The 1945 Joan Crawford/Michael Curtiz version of Mildred Pierce has been playing regularly on television for decades, and it’s safe to say that more people have seen it than have read the original James M. Cain novel, which is written in his hard-boiled, rather careless style. Cain sometimes seems unduly interested in detailing the physical attributes of his main character, Mildred, and her daughter, Veda, rather than dissecting their elaborately dysfunctional relationship. But almost incidentally, without putting himself to too much effort, he lays out a lip-smackingly detailed study of America’s semi-hidden class system, and his tossed-off psychological observations can be extremely acute, especially in the scene where Mildred has lost her youngest daughter, Ray (changed to “Kay” in the movie), and feels “a guilty, leaping joy that it had been the other child that had been taken from her, and not Veda.”
Cain himself had wanted to be an opera singer, but his mother told him that his voice wasn’t good enough, and this letdown haunts a lot of his work; in Mildred Pierce, Veda studies piano, but she doesn’t have the talent to make it as a pianist, a blow she takes nearly as hard as Cain took his own disappointment. Toward the end of his tale, Cain concocts a bizarre subplot where the nearly satanic Veda suddenly discovers that she has a once-in-a-century coloratura soprano voice; she goes on to success as a vocalist, leaving her terminally middle-class mother behind, and this reads like something of a private fantasy for the writer.
The Crawford movie smartly axed this operatic plot turn, and in many ways it remains a model of adaptation, doing away with Cain’s unnecessary plot detours and characters. The 1945 film begins with the murder of playboy Monty Beragon, and the rest of the movie functions as a “Who shot Monty?” mystery noir as well as a corking melodrama, but its main function is as a vehicle for Crawford, who revived her career and won an Oscar for her work. Cain’s small, ordinary Mildred got swallowed up by the insistent noble throb in Crawford’s voice and the Medea-like size of her resentment, which reaches a nearly psychotic height in the famous scene where she screams “Veda!” at the top of her voice, charges over to her blackmailing daughter (played by Ann Blyth), rips up a check, and receives a slap in the face from the girl. Crawford looks briefly surprised at this point, and then her saucer eyes start to fill with the kind of murderous anger that can only be described as animal-like.
Todd Haynes’s miniseries version of Cain’s novel for HBO runs over five hours, and it isn’t enough to say that he has stayed faithful to the book; he has put it up on the screen practically page by page and line by line, and has thought through every aspect of the material, fleshing out and dramatizing all of Cain’s rushed-over ideas about class and familial competition. As a director, Haynes is the exact opposite of Cain as a novelist; he has taken Cain’s raw pulp inventions and teased out the ironies and reversals in these inventions at a dreamy, leisurely pace that reflects the mind of his Mildred (Kate Winslet), a woman who is shrewd at seizing opportunities, but not too smart about herself or her daughter Veda (played in the early episodes by Morgan Turner and the later ones by Evan Rachel Wood). Haynes outright borrows from Sirk and Fassbinder in his visuals, trapping his characters behind staircases, windows, and home furnishings until it becomes increasingly clear that the only thing that matters in this American Depression society of the 1930s is money and how to get it and how to control people once you have it.
Mark Friedberg’s production design is marvelously suggestive; the series envelops us in the 1930s, and this isn’t a vision of that decade taken from the movies of the time, but an all-encompassing notion of what it might have been like to actually live in California then (this naturalistic series couldn’t be more different from Haynes’s arch movie pastiche of the 1950s, Far from Heaven, where everything plays out in quotation marks). At one point, Mildred wanders onto the grounds of a country club where her lover, Monty (Guy Pearce), is playing, and Haynes cuts to a series of shots from her bewildered point of view so that we can take in this seamlessly created alien world just as she would; it’s a magically convincing few moments, and there are others like it in Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, like the sequence in which Mildred sits down in a diner after having looked for work all day and the rhythm of the editing starts to slowly bring you into a timelessly lonely sort of Edward Hopper mood.
On the level of design and costumes (check out the hilariously fussy hat and dress that costumer Ann Roth puts on Veda to wear for the opening of her mother’s first restaurant!), this Mildred Pierce is a triumph from beginning to end, and the casting in supporting roles couldn’t be bettered: Melissa Leo does her best Aline MacMahon as Mildred’s next-door neighbor Mrs. Gessler, while Mare Winningham seems to have sprung straight out of a 1930s diner as Ida (in the Crawford version, the sardonic Eve Arden played Ida like a valued secretary doing a bit of slumming in the restaurant trade). Haynes lets his female characters operate as they would have at the time in this milieu. He doesn’t do any modern editorializing on their plight and he doesn’t outright celebrate their resourcefulness; instead, he sets up a panorama of female struggle and solidarity and views it distantly, like somebody writing a history book and trying to keep personal opinions out of it.
