Friday, April 17, 2015

Mildred à Deux

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 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.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Endless Splendor, Star-Crossed Sex

I was 15 years old when Endless Love hit the theaters in 1981. Because it had been given an  R rating by the MPAA, I was still not old enough to be admitted without a parent or guardian, even though the story was all about people almost exactly my age. So I had to sneak in. (First time I had ever done this was to see Saturday Night Fever at the age of 11...I found a seat next to a kindly-looking white-haired woman and struck up a conversation with her, so the usher would think she was my grandmother.) Nothing was going to stop me from seeing these beautiful young stars...naked. I freely admit it, I was a teenage voyeur.

Director Franco Zeffirelli, who so brilliantly captured the raptures and agonies of young love in his iconic version of Romeo and Juliet (1969), plays variations on the same theme for this adaptation of the novel by Scott Spencer. Obviously influenced by other classics of teen angst like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Elia Kazan’s adaptation of William Inge’s Splendor in the Grass, Zeffirelli takes the opportunity to push the envelope with this somewhat more explicit depiction of star-crossed love.

David (Martin Hewitt) and Jade (Brooke Shields)
In Zeffirelli’s view, young love and coming of age are, after all, really about sex...youth, beauty and throbbing teenage hormones. Love hurts, yet it hurts so good, especially when the youthful protagonists are obsessed with sex but unable to abandon themselves to nature.

Just before the Reagan ‘80s and the specter of AIDS put a damper on the burgeoning sexual revolution, there was a sweet spot in mainstream entertainment where the extraordinarily free let-it-all-hang-out sexuality of the 70s had a last hurrah. Even ordinary movies seemed to have a freer, more honest and frank approach to storytelling. Endless Love may not be one of the all-time great films, but it’s a potent story about the explosive power of sex, and how it destroys the life of an adolescent boy named David.

Martin Hewitt's defining role
The plot is unquestionably melodramatic and somewhat overwrought. When teenagers David and Jade fall so deeply, passionately and all-consumingly in love that they literally shut out the rest of the world, neglecting school, family and even sleeping and eating to be together, Jade’s worried father puts his foot down and orders them to not to see each other for 30 eternity to a teenager. David has a nervous breakdown and hatches a dangerous plan to insinuate himself back into her family’s good graces: he sets fire to their house, intending to save Jade and them all from the conflagration. The plan backfires, and David must pay for the consequences of his actions; he’s institutionalized as the family moves away, but he never stops hoping to reconcile with Jade. Even more tragedy ensues.

The attractive and talented Martin Hewitt does a fine job carrying the film on his slim shoulders, conveying the dark inner turmoil, obsession and madness his character experiences. Unfortunately, this turned out to be Hewitt’s career pinnacle; he never became a box office personality, though this film was a modest hit upon its release in 1981.

Brooke Shields was flawlessly beautiful
Brooke is incandescently beautiful and has real screen presence, but her thin and reedy voice hampers her effectiveness, particularly in the later scenes in which she portrays Jade as a young adult. (She did work on her vocal instrument in the ensuing years, appearing on Broadway as Rizzo in Grease and in other stage productions, most incredibly as Chris MacNeil in a 2012 stage version of The Exorcist, in which she swore like a sailor!)

Though handsome Hewitt bares all in numerous scenes (reminiscent of Leonard Whiting’s unselfconscious nakedness as Zeffirelli’s Romeo), Shields’s nude scenes were famously played by a body double. After bad press that claimed she allowed the exploitation of her young daughter as sex object in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, mom Teri Shields carefully made sure that Brooke’s love scenes in both The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love were performed by a (rather well-endowed) double, a that fact was well-publicized...somewhat disingenuously, since Shields was still being sold to audiences as a nubile teenage sex nymph.

Beatrice Straight (Network, Poltergeist) and Richard Kiley (Looking for Mr. Goodbar) are effective as David’s cold and emotionless mother and father, more engrossed in their left-wing political causes than they are in parenting. It’s a small wonder that David is seduced not only by the beautiful Jade but by her permissive, hippie-bohemian family as well. The teenage children are allowed to drink wine with dinner, call their mom and dad by their first names and throw wild parties with their parents in attendance. When the young couple first fall in love, her mother and father even allow them to sleep together in Jade’s bedroom.

Don Murray and Shirley Knight as Hugh and Ann
Shirley Knight (remember her as Helen Hunt’s mom in As Good As It Gets?)  gives one of her finest performances as Jade’s mother Ann, the complicated cougar who is obviously attracted to David and gets a vicarious thrill watching her daughter make love to him in front of a roaring fire. Even after David has burned down her house, been convicted of arson and jumped parole to try and find Jade in New York City, Ann remains his friend, still mesmerized by David’s unwavering passion for her daughter.

As Hugh, Jade’s father, Don Murray (Bus Stop, Advise and Consent) fares less well than Knight in creating a nuanced character. Hugh is clearly the villain of the piece, the angry father forbidding Jade to see David and triggering David’s sociopathic behavior.

An early role for Mr. Cruise
The cast also includes a young and unpolished Tom Cruise in a memorable bit as a loquacious classmate, wearing Daisy Duke-style cutoff shorts and a goofy grin; forgotten but fine ‘70s actress Penelope Milford (Coming Home) as Hugh’s young girlfriend; and James Spader (to me, he will always be Jimmy Spader) as brother Keith, then handsome enough to be a teen idol himself, with his feathered blond hair and slim, toned physique, revealed shirtless in more than one scene.

James—then known as Jimmy—Spader
Despite some of its less-than-perfect elements, the film is made with real care and artistry. Zeffirelli creates exquisitely romantic tableaus of his lovers, and his use of light and color in the love scenes are surreal and dreamlike, with icy blues and florid reds, set to the lushly romantic music of Lionel Richie. The opening planetarium scene is an obvious homage to Rebel Without a Cause, and the relationship between Jade and David closely parallels the Romeo and Juliet intensity of Bud (Warren Beatty) and Deenie (Natalie Wood) of Splendor in the Grass, with Zeffirelli’s David having a nervous breakdown every bit as intense as Deenie’s. All in all, I find this film satisfying, even after more than 30 years.

And yes, I did watch the recent remake with Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde. No offense to those young actors, but the movie took too many liberties, reimagining both the plot and characters, to be considered a proper remake. And it just wasn’t any good, in my opinion; and certainly not sexy at all. I’ll stick with Zeffirelli’s original.