BLOGGER'S NOTE: This contains mild spoilers for the new miniseries, the James M. Cain novel it is based on and the 1945 Michael Curtiz film starring Joan Crawford.
By Edward Copeland
If your only familiarity with the story of Mildred Pierce comes from Michael Curtiz's great 1945 film starring Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning role and you've never read the James M. Cain novel from which it was adapted, the new HBO miniseries directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet as the title character will barely seem like a remake to you at all. It's much more faithful to the original Cain novel and while the 1945 movie and this new 2011 miniseries share a title, similarities and many common characters (though often bearing different names), when you watch Haynes' version you'll feel as if you are seeing a completely new story — and it's a great one.
Though I've put the spoiler warning up top, I'm going to have to reiterate it again because this post will serve not only as both a preview and overall assessment of the five-part miniseries that begins Sunday night, I also will be comparing the 2011 Mildred Pierce with the 1945 version as well as with the James M. Cain novel itself, which I've done a quick read of to see what both versions kept and what they cut. So, after a few general paragraphs about the HBO miniseries, anyone who doesn't want to have anything ruined, best look away. I'll warn you again when it's time.
To get to the most important thing you are probably asking yourself about Haynes' Mildred Pierce out of the way first (How does it rate?), I have a simple answer: It is terrific. Originally, I was uncertain how to approach my coverage of the five-part miniseries. Should I watch the whole thing and write one piece and be done with it? Once I started watching it, I realized that wouldn't do. Haynes' production excited me so much, I felt compelled to write more on it. This Mildred Pierce proves too remarkable to finish discussing after one post. So today, you'll get my overall preview/review of the miniseries and I will follow up the next three Sundays with recaps of each installment after it airs. (Parts One and Two air this Sunday, followed by Part Three the following week and Parts Four and Five on the final night, so I'll have three recaps in all.)
I've been mixed to negative on Haynes' work in the past, only strongly liking his Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven. His other films as a director that I've seen such as Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There left me less than satisfied. Far From Heaven played for me as a glorious exception in his filmography — until now. His Mildred Pierce tops even Far From Heaven. As director and co-writer, it's the best piece of filmmaking that Haynes has done so far. His visual compositions combined with a strong and clear narrative and a remarkable cast make this Mildred Pierce a wonder. Often, it seems as if Haynes found the perfect shot on which to end each episode and many times uses openings that echo the beginning of the previous installment. I was fortunate to be able to see all five parts in a compressed period of time, since it's addictive. I feel sorry for home viewers who will have to wait a week between parts. Granted, it probably isn't fair on some level to compare Haynes' version, which has more than five hours to play with, with Curtiz's, which ran less than two hours, but the new version actually lowered my opinion of the 1945 film when I watched it again while I was more than halfway through the miniseries. One thing should be clearly stated: This almost shouldn't be called a remake because the 1945 film strayed far from James M. Cain's novel and the miniseries adheres to the book almost as if it were sacred text.
The technical credits also prove wondrous. The production had to re-create Depression-era Southern California in New York and nearby New York areas, but it looks great. The colors comes across vibrantly well through the cinematography of Edward Lachman, who also was d.p. on Far From Heaven. Part of me questioned whether everything should be filmed looking so bright and beautiful in the Great Depression, but I got over that objection rather quickly, thanks in no small part to Ann Roth's expert costuming. A "making of" special says that Roth had to dress 2,000 extras a day. The same special shows Winslet worrying that Roth wouldn't take the job because she's so in demand, but Roth did. She's a four-time Oscar nominee for costume design, winning for The English Patient. She's also in high demand on Broadway where she's been a three-time Tony nominee and her latest work is for the controversial musical The Book of Mormon by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The biggest surprise to me is that the score is an original one because it's so evocative and sounds as if it were lifted directly from the story's time period, but no, it's original music composed by Carter Burwell, who scores most of the Coen brothers' films.
The key to what makes this Mildred Pierce so great belongs to the casting decisions, particularly putting Kate Winslet in the title role. It's been clear for quite some time that Winslet is one of the best, if not the best, actresses of her generation and she wows again here. You don't usually think of Winslet and Joan Crawford in the same role, but even though Crawford won an Oscar for her Mildred, once everyone has seen all five parts of the 2011 version, when you think of the character Mildred Pierce, you will think of Kate Winslet first. Of course, Winslet overflows with so much talent, she could probably play just about any role Crawford ever did though I doubt you could say the reverse. Joan Crawford in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind anyone? Didn't think so. In that behind-the-scenes special, Winslet said that making this miniseries was the hardest work physically for her since she made Titanic. Now that I've seen it, I don't think that was hyperbole. The range and development that Mildred goes through and that Winslet plays truly is remarkable. Having had that image of Joan Crawford in my head for so long, Winslet seemed too young, but according to the character's construct, she's precisely the right age. She makes her obsession with her evil daughter's Veda's needs much more believable than Crawford did because with the expanded running time, you see from where Veda's attitudes first sprang. Winslet succeeds at making Mildred's changes realistic and never rushed, be it from housewife to a cheating husband to successful businesswoman or from a bit of a prude to a woman comfortable with her sexuality and a drink now and then.
