Todd Haynes’ epic HBO mini-series MILDRED PIERCE

by on April 11, 2011Posted in: Essay


THE MATERNAL SACRIFICE melodrama, as film critic Molly Haskell noted in a landmark study on the genre, dramatizes the impossibility of having your cake and eating it too. HBO’s Depression-era mini-series Mildred Pierce fittingly opens with its eponymous heroine (played by Kate Winslet) preparing just such a cake.


Pistachio-green and powder puff-pink icing gleam in the diffuse light of an early-afternoon kitchen, confectionery counterpoints to a domestic scene that’s as quietly sad as any period Hopper painting. As the resourceful wife of an unemployed layabout (to whom she will shortly give the boot), Mildred sells her homemade deserts just to get by; as the doting mother to two little girls, she rations just enough batter for two after-school cupcakes.  Mildred is singularly determined that daughters Ray and Veda enjoy the fruits of her labor though she cannot. “That’s what I want for both of them,” she tearfully explains to brassy next-door neighbor Mrs. Gessler (Melissa Leo) in the first episode’s final line. “Not just bread—all the cake in the world.


Here the camera starts to recede from the scene with an eerie autonomy, panning slowly across the cookie-cutter architecture of the Pierces’ Spanish-bungalow development, and comes to rest on a wrought-iron door that symmetricly frames the back of 12-year-old Veda’s head. Composer Carter Burwell’s score strikes a resounding note of dread. The end credits roll.


It’s one of the few memorably offbeat flourishes in a boringly expository opening episode, as well as a tragicomic assertion of the dangers embedded in Mildred’s obsessive selflessness. As James M. Cain, author of the 1941 source novel and all-around Noir demigod once taught his writing students, “When you learn how to punctuate, you’ll be free to be yourselves.” And here is its beautiful cinematic equivalent—even as it forebodes entrapment, not liberation, for its protagonist.


JUST AS THE Emmy Awards recently merged the categories of mini-series and made-for-TV features into a single competition, so big-screen auteur Todd Haynes recruits an Oscar-winning movie star and HBO sheen for a five-and-a-half-hour epic of small-screen domestic melodrama. Haynes hews close to Cain’s version of the story, delivering a more faithful adaptation than Michael Curtiz’s reductive 1945 adaptation starring Joan Crawford. (Haynes is, one might note, staunchly Team Bette Davis.) The timing of this current production springs from a conviction that today’s recession-weathered audiences will take a tale of hard times breeding harder ambition. In the 9-year time span of the stories, the newly divorced and previously unemployed Mildred initiates a series of transactions (professional, financial, sexual) and acquires a restaurant, then a franchise, a chauffeur, a money-pit mansion, and a libido. But in classic bubble-and-bust fashion, Mildred ultimately loses her business and domestic empires by overextending herself in every way possible. After steamrolling the Depression, she ends up back with husband no. 1 (still unemployed) and an empty nest (one daughter dead, the other lost to the dark side: New York). The only promise comes in the form of a new cake order rolling in…


Mildred attributes it all to loving her daughter Veda too much, a laughable but apt reduction of her pathological dreams for Veda’s success. On these perils of having-and-eating-your-cakeness, Cain remarked, “I write of the wish that comes true – for some reason, a terrifying concept.” His novel incisively sculpts a female-centered vision of the American Dream’s dark underside: up-by-the-bootstraps hardship in the name of a brighter future, not for oneself, but for the children. “Think of the children!” is one of America’s favorite anthems, and one of the most prominent conceits of the Hollywood melodrama, in which middle-class purgatory breeds all-consuming maternal zeal: mother’s love, smother love. The Depression only lifted the bar a notch higher for anyone “with a little gump” (as Mildred puts it) to get ahead.


“Nobody cares about that uniform stuff anymore,” Mrs. Gessler assures Mildred when she confesses to taking a “humiliating” job as a hash-house waitress. But as in Cain’s other masterworks Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, the California of Mildred Pierce only seems the final frontier of the American Dream. It’s still a stifling hotbed of entrenched class lines. As Mildred is constantly reminded by her downwardly mobile playboy lover Monty (Guy Pearce) and faux-pedigreed daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood as the post-pubescent version), she is distinctly Glendale–a middle-class, middlebrow suburbanite–even when she is the only one of the three with a penny to her name.


Cain’s tabloid realistic environ of billboards, car radios and real estate offices fuses in Mildred Pierce with a feminine sphere: picture frame-lined tables, high heel blisters and painted toenails, waitress uniforms cast off and sensible hairstyles behatted in locker rooms filled with the comradely banter of a shift that’s punched out. Haynes captures the significance of objects as both conveyors of class and purveyors of existence, charting several of Mildred’s trips to the grocery with Jeanne Dielman-esque attention to the increasing number of goods she can afford to purchase. The production team achieves a technical feat in their exacting period recreation. Yet the effect sometimes seems more dissociative Toontown than a foundation for organic emotion. Haynes’ studied but hyperstylized recreations of director Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas in Far From Heaven are ultimately more moving than the New Hollywood-inspired approach of location-shot, down-to-the-last-detail fussiness.


HASKELL PINPOINTED THE most affecting classic Hollywood melodramas as those which chart “the ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary,” whose “ascent is given stature and conviction not through a discreet contempt for the female sensibility, but through an all-out belief in it, through the faith, expressed in directorial sympathy and style, that the swirling river of a woman’s’ emotions is as important as anything on earth.”


