Strong woman. Single mother. Never having to depend on a man, enjoying the thrill of making it on her own, but willing to sacrifice it all for the sake of her beloved daughter. That’s Mildred Pierce in a nutshell. Both film versions of James M. Cain’s gritty 1941 novel—the 1945 Warner Brothers classic and the 2011 HBO miniseries—are masterful works in their own right, with very different approaches to the material, but both films make strong feminist statements that continue to resonate, and fascinate audiences.
At its core, Mildred is a twisted mother-daughter love story; in both versions the men in Mildred’s life are mere supporting characters. The real drama centers around a mother pining for the approval of her cold fish daughter, attempting to buy her love, to no avail. Housewife Mildred dotes too much on her children and her unemployed husband finds solace in the arms of another woman. She kicks him out and finds a job as a waitress to support herself and her two daughters, eventually finding a way to open her own restaurant. When Mildred loses her youngest daughter to pneumonia, Mildred redoubles her efforts to make her new venture a success—to give her spoiled surviving daughter Veda the glamorous life she craves.
|Joan Crawford as Mildred|
The 1945 version is a film noir masterpiece, directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and photographed superbly and inventively by veteran cameraman Ernest Haller in moody black and white. For the film, Cain’s frank and hardboiled yarn had to be sanitized to pass the stringent Motion Picture Production Code. but screenwriter Ranald MacDougall manages to retain the tension and conflict in his tightly plotted script while skirting the novel’s racier passages. Curtiz and Haller elevate melodrama to an art form with the use of film noir techniques, using light and shadow to suggest and underline the more lurid story elements and character motivations.
|Glamorous noir, with Blyth and Crawford|
By contrast, Todd Haynes’s 2011 miniseries is far more faithful to its source material, gutsy, raw and real. Haynes, who had paid homage to Douglas Sirk with Far From Heaven (in which the production design unfortunately far exceeded its ho-hum storyline) recreates 1930s Depression-era Los Angeles in painstaking detail. And on HBO, there’s no need to shy away from the more explicit and adult angles to the story...Mildred and Veda’s numerous sexual entanglements and the clearly incestuous underpinnings of their fragile relationship are explored in unflinching detail. But in its way, Todd Haynes’s vision of Mildred is just as stylized as its classic counterpart, touching the subconscious with its vivid imagery...it is the director’s most inventive and magical work since his 1998 masterpiece Velvet Goldmine.
|Kate Winslet as Mildred|
Mildred Pierce marked a comeback for Joan Crawford, who had unceremoniously exited MGM after 17 years as one of its top stars, following a string of box office failures. The 1945 Warner Brothers film was originally planned as a vehicle for Bette Davis, who turned the role down upon learning she was to play mother to an adult actress. A desperate Joan Crawford said that she’d play Wally Beery’s grandmother if it was a good role, and campaigned actively for the part. Director Curtiz resisted working with Crawford and made her submit to a screen test before casting her in the title role.
For Crawford, Mildred turned out to be a career-redefining role. It revitalized her image, won her her a Best Actress Academy Award and secured her career longevity for the next 20+ years. Crawford carries the picture on her capable shoulders; her performance is luminous and compelling. Haller’s haunting close-ups show a radiantly beautiful, maturing Crawford, whose famously large eyes had registered human emotion since the silent era. Her scenes with Ann Blyth as daughter Veda crackle with excitement and chemistry, as Crawford generously and wisely underplays as the long-suffering mother.
Kate Winslet is an altogether different brand of Mildred. Winslet, herself an iconic movie beauty, eschews the glamour angle to bring the “common frump” Veda calls her mother to vivid life. Winslet’s Mildred is more than a pound or two above her ideal weight, and her sometimes slovenly appearance illustrates the sweaty hard work of waitressing. (By contrast, the perfectly coiffed Crawford sports her trademark ankle-strap shoes and Adrian shoulder pads under her waitress uniform, creating a perfect movie star mannequin silhouette.) Moreover, Kate’s Mildred is a sensual and sexual animal, rolling into and out of bed with the men in her life with lusty abandon, often merely to achieve her aims. As Mildred, Winslet is electrifying and unforgettable.
|Ann Blyth and Evan Rachel Wood as Veda|
Pretty Ann Blyth (The Helen Morgan Story) was never better than as the bitchy, self-centered Veda in the 1945 film. The promise she showed was never completely fulfilled (she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod for her work), though she did make a series of light musicals over the next decade. The 2011 version features an equally remarkable performance by beautiful young Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood) as Veda, who gives Blyth a run for her money. (Morgan Turner, too, is very good as the younger Veda.)
|Guy Pearce as Monty|
Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Adventures of Priscilla) whose slim physique and chiseled face closely resemble the leading men of the 1930s and 40s, is perfectly cast as Monty in the 2011 film, lending a dangerous air of depravity and debauched sexuality to the character originally played by a smarmy and somewhat effete Zachary Scott. (We have to give props to Mr. Scott, too, in the sex appeal department, especially in the beach scenes where he rocks a black speedo paired with a polo sweater.)
Though both films are carried by the talents of their titular stars, it’s their fine supporting performances that give them depth and dimension and brand them as classics of their times. The 1945 version is leavened by the humor and energy of veteran supporting actors like Jack Carson, Eve Arden and Butterfly McQueen. The 2011 version is darker, deeper, and peopled with fine actors at every turn, including the wonderful Hope Davis and the underrated James LeGros and Brían F. O’Byrne.
|Eve Arden as Ida|
The role of Mildred’s mentor and confidante Ida, played with trademark comic timing by the brilliant Eve Arden, is actually a composite of two rival characters in Cain’s novel, and Haynes’s version casts the versatile Mare Winningham as the no-nonsense waitress Ida, and Oscar winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as Mildred’s best friend Lucy, who both vie for Mildred’s attentions. In Haynes’s film, in fact, all the womens’ relationships completely overshadow the male characters—obviously by design.
|Mare Winningham as Ida|
|Melissa Leo as Lucy|
Both these fierce Mildreds are “women’s pictures” but for different reasons. The 1945 film can be summarized as the story of a woman—Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce; while the 2011 version seems to be a story about all women, how they survived during the dark days of the depression, how they raised their children, where they succeeded and failed. I treasure both of these fine films, which stand next to one another in my DVD cabinet to be enjoyed equally, year after year.