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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Mildred Pierce

Kate Winslet is terrific in many ways in Todd Haynes’s lengthy five-episode HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce — not the least of which is bringing her own unique sensibility to the role made melodramatically iconic by Joan Crawford back in 1945. Although Crawford won her only Oscar for the role, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Michael Curtiz-directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel of the same name, probably in part because Crawford has just never been one of my favorite old-school actresses.

But no worries, because Haynes has gone back to the source material rather than the Curtiz film, and the end result is far more Douglas Sirk revisisted than Curtiz. Which isn’t altogether a bad thing — Sirk’s Imitation of Life is one of my favorite old guilty pleasure melodramas … and what better time than now to to revisit a Depression-era melodrama revolving around a fulcrum of economics and class and survival?

Frankly, America could use a good healthy dose of Mildred and her pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, no bullshit, self-confident optimism right about now; and if this is a perfect time to revisit this story, could there be a better modern actress to take ownership of the title role and make it her own than Kate Winslet? This role, this performance, has “Emmy win” practically engraved on it already for the divine Ms. Winslet, and deservedly so. Give credit where it’s due though … this Mildred may ride on Winslet’s shoulders, but the script, co-written by Haynes and Jon Raymond, takes full advantage of the luxuries of adapting a novel to a miniseries format, where you have room to really sink your teeth into both story and character development.

Winslet revels in having room to fully explore Mildred as a fleshy, smart, woman who is — on the surface at least — tough as nails when it comes to surviving both business challenges and tragic loss, even as she’s sometimes foolish and weaker than she should be when it comes to relationships with men (aren’t we all, girlfriend). At the same time, Winslet also capture’s Mildred’s underlying fear and vulnerability. (And as an aside, I felt myself constantly worrying for Mildred about things like birth control and STIs …)

One minor detraction: I don’t want to pick on a child actor, but I really found Morgan Turner, who plays younger Veda, pretty much intolerable (Evan Rachel Wood, thankfully, picks up the part for the later episodes when Veda is older). This isn’t entirely Turner’s fault; I really dislike this character intensely, and that’s at least in part due to what I see as a fairly significant issue with this story: I just didn’t buy the connection between Winslet’s Mildred and Turner’s Veda. I wanted to! I kept looking for ways to make it feel better, more natural. I just never felt a natural bond was there, not between the characters, and not between the actors.

Turner does convey the Bad Seed/Rhoda Penmark-ishness of Veda pretty well, but almost overkills it to the point of Veda feeling like a little sociopath rather than just a bratty, petulant little girl. I’ve been struggling with putting my finger on exactly why, and not having read the book I can’t say whether this is a problem that existed in the novel and was carried over here, but it’s hard for me to buy that a woman who is otherwise as smart, passionate, and caring about her daughters as Mildred is would raise a daughter who’s such an endlessly reprehensible pain-in-the-ass of a brat, particularly in an age when parents generally were far less likely to be the brand of sappy, kid-ruled parental units that are unfortunately proliferate from Seattle’s trendy hipster neighborhoods to Park Slope.

At least in Imitation of Life, Sarah Jane has a plausible reason for growing up to be young woman who struggles with the opposing pulls of loyalty to her mother, and the benefits she can gain by passing as white. Racism was very much at the forefront of social issues in 1959 when Douglas Sirk made his melodrama. The class issues that here seem to infest young Veda, though, feel to me to be less believable, and the way in which young Turner conveys Veda’s affectation here feels terribly stilted and over-coached. Whether this is a casting problem or a directing issue, it’s hard to say (I kept longing, desperately, for Elle Fanning to show up and save the day), but as I was watching Mildred Pierce, just about every scene with young Veda made me cringe.

Fortunately, all that came before was forgiven when Evan Rachel Wood takes over as Veda ages up. There’s a killer scene after Veda’s piano teacher has died, when Mildred arranges with Veda to play for a famous composer, that rips your soul out and almost makes you feel sorry for Veda. Almost … but not too much if you know what’s coming next.

Mildred as a character has always been fascinating, but she’s much more so in this adaptation where there’s less emphasis on the “raciness” of the divorced Mildred and her relationships with men and more on Mildred’s inner strength and desire to survive.