Amidst the novel’s Dreiser-style reportage from the working class front, there are messy moments of “big gulpy love” and emotional onslaughts that come in “great gobs.” Haynes’ near-absolute loyalty to the narrative often fails to match these experiences in pacing and style, misdirecting the author’s deceptively third-person narrative into distanced, elegantly moody but ultimately inert portraiture. Haynes’ naturalistic approach works best in the frank sex scenes, when he is not viewing Mildred through hazy reflections–a too-delicate omniscience for Cain’s penetrating exploration of sadomasochistic emo-brutality and soul-bruising deceptions. Though Mildred Pierce is often framed as Cain’s aspirational attempt to escape the prestige-deprived ghetto of hardboiled pulp, the novel remains penetratingly crude.  Cain’s prose is incisive but his conflicts and emotions are raw. There is both a cunning humor and gut-punch tragedy to Mildred’s misdirected energy that’s lost in the page-to-screen translation. And the exasperating five hour process of watching Mildred fumble – surely the novel could be read cover to cover in a shorter span of time.


The director and his leading lady, who inhabits every scene, stalwartly commit to Mildred’s ordinariness. To those familiar with contemporary 1930s actresses–Loretta Young or Carole Lombard’s slender and streamlined display of working-gal style, or Constance Bennett jauntily sporting a diner waitress uniform–Winslet’s fleshy body will seem discomfortingly at odds with her sixty-six Ann Roth-designed costume changes. But Mildred is, as Cain regularly reminds the reader, a voluptuous lady, rather indistinctly but acceptably handsome with knockout legs that she employs in an attention-garnering strut. Winslet’s Mildred has more of a graceless, bow-elbowed trot. Her accent-restraining voice is too dried out for Mildred’s overbrimming femininity. While saucer-eyed Crawford was physically incapable of conveying Cain’s Mildred’s “resolute squint,” she undoubtedly displayed the hard, feline quality it required even while brimming with tears. A throwaway reference to Barbara Stanwyck eating at Mildred’s Beverly Hills tearoom inopportunely invokes the era’s queen of killer gams and defiantly unconventional beauty. Stanwyck would never have swallowed the few jokes Mildred makes when her character lets loose and dares to enjoy herself–something the actress does not.


While Mildred is not meant to seduce us in Haynes’ ultra-modern approach, haplessly failed feminist heroine that she is, Winslet’s character has too little gravity for a narrative orbit in which she is supposed to hold the center. Guy Pearce is so sly with Monty’s disaffected, self-satisfied grandeur that he makes lines like “Came the dawn!”  and  “What this needs is the crime of rape!” believable. James Le Gros as Wally, her preliminary lover of convenience and shady business advisor, fits the potbellied bill of a man who gave up any sense of decency at birth. But they overpower Winslet too easily, their victories so much of a foregone conclusion that the play-by-play loses its potency.


Milquetoast Mildred is of course a fitting contrast to the loathsome Veda, whose diamond-hard elegance is her only virtue. But Cain meant for us to see a touch of mother in daughter; for all Mildred’s vulnerabilities there is a  performative quality to the character, who experiences “the worst” after her daughter Ray’s funeral, “when she was left alone, with nobody to console, nobody to be brave in front of, nobody to face but herself.” The commanding Winslet of Heavenly Creatures would have made a delicious Veda; the seventeen years that have passed since her debut as a daring nymphet eerily match the age difference between Mildred and daughter, but there is little of that former spark to add nuance to her chemistry with Evan Rachel Wood.


The final act of the novel–where it defiantly threatens to careen off the rails as Veda happens upon her talents as a rare-bird coloratura soprano, launching a radio career–is the most distinct omission from the Curtiz version that Haynes restores.  In the face of such preposterousness Haynes can’t help but finally unhinge and embrace Cain’s fabulist, near surreal undertones. The radio from which Mildred first hears this heaven-sent trill of her estranged wunderkind is circled with the mystical reverence befitting Mildred’s salvation, the ratification of her child’s innate specialness. Mildred’s subjective view through opera glasses at Veda’s Philharmonic debut reveals the grotesquerie behind the beautiful arias, a resplendent miniature of the ugliness and cruelty Mildred continues to deny.  And the boffo ultimate betrayal scene, where we arrive full-circle from the head of a spoiled child sitting on the back stoop to a fully formed viper en flagrante, is a visceral nightmare and resounding justification for the five hours preceding it.


Cain leaves Mildred Pierce’s status as pathos or tragedy mysteriously open-ended, his characters so befuddled by all that has transpired they resolve to just “get stinko.” Haynes is a bit more charitable to his heroine, softening Veda’s final manipulations and providing a party of never-seen-before acquaintances and well-wishers to help Mildred laugh it all off.  Cain leaves his readers as exhausted and overwhelmed as the characters, but the mini-series is ultimately too plodding and leisurely for the novel’s poignantly hilarious shrug of an ending to resonate. This approach will likely win favor with audiences weened on Mad Men’s slow-simmer pacing and glossy surfaces that mask existential despair.


But one can’t help but wish Haynes and Winslet had embraced the pulpy breathlessness of Cain’s potboiler, taken more risks, had a little more fun. Even though the 1945 version lost much of the point in classing-up Mildred and her chicken joints (and denying Veda her divine talent), Crawford supplied the needed operatic force, the power of a star lost in her worship of an undeserving other. No matter how meticulous the preparation, Haynes’ and Wisnlet’s unwillingness to dip their hands in the batter, lick the icing off the spoon and revel in the highs and lows of the melodrama they clearly know so well seems like a missed opportunity. Any fan of the novel watching the mini-series, for all its virtues and noble intentions, may end up feeling like Mildred as she yearns for the warmth Veda exudes to her father and realizes “all she ever got was a stagy, affected counterfeit. The half loaf she had to accept, trying not to see it for what it really was.”

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