Winslet also gets able support from a superb ensemble cast that includes Brian F. O'Byrne, Melissa Leo, James LeGros, Guy Pearce, Mare Winningham and others who appear in just one or two scenes such as Richard Easton, Ronald Guttman and Hope Davis. Then there are the two Vedas: Morgan Turner as the younger Veda in Parts One through Three and Evan Rachel Wood as the older Veda in Parts Four and Five. Before I discuss in detail how these performers did, especially in comparisons to predecessors (if there were predecessors), here comes that SPOILER WARNING again. From now on, the movie, the miniseries and the novel shall all be discussed in minute detail, so stop reading now if you want to be surprised or are unfamiliar with the novel or 1945 film either.
If you were like me (before recently anyway) and had only seen the 1945 Mildred Pierce and never read the 1941 James M. Cain novel upon which it was (very loosely) based, you probably have no idea how much the book and the movie differed. Cain's reputation was that of one of the best of the early 20th century crime novelists. His other acclaimed works that became notable film noirs included Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Since Billy Wilder's film version of Indemnity proved to be a hit the year before Mildred Pierce was released, Warner Bros., the studio that made its name and fortune from its gangster films, tried to shoehorn Mildred Pierce into a crime story told in a similar fashion. They gave it a flashback structure that the novel didn't have and, most importantly, turned its focus into a murder mystery — when Cain's novel contained no murder at all. My faithful contributor Eddie Selover made me aware of a book published in 1980 that I wish I could read by Ranald MacDougall (credited screenwriter of the 1945 film), Albert J. LaValley and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (called Mildred Pierce, of course) that recounts the making of the 1945 film, including how many of the changes came to be.
In the Michael Curtiz version, Mildred's second husband, the bankrupt playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) receives the fatal bullets in the movie's opening minutes and the remainder of the film has Joan Crawford's Mildred telling her life story to a police detective to explain what led up to the murder. Guy Pearce plays Beragon in the HBO miniseries but, aside from not being killed, the main change to his character is the spelling of his name which reverts to Monty, the way Cain spelled it in the novel. Other names get changed to match Cain's that were renamed in the Curtiz version, that's how faithful Haynes and his co-writer Jon Raymond are to the novel. Though Cain may be pigeonholed as a crime novelist, Mildred Pierce does not belong in the crime category. Haynes and Raymond follow Cain's outline so closely that Part One covers almost everything that happens in the first four chapters of the book with the exception of one scene, which they save to use as the opening for Part Two. Changing names isn't that big a deal, but what a difference inserting a murder mystery and flashback structure makes. It's sort of like the butterfly effect, changing the entire story, even the parts the 1945 film kept from Cain's novel. The new miniseries rectifies this, because there were a lot of other changes that made big changes. In a figurative way, Todd Haynes found a DeLorean with a flux capacitor and went back to 1945 to wrench Cain's novel from Warner Bros., and make history right again. (Of course, Time Warner owns HBO, but it was a silly metaphor anyway.)
Whether you are reading the novel, watching the miniseries or beginning the flashback portion of the 1945 version of Mildred Pierce, you basically start at the same point. Mildred's husband Bert holds no job, having been forced out of the company he started, Pierce Homes, and lost what money he once had in the stock market crash of '29. This has left the burden of keeping the family afloat to Mildred, a family which also includes their two daughters Veda, 11, and Ray (short for Moire which the Pierces mispronounced except in the 1945 version where they had no problem because her name was Kay), 6. They barely make ends meet on what she makes by selling pies and cakes she bakes in her kitchen. On this day, after a long while of living with the open secret that Bert is having an affair with one Mrs. Biederhof, Mildred has had enough. There would be no more pretending that Bert and Mrs. Biederhof only played rummy together and when Bert refuses to commit to whether he'll be home in time for dinner or not, Mildred essentially tells him to take a suitcase and not come home at all. The scene comes off very well in the miniseries between Winslet and Brian F. O'Byrne, who plays the role of Bert, but it's a problem in the Curtiz version because they cast Bruce Bennett as Bert and he's horribly stiff and self-righteous and plays every scene he has in the movie as if his character has the moral high ground — even in this scene when he's leaving his wife and two young daughters for another woman. The children come off the same when they come home to a missing father, especially young Veda (played by Ann Blyth at all ages in 1945 and by the miraculous Morgan Turner in the miniseries), who already knew of the affair and tries to assure her mother that Mrs. Biederhof is "distinctly middle-class." Bert was the one thing that always bugged me about the original film. His sudden appearance as the hero and his reconciliation with Mildred didn't make much sense to me in the context of Curtiz's film, but seeing how he develops over the course of the novel and the miniseries, it makes more sense that he and Mildred should get back together and he should be the one to tell her to cut ties with Veda once and for all. O'Byrne can make that transformation work in a way Bennett's acting skills and the other film's running time prevented the previous Bert Pierce.
