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Mildred Pierce is a nightmare as American as Mom and apple pie

This week's big movie can be found on TV. Arch-independent filmmaker Todd Haynes makes a characteristically sidelong move toward the mainstream with his five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce, which starts this Sunday on HBO.

Haynes, the most academic yet mass-culture-minded of U.S. indie directors, began his career in the late Reagan era with an unauthorized Karen Carpenter biopic, shot in Super 8 and enacted by a cast of Barbie dolls; his most recent feature, I'm Not There, explicated the Bob Dylan story using five different "Dylans" of various races, ages and genders. His Mildred Pierce, co-written with Jon Raymond, addresses another sort of star text, exhuming a Depression-set popular novel by tough-guy naturalist James M. Cain that, first filmed in 1945 by Michael Curtiz, provided Joan Crawford with her quintessential role (and only Oscar).

Anyone familiar with the Crawford Mildred Pierce might assume Haynes's remake would resemble the faux Douglas Sirk of his reimagined 1950s weepie Far From Heaven. But the attitude is quite different: There's neither camp nor irony nor reference to the Crawford vehicle. Unfolding over six and a half hours, the rise and fall of a hardworking, hard-headed, not particularly imaginative young mother who divorces her deadbeat husband and parlays a knack for baking into a chain of 85-cent chicken-plate eateries — only to let her hard-won empire crumble away — is epic domestic drama with intimations of historical tragedy. Too distant and hardscrabble to evoke nostalgia, Haynes's Mildred might have appeared in the disillusioned days of The Godfather or Chinatown. The black-and-white past of the 1930s is reconstructed in pastel hues, with morally dubious characters bathed in an ambiguous golden light.

Evan Rachel Wood and Kate Winslet star in HBO's Mildred Pierce.
Andrew Schwartz/HBO
Evan Rachel Wood and Kate Winslet star in HBO's Mildred Pierce.

Details

Directed by Todd Haynes. Written by Haynes and Jon Raymond. Based on the novel by James M. Cain. Starring Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, Guy Pearce and Brian F. O'Byrne. Airing on HBO March 27, April 3 and April 10.

Cain, of course, imagined himself a debunker of fake pieties — including those attached to motherhood. His self-made Mildred is "one that lov'd not wisely but too well," pampering her bratty, musically talented daughter, Veda, while keeping a polo-playing Pasadena gigolo named Monte on a long leash. Newspaperman, editor (at the New Yorker, no less) and screenwriter, Cain followed his enduring sub-literary masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) with other scandalous bestsellers — including the atmospheric adultery-murder tale Double Indemnity (first serialized in 1936). Mildred Pierce (1941) was his most ambitious novel. In this ham-fisted attempt to fuse Flaubert and Dreiser, Cain abandoned his trademark first-person narration to more objectively focus on social milieu (mainly his detailed observations on the workings of the food-service industry) and sexual pathology.

The New York Times book review of Mildred Pierce began by asserting that "the entire cast of this novel is made up of Southern California abominations." Hollywood-morals czar Joseph Breen warned mogul Jack Warner that the book was unfilmable. A bevy of screenwriters (including the uncredited Albert Maltz and William Faulkner) downplayed the adultery angle, murdered Monte, and turned Veda into a film-noir femme fatale, all while mimicking the flashback structure in Billy Wilder's then-recent hit adaptation of Double Indemnity. Curtiz further enhanced the noir quotient with moody SoCal atmospherics. Haynes's version, which begins with a close-up of capable Mildred (Kate Winslet) rolling out the dough, brings it all back home: The miniseries is far more faithful to the tawdry class shenanigans of Cain's novel than any of the author's characters are to each other.

Economic reality rules. It's 1931, the Depression is deepening, and Bert Pierce (Brian F. O'Byrne), the would-be developer of a Glendale, California, housing tract, has been beaten into submission by forces beyond his control. Taking matters in hand, Mildred awkwardly sets about looking for a job; once she lands a position as a humble hash-slinger, she struggles to maintain appearances. Winslet's slightly dowdy Mildred is a priori sympathetic, sustaining a leisurely narrative with the nervous intensity of her assault upon an unwelcoming universe. This Mildred is hardly Crawford's silky, glamorous dynamo. Still, once the foppish Monte (Guy Pearce) picks her up, she enjoys an erotic awakening. Indeed, libidinal drives periodically disrupt Mildred's upward trajectory of success and self-respect. The ongoing battles between the working mom and Veda, her outrageously snobbish, secret mini-me daughter (initially played by eleven-year-old Morgan Turner) provide the movie's arias — as well as its analysis.

Not sex, but social status is Mildred's dirty little secret. As this calculating striver is, for Cain, the personification of Glendale, the stolid Los Angeles suburb that swelled with Midwestern newcomers throughout the 1920s, so party animal Monte is a remnant of the wastrel wealth of the '20s — not to mention the ideal that obnoxious Veda emulates. There's a four-year hiatus between Parts III and IV, but Mildred remains constantly confounded both by her daughter's contempt ("Haven't I given you everything you ever wanted?" she wails as Veda once again calls her a "peasant") and her own enigmatic destiny.

In an appreciation of Cain, published in the mid-'60s, Joyce Carol Oates describes Mildred Pierce as most convincing in its "plodding, repetitious, unimaginative progress, its depiction of a strong/weak heroine whose profound ignorance is matched perfectly by the characters who surround her." So it is in the new Mildred. Haynes has taken Cain's methodical narrative rhythm and deranged banality to heart. Much of the miniseries is devoted to the contemplation of Mildred's milieu. For all its intermittent histrionics, Haynes's miniseries is less a narrative than a fastidiously designed world. The pale greens and dusty corals evoke the colors of Depression glassware; Mildred's unglamorous cronies, played by Mare Winningham and Melissa Leo (in the part played by Eve Arden in the original), have the unadorned, care-etched faces of the women in Dorothea Lange's FSA photographs.

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