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Sex, Ambition, Snobbery: Reasons to Love "Mildred Pierce"

by Caryn James
March 24, 2011 1:00 AM
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Todd Haynes’ brilliant miniseries is too smart to thwack you over the head with its themes, but the heroine of Mildred Pierce is a true subversive masquerading as a Depression-era woman in a dowdy brown hat.

Played with amazing range, authority and subtlety by Kate Winslet, Mildred goes from being a down-on-her-luck divorced mother to owning a chain of restaurants, then tumbles backwards again. But that’s just plot. What Winslet and Haynes bring so vibrantly to life is Mildred’s character; she is frankly sexual and ambitious, two things “good” women of the 1930’s were not supposed to be.

Mildred’s rise and fall is fraught with more melodrama, beginning with her two daughters: one dies as a child, the other grows up to betray her. Haynes’ inspired approach is to treat this soap opera as if it’s not a soap opera, a tactic that blends perfectly with Winslet’s immense naturalism.

Haynes’ signature, his affection for genres and for playing around with them, is evident, but Mildred is radically different from Far From Heaven, his period piece set in the ‘50’s. Where Heaven is loaded with quotation marks around its stylized take on old movies, Mildred immerses us in the ‘30’s with an aura of authenticity, even though that realism is precisely, beautifully art-directed. And Haynes and cowriter Jon Raymond have gone straight to the James M. Cain novel, eliminating the lurid murder that was added to the 1945 Joan Crawford movie. Happily, that old film casts no shadow here.

This captivating new version begins with Mildred as a middle-class housewife in Glendale, who tosses out her cheating husband, Bert. He’s played by the terrific Bryan F. O’Byrne, whose own naturalism is a perfect match for Winslet’s. Mildred swallows her fierce pride and becomes a waitress to support her children. But as she falls into the working class, she hides that fact from her snobbish older daughter, Veda, a brat who sneers at her mother and at 11 already has the too-precise enunciation of the social climber.

Through all Mildred’s changes, Winslet depicts her quiet willfulness as well as her blindness about Veda. Mildred sees in her daughter's aspirations the woman she might have been, and will deny Veda no chance in life. But Mildred is also her own person.

Having appeased Veda by saying she is only waitressing to learn the restaurant business, she actually goes ahead and shrewdly starts a chicken-and waffles restaurant. She goes to bed with her ex-husband’s business partner (James LeGros) not because she loves him or wants to be taken care of, but because she wants sex. And when a rich playboy walks into the diner on Mildred’s last day as a waitress and offers to sweep her away, she takes him up on it because she can.

With a Clark Gable moustache and swagger, Guy Pearce is ideal as that cad, Monty Beragon, who becomes the most thrilling and damaging man in Mildred’s life. Winslet and Pearce’s blazing-hot sex scenes make you remember that Cain also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice. And Mildred is as unapologetic about her sexual affairs as she is about her unladylike ambition.

Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman bring a smoggy yellowish tinge to Mildred’s down-trodden days, with just enough Edward Hopper-like shots through the diner window to evoke the era. And the film bursts into crystal-clear California brightness as Mildred’s fortunes improve; by the end of Part 2 she is on the verge of great success. (Parts 1 and 2 will premiere on HBO this Sunday, the rest over the next two Sundays.)

But Mildred was never the snob in the family. She even stays with Monty for a while after he loses his money, and she opens branches of her restaurant in “Laguna’ and “Beverly” as she calls them, with a trace of 30’s lingo (not so much that it becomes kitschy). She simply wants what she wants: success, independence, and something she will never have, the love of her daughter. We admire Mildred’s passion, but see that she can be selfish and that she shuts her eyes to all sorts of unpleasantness, from business to Monty.

Veda is her biggest blind spot, but the miniseries is about so much more than that mother-daughter tussle. Mildred’s life may be shaped by the need to please her daughter, but the series doesn’t focus on Veda until the last hour, its weakest. Now a glamorous young woman, Veda makes an abrupt, improbable change from pianist to acclaimed classical concert singer. Evan Rachel Wood plays the adult Veda a bit stiffly. Maybe no one could make that hateful, venal character anything other than the old-fashioned melodramatic villainess she is, but the final hour jolts the series away from our powerful belief in Mildred’s story.

Still, Winslet makes Veda’s betrayal (not hard to guess, but not to be revealed either) wrenching to watch. For what awards are worth, Winslet seems sure to win the Emmy; it’s hard to imagine a more gripping or nuanced performance. And I hope O’Byrne gets the acclaim he deserves for his unshowy but crucial supporting role.

One of HBO’s trailers is so Veda-centric that it fails to give a sense of how rich and expansive the miniseries is. Here’s a preview that gives a more accurate view of this stunning, socially-conscious Mildred Pierce.

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