Pierce (Brian F. O'Byrne), the would-be developer of a Glendale, California, housing tract, has been beaten into submission by forces beyond his control. Taking matters in hand, Mildred sets about looking for a job; once she lands a position as a humble hash-slinger, she struggles to maintain appearances. Winslet's slightly dowdy Mildred is a priori sympathetic; this Mildred is hardly Crawford's silky, glamorous dynamo. Still, once the foppish Monte (Guy Pearce) picks her up, she enjoys an erotic awakening. Indeed, libidinal drives periodically disrupt Mildred's upward trajectory of success and self-respect. The ongoing battles between the working mom and Veda, her outrageously snobbish, secret mini-me daughter, provide the movie's arias--as well as its analysis.

In a mid-'60s appreciation of Cain, Joyce Carol Oates describes Mildred Pierce as most convincing in its "plodding, repetitious, unimaginative progress, its depiction of a strong/weak heroine whose profound ignorance is matched perfectly by the characters who surround her." So it is in the new Mildred. Haynes has taken Cain's methodical narrative rhythm and deranged banality to heart. For all its intermittent histrionics, Haynes's miniseries is less a narrative than a fastidiously designed world. The pale greens and dusty corals evoke the colors of Depression glassware; Mildred's unglamorous cronies have the unadorned faces of the women in Dorothea Lange's FSA photographs.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
J. Hoberman
Contact: J. Hoberman