HBO's 'Mildred Pierce' Raises Cain

Forget Joan: A new version of the noir classic 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' 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.

Mommy dearest
Andrew Schwartz
Mommy dearest

Details

Mildred Pierce was directed by Todd Haynes; written by Haynes and Jon Raymond, based on the novel by James M. Cain; and stars Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, Guy Pearce and Brian F. O'Byrne. Five-part series airs on HBO. March 27, parts I and II; April 3, part III; April 10, parts IV and V. Visit hbo.com for air times.

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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/screenwriter Cain followed his enduring sub-literary masterpiece, The Postman Always Rings Twice, with other scandalous best-sellers—including the adultery-murder tale Double Indemnity. Mildred Pierce 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 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' 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 one another.

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' 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 photographs.

Still, it's the least-stilted filmmaking of Haynes's career. His Mildred Pierce embraces, without subverting, not just the melodramatic contrivances of Cain's novel right down to its final what-the-fuck line of dialogue, but also the author's crazy aspiration to write a two-fisted, corn-fed, star-spangled Madame Bovary. The more successful Mildred grows, the more her ungrateful daughter despises her and the more baroque their tormented relationship becomes.

Once the sylph-like Evan Rachel Wood materializes as the grown Veda—and especially after this vixen achieves radio stardom to become a disembodied spirit of the airwaves—Winslet appears increasingly heavy, old-fashioned and vexed; the woman who knelt before the altar of free enterprise has become the priestess-victim of a new cult. A saga of unrequited star worship, terminal class envy, failed self-empowerment and self-immolating smother love, Haynes' Mildred Pierce is a nightmare as American as mom and apple pie.

This review appeared in print as "Raising Cain: Forget Joan: A new version of the noir classic Mildred Pierce stays close to the text."

 
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