I just received my Blu-Ray boxed set of Mildred Pierce, the HBO miniseries from 2011 directed by Todd Haynes. Nominated for twenty-one Emmys and winner of five, it’s a powerful story of a world-weary woman striving against odds for a better life. I had seen it when it originally aired several months ago and promptly pre-ordered the Blu-Ray box, because I felt it would be one of those things I would want to watch every couple of years or so.
And I was right.
When I watched it again, it didn’t seem at all stale. Rather, I was able to pick up things I’d missed the first time around (always a sign that a movie is doing something right). My overall appreciation of it rose considerably.
Frankly, I’d been waiting for something like this for many years. The 1945 film of the same name may have won an Oscar for Joan Crawford, but it didn’t do any justice to James M Cain’s novel from which it was adapted. For Hollywood purposes, they added a murder and other such nonsense and deleted much of the class division that Cain went to great lengths to portray. The HBO version, however, replicates the novel virtually scene for scene, and it vividly paints the picture of the sharp social differences between the characters. In 1945, Hollywood tried mightily for a noir atmosphere with lots of shadowy photography, especially in the police station (didn’t those cops have lights in their offices?). HBO achieves a thick, textured noir feel through well-fleshed-out characters and their motivations. You could almost call it “chick flick noir”.
Kate Winslet turns in a major-league performance in the difficult title role. Traipsing around in dowdy dresses and aprons, she crawls inside Mildred’s skin as she bakes her pies and eventually runs her restaurants. Crawford, on the other hand, always seemed to be going through her usual motions of acting, always mugging for the camera. Winslet makes you feel voyeuristic, like you’re watching her personal life unfold by peeking through the blinds. You will completely forget she was ever in Titanic as she plows through all five Mildred Pierce episodes, trying to get above her raising, caving in to the guilt trips her social-climber daughter is constantly laying on her, and ultimately falling for the conniving Monty Beragon, played with gusto by Guy Pearce.
Beragon, polo-playing man about town, has seen his fortune wane through the depression, and he’s reduced to living in the servant’s quarters of his damp, drafty Pasadena mansion. He was portrayed by Zachary Scott in the 1945 film, and truth be told, Scott fit that character like Clark Gable fit Rhett Butler. But Scott is gone, and Pearce approaches the role from a different angle. Where Scott was oily, Pearce is far more sincere, or so he seems. A key scene in the big Pasadena house where Beragon tells Mildred the importance of rooms and the things they contain makes you believe for a moment that he’s redeemable, that he’s not quite the rat you suspected. One of the audio commentaries that accompany the Blu-Ray set tells us that Pearce’s dialogue coach helped him nail the subtle speech inflections unique to old-time natives of Los Angeles, those who, like Beragon, came from old money.
The miniseries is set from 1931-1940, like the novel, and the title notwithstanding, it is almost stolen by the story of Veda Pierce, Mildred’s daughter, played as a pre-teen by Morgan Turner and from ages 17-20 by Evan Rachel Wood. Only the strength of Winslet’s star turn keeps the story in Mildred’s court. Turner is outstanding as the bratty, self-absorbed young Veda and Wood seems like the natural older version of her. I would imagine Wood’s performance was heavily influenced by watching Turner in the rushes for her body language, her voice inflections, and most of all, her all-about-me attitude.
In a smaller role, Hope Davis scores big as Mrs Forrester, a patrician grande dameÂ who interviews Mildred for a maid’s job in one of the early episodes. Later on, her character marries a movie director and she becomes Mrs Lenhardt. Again she meets Mildred, but under very different circumstances, and can’t quite place her. Davis makes the most of her onscreen time, giving life to a minor character and preventing her lapse into stereotype.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention the production design in Mildred Pierce. Authentic period detail and a palette of muted greens and grays give the miniseries a vivid look at a middle-class American family of the 1930s. Production designer Mark Friedberg, Art Director Peter Rogness, and Set Decorator Ellen Christiansen shared the 2011 Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction.
Mildred PierceÂ is a winner for everyone involved, though, especially the late James M Cain, who was one of the great noir authors of all time. Nobody could tell a story better.