If you already are a fan of the 1945 Mildred Pierce, one of the major reasons probably is the character of Ida Corwin as hilariously played by Eve Arden. Mildred meets her when she happens to stumble upon a fight over stealing tips that gets two waitresses fired at a diner and, desperate for work, Mildred asks Ida, who manages the joint, for a job. She soon becomes Mildred's best friend and, later, business associate when Mildred begins a career as a successful restaurateur. Arden gets most of the film's most memorable lines and the book about the making of the film, according to Eddie Selover, indicates that Arden improvised a lot of her material. More importantly, though Ida Corwin exists in the novel, she doesn't quite in the way the Curtiz film makes her out to be and it deletes an entire character, Mildred's real best friend, her neighbor Lucy Kessler, played in the miniseries by Melissa Leo. Lucy, still referred to as Mrs. Kessler most of the time despite being Mildred's closest confidant, advises her on her new single status and is the first to give her warning signs that something's not right about Veda. Ida in the miniseries meets Mildred in much the same way, but she's merely a waitress at that diner, not the manager. Mare Winningham gets her part in 2011, though Ida does end up becoming involved in Mildred's business. Leo and Winningham both give very good performances, but neither of their tongues are as razor sharp as Arden's was and, actually, both actresses probably were wise not to try to compete with Arden's ghost.
One of the more memorable speeches Lucy gives to Mildred comes after she learns she's given Bert the heave-ho and she informs her that she now belongs to a group known as the "grass widows," and that comes straight from Cain's novel. Since Lucy's character didn't exist in the 1945 movie and she hadn't met Ida yet, she got a shortened version of that speech from the character of Wally, probably the person who changed the most. In 1945, Wally Fay (Jack Carson) is a lawyer who was supposed to be someone who had known Mildred all her life and always had a thing for her, but ended up taking over her restaurants partly out of spite when Mildred ended up in money trouble because of the cash she wasted on Veda and Monty. In the book and the miniseries, his name is Wally Burgan (James LeGros), Bert's former business partner who forced him out of Pierce Homes, helped Veda scam a wealthy family by saying their son knocked her up and tricked Mildred into incorporating herself so that he could force her out too, though in the end, the company ended up in Ida's hands. Both actors play Wally very well, but the two Wallys are so different, it isn't as if they really are playing the same character.
There are countless other differences, some of which I will mention during the recap process, but I thought I would wrap this up with the character who is second in importance only to Mildred herself and that's her evil spawn Veda, because really, Mildred's obsession with her daughter Veda provides the crux of Cain's novel and the miniseries. It really takes the focus of the 1945 version as well, even if they put it in the form of a murder mystery, since Crawford's Mildred is quite willing to take credit for killing Monte even though Veda did it and she'd just discovered they'd been having an affair. At least the Mildred of the novel and the one Winslet gets to portray would never do that. When she catches Monty and Veda in bed together, she finally tries to strangle the spoiled brat to death. Ann Blyth as well as the entire cast of the Curtiz version did have the production code to contend with, so some changes couldn't be helped. For instance, when Veda tries to snag money from the wealthy young man with a fake pregnancy, in the 1945 version she actually has to marry him. In the miniseries, Mildred wants to force the boy to marry Veda when all Veda wants is the money. Cain's novel goes further with Mildred suggesting, when she believes Veda really is pregnant, that perhaps she should seek an abortion, though the word is never used.
You never see Crawford's Mildred express disdain for work that requires you to wear a uniform, though they do have one scene where it's clear she didn't want Veda to know she was working as a waitress. In the miniseries, while Winslet's Mildred only has those prejudices as far as herself is concerned, it makes more sense where Veda picked up her sense of entitlement and the idea that she's better than most people and doesn't belong with the common folk of Glendale, Calif. When comparing the actresses playing Veda — and really we are considering three here: Blyth, Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood — I believe Turner comes off best. Granted, we spend the most time with her, but she seems to hold the perfect mix of being a child and a rotten know-it-all at the same time. Once Wood takes over, she's fine, but I found her performance far too mannered and when there are standoffs between Mildred and Veda, I actually think Turner holds her own with Winslet better than Wood does.
As someone who generally frowns on remakes, especially of really good movies, Todd Haynes' Mildred Pierce defies the odds because as big of a fan as I was of 1945's Mildred Pierce, the miniseries has lowered my opinion of it. I wish I could separate them since the 1945 movie really tells an entirely different story and the miniseries shouldn't be called a remake at all, but too many things are the same for the two not to be linked. Haynes has achieved something almost impossible: Produced a great work of cinematic art and lowered the worth of a classic film at the same time. If you have HBO or have a friend who has HBO or can see Mildred Pierce by hook or by crook, you must do so. See you here for the first recap of Parts One and Two at 11 p.m. CDT Sunday.