James LeGros makes for a suitably creepy and nasty Wally Burgan, who was played as a venal but likable wolf by Jack Carson in 1945; best of all, though, is Pearce’s alarmingly decadent Monty Beragon, a high-style layabout who provides Mildred with such intense sexual satisfaction that she has to keep him around, even though he sponges off of her and makes Veda even worse than she already is. All of these actors have hours to make layered cases for each of their characters, and Haynes seems to give them all the encouragement they need. This strikes me as a project for which everybody did copious amounts of research about period and thought a lot about motivation, and the payoff is in the way Pearce speaks in an entirely artificial way that seems to come naturally to this particular man, or the way that Hope Davis adds all kinds of subtleties to a character who is a two-scene horror and bald plot device in the novel.
Winslet gets an A for effort, as always; it’s a little like seeing Sylvia Sidney play Mildred Pierce. Winslet’s wet, beseeching eyes were made for suffering, and she does so convincingly and touchingly most of the time, even if her playing inevitably begins to seem repetitive in the last episodes; Mildred is in almost every shot, after all. Winslet thinks through her role conscientiously, and she really puts across the moment in the book when Mildred is glad that her daughter Ray died instead of Veda, climbing into bed with her and crying, “Thank God!” Winslet’s acting is exactly like Haynes’s directing here: sensitive, intelligent, even downright brainy, but lacking wildness, risk, fire (maybe Haynes should have gone crazily conceptual in the middle of all this thoughtful naturalism and had Ann Blyth reprise her Veda opposite Winslet?)
In the last episodes, Wood makes a suitably vicious, hard-faced Veda, and Haynes films her writhing around nude after Mildred discovers her in Monty’s bed so that she seems almost like a bibilical temptress. Yet in many of the early and middle scenes, the director makes a strong case for Veda, always seeing her side against her mother, and he allows for some cuts in the novel’s dialogue whenever Cain makes Veda too mean (he leaves out the telling moment when Veda’s reaction to Ray’s death is to worry over the money she stole from her little sister). It must be said that Ray’s extended death scene here makes the 1945 version of the character’s death look a bit inadequate by comparison, and the opera sequences actually play better than they read, especially when Mildred looks through her opera glasses and sees that Veda’s eyes are filled with hate as she does her angelic trilling.
Crawford knew about how a mother might prefer one child over another, but she would never have brought this knowledge out into the open for Mildred Pierce. Still, this knowledge is there if you look for it because it’s obviously part of what drives her somewhat minimalist performance. A native, instinctive talent like Crawford or Cain goes for an effect and lets the meaning of the effect take care of itself; interpretation is our job, not theirs. For calculated types like Haynes and Winslet, the meanings have to be all spelled out, so that finally this Mildred Pierce works on a dozen intellectual planes but never has the brio of a full-blooded melodrama where we might be able to discover something that hasn’t been planned. Crawford is the role of Mildred, and it doesn’t matter that she can’t actually act parts of it; whereas Winslet inexhaustibly fills out every single shade of this woman’s obliviousness, Crawford will simply be oblivious, with no actorly fuss. The war between Mildred and Veda in this miniseries is sometimes mind-blowing in its degree of insight and comprehensiveness, bringing out all of Cain’s rude inklings and some he might not have known he intended, yet not one moment has the force of Crawford screaming “Veda!” before tearing up that check.
In this Mildred Pierce, it’s clear that Mildred is just as bad a mother at times as Veda is a daughter, yet at a certain point even Haynes has to throw up his hands over Veda’s behavior, and he leaves us with Mildred and her first husband, Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne), the most enigmatic character in all versions of this story. A jazz version of Debussy’s “Reverie” plays under a late sequence, and this attempt to pep up dreamy music underlines all of the basic American incompatibilities that make this tale such a tragic one. In the climactic moment where Bert tries to get Mildred to forget about the daughter she has loved so obsessively, Winslet smiles through her tears, and for the first time, she seems stumped as to how to play a scene. This last exchange, taken straight from the book, only points up the fact that all this time and care has been lavished on…what exactly?
Haynes’s Mildred Pierce finally seems like the most elaborately produced critical close reading of a novel of all time; for all its many virtues, I’m not sure I’ll ever want to sit through it again, but I’m certain I’ll be looking at the 1945 version for the rest of my life. In fact, I did watch it for the umpteenth time the day after I watched the miniseries, and I was surprised by a small detail I hadn’t remembered: Curtiz ends his film with a shot of Mildred walking out of a courthouse past two women who are hard at work scrubbing floors. It’s a perfect little grace note, and it’s not in the book, and its meaning is excitingly ambiguous. A great movie is always a bit of a mystery, and that creative mystery is missing from the center of Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, which cannot be faulted for craft or intelligence, but cannot be felt on the gut level of Cain, Crawford, or Curtiz, who might not have had a thought in his head about the story, but directs the hell out of it in pure visual and visceral movie terms.