A man is shot, collapses, and dies. He mumbles “Mildred” and falls to the floor of an obscenely well-furnished living room. Thus begins Mildred Pierce, the 1945 film noir and melodrama, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford in the eponymous role. Mildred Pierce is the story of a divorced, single mother determined to provide her churlish daughter a life of luxury by any means necessary.
Todd Haynes B‘85, the prolific independent film director best known for Safe, Far from Heaven and I’m Not There, will be direcing the miniseries version of the classic film. The five-part series, premiering March 27 on HBO, will star period-piece virtuoso Kate Winslet in the titular role, Evan Rachel Wood as her eldest daughter Veda, and Guy Pearce as Pierce’s second husband Monte. “She gave her daughter everything,” the tagline for the trailer reads, “But everything was not enough.”
Rather than attempting to remake the original, Haynes has looked to the 1941 novel by James M. Cain that inspired the film. Curtiz’s version displaced Cain’s narrative of a working class woman’s struggle against social injustice, instead injecting murder and suspense into the narrative. Cain’s novel—unlike the film—contains no murder, no mystery, and no flashbacks. And neither will Haynes’s version. So don’t expect Winslet to resurrect a crazy-eyed Crawford. This is no made-for-TV melodrama, nor is it a thriller. There’s more sex, more naughty couplings, and way less theatricality.
“The frankness with which [Cain] dealt with Mildred’s sexuality, her relationship with Monty, and the complexity between the two women characters—mother and daughter—was so much more nuanced, and so much more relevant and relatable, than I ever truly felt about the original film,” Haynes says in an interview with Collider.com, “which is a beautifully stylized piece of Hollywood operatic, noir filmmaking. [Cain’s book] felt modern and contemporary and approachable, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to take it on.” Haynes wanted to honor Curtiz’s film, but also “bring elements out of it that might have been overlooked in the original production that was so codified and stylized that you missed the real human nuances and conditions that made it feel incredibly modern and relevant, and I think we did accomplish that.”
Curtiz’s film begins at the end of the Pierce story. We don’t know it yet, but the man who died was Pierce’s second husband, and so far we think she’s the killer. We first see Pierce wearing a massive mink coat, strutting along the Santa Monica pier, and for one fleeting instant, she seems to contemplate jumping off of it. In the next scene, sitting in a police station, Pierce begins to tell the story of the events that led to her demise. The screen dissolves into a bright, cheery, humble home in Glendale. Pre-powerhouse Pierce appears wearing an apron, baking pies, while her husband, Bert, flops down on a sofa in the background. We hear Pierce in voice-over: “I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.” Within the next few minutes, Bert accuses Pierce of spoiling their eldest daughter with inane material items, and Pierce criticizes Bert for his lack of ambition, sternly ordering him to go “pack up.” After a series of tragedies—all seemingly induced by Pierce’s decision to leave her husband—we witness her transformation from dowdy, maternal housewife to wealthy, ambitious restaurateur. Pierce becomes increasingly masculine, dressing in broad, padded-shouldered suits, and guzzling scotch, claiming, “It’s just a little habit I picked up from men.”
As Pierce settles into single motherhood, she meets her soon-to-be second husband Monte, a wealthy layabout. After a spontaneous sexcapade at the beach, Pierce returns home to find her youngest daughter dying of pneumonia—Hollywood-style punishment for motherly negligence. By the end of the film, Pierce has lost both husbands, her youngest daughter, her business, and at the very end, her beloved Veda. The implicit message: career women can only achieve happiness if they relinquish their occupational ambitions, redomesticate, and give up their financial and sexual independence. She must be purged of her excess (her whiny, money-hungry daughter Veda), and deprived of her sexual threat (big shoulders, big bucks) to the male business world.
Feminist film critics have interpreted Mildred Pierce as a warning to independent women to ‘know their place,’ lest they end up bad mothers and child-less spinsters. Reflecting the subjection of ‘woman’ as a social type, Mildred Pierce sent the message to American women in 1945, who achieved working status during wartime, that female autonomy was a threat to their families and to society. The year 1945 marked not only the return of the troops and the transition to a post-war economy, but also the revocation of women’s temporary economic freedom and the reconstruction of gender boundaries. The reconstitution of the family unit was of dire necessity to return ‘rightful’ order and ‘normalcy’ to the nation. By the end of the film, Pierce is punished for transgessing the gender line, for rattling the structure of the nuclear family, and must perform a final capitulation to her ‘proper’ role.
As if being a threat to cultural order weren’t enough, Pierce’s subjectivity has been characterized by some critics as an aberration, an illness, even pathological. Pierce’s independence is interpreted, by writer Stanford M. Lyman, as the outward manifestation of a latent, incestuous lesbianism toward her daughter Veda. According to 1970s feminist film theorist Pam Cook, in “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce,” the conclusion is less extreme: viewers judge Pierce extra harshly for indulging Veda’s penchant for consumption, thus the mother-daughter bond is read as dangerous. “Solidarity among women (represented by Veda and Mildred) represents the greatest threat to patriarchy,” argues film scholar Janet Walker. “Female collectivity provides a vision of the world without men.”
“It is clearly the mother-daughter relationship that is extremely problematic in both the film and the novel,” Mary Ann Doane, pioneer in feminist film theory, George Hazard Crooker Professor, and chair of the Modern Culture and Media department at Brown, told the Independent. “There is a certain impossibility associated with the role of the mother in a patriarchal culture and it has to do with spatial metaphors of ‘over-closeness’ and ‘excessive distance,’ usually linked to the working mother. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for the figure of the mother.”
So what have we learned? A career woman lives a split life, divided between motherhood and business. Bad mothers drive their daughters to murder and society into ruin. And women in love, or women in general, are a threat to penis-power. But Veda has an attitude problem, and her negative bonding works to protect patriarchy, ensuring her mother’s love will be destructive and self-defeating. Pierce’s love is something closer to masochistic, and Veda’s may be nonexistent.
The closing image is a long shot of Pierce walking away from the camera with her first husband, the father of her children, her arm bound to his, approaching a gargantuan, sun-drenched archway, while in the foreground, two black women scrub the steps of the police station. Everyone and everything in its proper place outside the Hall of Justice. The end.
“But no film is a simple inscription of ideology,” Doane argues, “and this film brings aesthetic pressure to bear on the contradictions of such an ideology.” Lynne Joyrich, Professor of Modern Culture and Media Studies at Brown, offers further insight: “Even though the narrative closes as this promotion of heteronormativity, viewers remember the moments in which she’s tough and strong, and when she’s bonding with other women. [Pierce] will never be a typical wife and mom, she’s going to find some other fabulous thing to do.”
Pierce’s on-screen fabulosity is reflected and reinforced by Crawford’s real-life star-image. Just like Pierce, Crawford was a single mother—and according to later accounts of her adopted daughter (whom she disinherited), Crawford was a very, very bad mommy. The press maintained Crawford’s star-image as a woman rising up from struggle, just as Pierce is depicted as a fighter who rises to the top of the social ladder. Crawford’s real-life bootstrapping augmented the believability and self-referentiality of her onscreen roles, which epitomized the ‘independent woman’ trope of the 1930s and 40s. Her highly publicized downfall (she was dubbed ‘box office poison’ prior to nabbing the Academy Award for Mildred Pierce), was integrated into her star-story as just another obstacle she had to overcome.
Pierce carries her connotations with her, but Haynes’s vision is sure to offer new insights to this 70-year old story. Doane, who taught Haynes in the 80s, reflects, “When [Haynes] was at Brown, he took a course from me on the ‘woman’s film’ and saw many of the films that had an impact on his filmmaking,” says Doane, “He has always been interested in the ideological implications of form and the cultural ordering of sexuality… Because Todd was a semiotics concentrator at Brown, he has often been seen as too intellectual and unemotional, as though intellect and emotion were absolutely incompatible. But I think that his uniqueness resides in the fact that he is able to collapse that opposition, to push the spectator to simultaneously feel and analyze emotion. He knows film theory extremely well and at the same time he undermines all the stereotypes of coldness and abstractness that are usually associated with theory… Because Todd is so attentive to form and medium, the issue of seriality and television will undoubtedly be of great concern to him.”
“Haynes is somebody who, across all of his work, is very interested in what conventions different media forms offer. He plays with media form and conventions to get us to think about the very mode he is using to tell the story… Haynes directed the television short Dottie Gets Spanked, using television form as a commentary on television,” says Joyrich, “In that way, I think Mildred Pierce could be perfect for [television]… Television allows for ongoing narration because of its serial form. Serial form allows for really involved, multiple intersecting narratives—you can come up with a complex social and familial network. I think that form itself has a lot of potential for what you could do with it as a commentary on family dynamics and the complex relations of what hold people together.”
I’ve seen Mildred Pierce at least five times, and my mother could triple that amount. For the women in my family, it’s been a hallmark of strong womynism. I asked my mother what she thought about Pierce and patriarchy. She got very defensive, claiming that Pierce is a survivor, an ambitious, bad-ass supermama, and that of course she returns to work after her reunion with Bert. Contrary to said feminist readings, my mother’s Pierce is a role model, a rebel, a heroine of early Hollywood. But even as a black woman, my mother overlooks the infantilization of Pierce’s black maid, played by Butterfly McQueen, and the glaring omission of successful, or positive images of women of color in the narrative just so she can experience “something beautiful to look at, a glimpse into a life that’s not mine. The politics of it don’t mean anything to me.”
Synthesizing my mother’s take on Pierce with the critical consensus, Joyrich notes, “[Mildred Pierce] speaks to so many people and can be powerful so many years later, frankly because those issues are still with us. We look at the film now and it can seem dated, but issues of struggling to balance work life and home life, internal peace with ambition and desires for success, are all still big issues in our time…The film opens up more than it can close off. It is never closed and contained because it leaves spaces and gaps for viewer to get pleasure out of it.”
The reappearance of Mildred Pierce is a testament to the endurance and continued relevance of the story. Haynes slips his own reading of Pierce into the film’s gaps, as does my mother, extracting new pleasures and possibilities from the Pierce story. But it is also Pierce herself who perseveres. Despite the confines of genre, racial stereotypes, and heterosexist norms, Pierce transcends her own containment. She survives in time and crosses racial boundaries. Most of all, I guess my mother relates to Pierce–after all, she’s a mother too.
EVE MARIE BLAZO B’12 loves her bad-ass supermama.