Those familiar with Todd Haynes’ career shouldn’t be surprised he’s chosen to adapt James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce into a five-part HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet. He hasn’t made many films since coming to critical attention with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, but one of his recurring themes is the psychological twisting that can occur under the gaze of others. Mildred Pierce is most closely related to Far From Heaven in the Haynes filmography: It's a homage to melodrama and the Hollywood tradition of the “woman’s picture” but also an exploration of a character trapped by the expectations of those around her.
That’s what makes Mildred (played here by Kate Winslet) a tricky character, as anyone who’s read the novel or seen the iconic 1945 Michael Curtiz film version (with Joan Crawford as Mildred) can attest. Unlike the Douglas Sirk heroines Haynes pastiched into Julianne Moore’s character in Far From Heaven, some of the expectations that imprison Mildred aren’t easily identifiable with stultifying social conventions we’ve long since repudiated. Yes, she has to deal with the paradoxical role of the “grass widow” after her husband Bert, a failed real estate tycoon, leaves her and her two children for another woman. In that position, as her friend Lucy (a worldy-wise Melissa Leo) explains, men will think of her as “fast” and expect to buy her favors for the price of a dinner out. Clearly, being seen that way is not Mildred’s fault or her choice.
But much of Mildred’s suffering comes from her own acceptance and internalization of standards that are just as nonsensical to our eyes. When she goes looking for a job to support her children, little Ray and tweener Veda, she rejects anything that will have her wearing a uniform and doing domestic labor, both because she believes it permanently devalues her and also because her children would feel shame. After she finally lowers herself to work as a waitress in a diner, she tells Lucy that the girls must never know about it; Lucy comments sarcastically that they will be more than happy to eat the cake their mother’s debasement buys them. Misunderstanding, Mildred agrees wholeheartedly, asserting that they must always have cake, not bread: “All the cake in the world.”
The difficult job Haynes has set himself is in making Mildred into someone with whom we can sympathize, whose thought processes and decision-making we can understand, even as she chooses a self-sacrificing ideal of motherhood and womanhood that we now find abhorrent. Mildred allows the upper-crust affectations of Veda, a prissy girl who sniffs at paperboys, abuses the domestic help, and never loses an opportunity to adopt a French accent, to control her choices in a way that makes us want to shake some sense into her. When Mildred finally snaps, slapping and spanking Vita for finding her waitress uniform and making their hired girl wear it while schlepping the girls’ swimming equipment to and from the pool (“always two steps behind us,” Ray proudly describes), she immediately thereafter credits Veda with inspiring her to see her waitressing not as a job but as a stepping stone to having her own restaurant business. “Don’t ever give that up, that way you have of looking at things,” she implores Veda. “Every good thing we have is on account of you.”
Can we stick with a character like this, the way Haynes wants us to? It’s not an easy road, and yet, if we approach this stunning piece of television with eyes and ears as attuned to style as much as story, we will find ourselves being drawn into the same complexities that attract Haynes to the material. Pay attention, for example, to the camera’s insistent focus on Mildred’s hands, as they expertly crimp a pie crust or separate an egg, or later, as they practice a multi-plate carry with pie pans filled with pebbles, and later still, in "Part Two," when dashing California playboy Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) grasps them during lovemaking and pulls them away from their position shielding her body. It’s a mute tribute to how vital manual skills are in Mildred’s life, and yet how difficult it is for her to acknowledge their value. Look at how Haynes makes us peer through warped glass and around passing cars, even through her own wavy hair, to find Mildred, someone who is in real danger of being lost in the framing of her own life, both because of past baggage and present exigencies.
The question of Mildred Pierce is whether she can take center stage as the protagonist of her own existence or whether she will cede that role to her children. To her child, now, as the wrenching final act of "Part Two" demonstrates. There is her hand again, taking the lifeless little hand of Ray after a sudden death from a brain infection. It may not be fair that Bert and his parents blame Mildred’s absence, due to her spontaneous beach house sleeperover with Monty, for Ray’s death; it may not even be fair that Haynes follows Cain and Curtiz in connecting the two events (three, if you count the name “Mildred” in neon lights switched on for Monty’s admiration) in a juxtaposition that punishes Mildred for seeking her own happiness for once. But there it is, and there is Veda, the only one left. Can we blame Mildred for clinging ever more tightly to that spoiled child?
I confess that I am the ideal audience for this story and for the Todd Haynes treatment thereof. Joan Crawford’s version of Mildred fascinates me. The period details of 1931 (and even more specifically, 1931 Glendale, California, a suburb Monty gently mocks as unhip the first time he hears Mildred mention it) make this a specific story, rather than a general indictment of social norms.
Best of all, the melodrama is superbly balanced by the concreteness of the baking, the waitressing, the restaurant outfitting and management. In tangible accomplishment—as solid to us because of Haynes’ portrayal of those detailed skills as it is to Mildred who comes into her own acquiring them—full personhood emerges. That’s how we know there’s trouble on the way when Monty reveals himself as a person who doesn’t do anything other than collect a check from a fruit export company he partially owns. He’s going to have a hard time understanding a woman who finds herself in what she does, not who she is, just as Veda can’t understand a mother who gets her value from work, rather than class standing.
If all of this was writ large and updated to indict us, the audience, I doubt it would be successful. Instead, Haynes immerses us in that time and place, in the contradictory psyche of this woman, stuck as she is between duty and freedom, making her choices, wrapped in her flaws and myopia as much as in her capabilities. Wash it in cinematographer Edward Lachmann’s pale, unglamourous colors and underscore it with composer Carter Burwell’s stirringly intimate chords, and you have episodic television reinvented as cinema: the perfect balance of big emotions and tiny, telling detail.
- In another example of the “showing not telling” mode more natural to cinema than to television, Haynes gives us the backstory of Pierce Homes by panning over framed blueprints and aerial views of the development hanging on the Pierce bungalow wall. One of the blueprints bears the Pierce Homes slogan, “Good Enough For Folks,” which references a Bert Pierce line from Cain’s novel: “Pierce Homes are for folks, and what’s good enough for folks is good enough for me.”
- Haynes fans will recognize the widescreen framing in an early scene where Bert’s former business partner Wally makes a move on Mildred: the two of them on opposite sides of the screen, shot perpendicular to a wide Spanish archway that forms a perfect proscenium. It’s strikingly uncommon on television, but it forms the signature style of Haynes’ 1995 movie Safe.
- That’s Hope Davis in the juicy little role of the socialite interviewing Mildred for a housekeeper’s job. If the way she peremptorily begins Mildred’s education in the proper attitudes of servanthood doesn’t make your nerves sizzle as much as a Michael Bay action sequence, Mildred Pierce may not be for you.
- Saddest line of the night: Bert, after giving Mildred the house, the car, and grounds for divorce, responds with momentary self-righteousness when Mildred asks if she should drop him off at Maggie Biederhof’s. “I prefer not to say where I’m staying… You can drop me off at Maggie’s, that’s fine.”
- Mmmm, chicken and waffles and pie.