The issues are particularly timely in this economic climate, when people lose their jobs and may have to consider taking jobs they previously would have considered “beneath” them in order to keep providing. Mildred’s pride, and her maternal protectiveness of her daughters and her desire that they be both cared for and proud of their mother, leads her at first to conceal that she’s taken a job (the horror! — but really, it was a the time, for a woman of her class and station) and then to decide rather impulsively to start her own restaurant and become a businesswoman. It’s that tenacity, that ability to think out of the box, that is just as relevant in 2011 as it was in the Great Depression.

Which, as an aside, makes me kind of wonder why Todd Haynes didn’t just go for it and update Mildred Pierce to modern times while he was at it. Yes, yes, period pieces are cool, and he does them very well, and they’re fun from a production and costuming standpoint. But the story applies just as well to now as it does to then, and it would have been interesting, actually, to see Ed Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography and muted color schemes and use of framing shots through windows and doorways, applied to a more modern Mildred.

I daresay from my own experiences that the lecture Mildred gets at the unemployment office with regard to how the working world views women who forestall careers — or even just put them on hold temporarily — to be stay-at-home moms, hasn’t changed all that much since the 1930s. Believe me — been there, done that, when I took five years off from the tech world to raise babies, thinking I could jump right back into that game. I get Haynes keeping it period, though — he did so to great effect with Far From Heaven (also shot by Lachman), and here he captures Depression-era California within the class structure Mildred exists in, very effectively.

Haynes’ version of Mildred Pierce is lovely and solid, and the miniseries format allows plenty of room for Haynes to unravel the story at his own pace, and aside from my issue with young Veda, the rest of the acting is all superb. Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham, as Mildred’s BFFs and business cohorts Lucy and Ida, are pretty awesome (and who wouldn’t like to have a couple dames like Leo and Winningham to have your back?), and Guy Pearce as Mildred’s lover Monty Beragon is as appealing and smarmy as ever a playboy/gigolo with questionable morals ought to be, if he’s to snag a gal like Mildred in spite of the better sense that ought to tell her to stay away from a guy like him.

The best scene in the first two episodes, though, for my money, is the wrenching moment when Mildred and her philandering husband Burt decide to file for divorce so that Mildred can get the property she needs for her restaurant. That lingering sense of what was once a love between two people, fought for, neglected, and ultimately given up on with a sense of finality and regret and moving on, was, simply, perfectly written, perfectly acted … and very hard to watch. Which, I guess, is the ultimate compliment for such a scene.

More, please.

The first two episodes of Mildred Pierce aired Sunday on HBO, with the next three episodes to follow, but if you missed Parts One and Two, it appears they are available through On Demand for you to get caught up before Part Three on Sunday.

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22 Responses to “Review: Mildred Pierce”

  1. oliver says:

    this is first rate drama….intense…gripping….i loved little veda…..kate winslett was magnificent…..more of this entertainment please……

  2. Cindy says:

    I wanted more when the first two episodes concluded last night! I would have gladly stayed up a few more hours. Bravo!

  3. Anthony says:

    Kate Winslett is off the chain in this. I love her anyway, but i wouldve watched all the parts if they came on last night!!!

  4. liz shacknove says:

    little veda is hideous.

  5. senorric says:

    Could it be I saw a different version? It was slow moving, with unsympathic characters. It’s a bomb! Skip the next three and watch the last episode, this way you only waste half your time ———-

  6. Juliet says:

    WOW what a great show! This is bound to get lots of awards this year. The props and period sets are tremendous not to mention the acting on everyone’s part. Kate Winslett doesn’t usually impress me but she is doing so now.

  7. cynthia park says:

    Super acting–truly remarkable
    Super cinematography
    Super Kate Winslet
    Slow moving in parts

  8. Glenn Danzig says:

    shit sucks

  9. tilzey says:

    I agree that the actress playing Veda was awful. Over-acted, flat, silly, unprofessional. The younger actress who played the younger daughter was so natural that the “Veda” actress looked even more ridiculous. I was quite distracted by the poor representation of the mother/child relationship.
    I felt that I was viewing a play, with the inherent over-acting that a live performance sometimes requires in order to carry it out the farthest seat in the theater.

  10. TD says:

    Boring with unsympathetic characters – and Veda makes me want to smack her! There is something about this series (so far) that is really depressing – even the theme music is awful.

  11. yancyskancy says:

    Weird that the three most enthusiastic posts here all misspell Winslet in the same way.

    Looking forward to seeing this. First ep. is impatiently waiting in the DVR.

  12. impressive says:

    @yancyskancy… wow, good call. I love Winslet but i haven’t seen it yet. I was so excited to see that people loved her so much but you are right. Same person! I’ll still watch it i just hope she is as good as thatt onee perssonn sayss theyy aree.

  13. movieman says:

    Genius: I loved every single minute. This could very well turn out to be Haynes’ “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”
    It’s as good as TV (and certainly 21st century Hollywood movies which, everyone knows, aren’t nearly as good as the best contemporary television) gets.

  14. Mikki says:

    I loved watching the first version with Joan Crawford. Kate does a good job but that Veda . . . she really hams up the scenes with the over acting. Poor thing, she’s only doing what she’s told and what they allow her.

  15. samguy says:

    Fuck, another movie on HBO that’s better than most of the Best Picture nominees, not to mention a performance that would be a for sure Best Actress nominee/winner (see “Grey Gardens,” “Temple Grandin”). Looking forward to the one about the Loud family with Tim Robbins, Diane Lane and James Gandolfini.

  16. Big Al says:

    Huge fan of Winslet, Wood and Pearce. Watched the frist three episodes and endured the painfull acting and woefull directing of some great talent. We cancelled our recording of parts 4&5 and then I noticed it was on so I decided to watch the last 40 minutes so I could at least see Wood shoot Pearce. It didn’t even happen, I can’t believe they couldn’t even get the ending right. Actually no I can believe it.

    One star out of ten.

  17. Sammy says:

    Here’s a case of everyone jumping on the HBO bandwagon and gushing to no end about the marvelous acting, directing, art direction, etc. (Kate Winslet, go ahead and give her the Emmy!) without having stopped to consider that the whole thing just … doesn’t … work.

    Why is it that most of the over-the-top positive reviews of this perfectly dreadful miniseries went out of their way to be so dismissive of the Joan Crawford film? Why was it necessary to remake that film in the first place? Well, that’s another discussion, but had this been a shot-for-shot remake of that film noir classic, it might have been at least a little more effective. Instead, there is this turgid waste of time: I honestly didn’t care for any of these characters, didn’t care what happened to any of them, and was just plain disgusted with the characterizations and the glacial pacing and the limp ending. Winslet doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing with Mildred, she just seems to be around for at least one gratuitous sex scene every episode, and, yeah, she emotes a lot.

    So instead of the best parts of the original, the dark corners and sultry twists and “we know what’s coming but let’s see how it ended up there” drama of the Crawford film, we end up with this overdone soap opera melodrama. I’d have rather spent five hours watching an infomercial.

  18. Rosie says:

    I’m still surprised that no one seems capable of understanding Mildred’s enabling of Veda’s bad behavior. The last scene in Episode 1 made it perfectly clear. Being a narcissist woman herself, Mildred sees what she views as her best qualities in Veda, which leads her willing to do anything to ensure that her oldest daughter will achieve a success in life at a level that Mildred believes she will never achieve.

  19. Rosie says:

    I also have a theory that some of the negativity expressed toward “MILDRED PIERCE” may have something to do with the portrayal of Mildred’s role as a parent. The more I think of it, the more I realize that Mildred’s habit of enabling Veda’s worst traits is VERY SIMILAR to how many 21st century parents raise their children. And many viewers resent what might seem like a criticism of their parenting skills.

  20. mary says:

    last episode last line, “lets get stinko”??? that’s it? yikes ,that’s dumb

  21. Kate Horgany says:

    I’m surprised no one made the death of her youngest as part of the reason Mildred wasn’t a little more savvy around her already queer and rude daughter.
    The actress Turner, did a good job of y’all despise her. Spoiled, manipulator, cheap and tawdry was her true nature. Perhaps she reflected Glendale and all the scummy, depressing living arrangements-no hope, depressing and stifling values. In the long run, she was her mothers’ daughter. Using people, driven, selfish etc. With but one exception. Mildred did these things for Veda’s to buy the kids’ love, but the brat couldn’t be bought! From gigolo to Mildred, the broken drunk became Vida’s gigolo, and history will repeat itself.
    The journey the Pearce’s took to find themselves again, taught Mildred a life lesson, one the savvier Velda may not need. As the conductor said to the clueless? Blind? Stubborn Mildred, “I don’t like snake bites.” At this point I became angry with the dumb Mildred, and decided to fast forward the rest of the show.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon