James M. Cain
Let me begin with a confession: I have been anticipating the premiere of HBO’s adaptation of Mildred Pierce ever since I first heard about the project last spring. Then, there were just a few tantalizing shots of Kate Winslet in red lipstick, looking both stern and forlorn (which is exactly how poor old Mildred must always look). There is very little director Todd Haynes could have done in the premiere to discourage me from watching the rest of the series. Luckily, however, Parts One and Two, which aired last night, were solid (for a look at some more tepid reviews, check out James Poniewozik and Alan Sepinwall).
I am a huge fan of the first Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 adaptation of the James M. Cain novel of the same name. The film is amazing for so many reasons: Joan Crawford’s Academy Award-winning performance, its explicit (and fairly radical) commentary on the limits that gender places on women, that beautiful, beautiful cinematography, etc. But Mildred Pierce remains one of my favorite classic Hollywood films because it deftly blends film noir with the maternal melodrama. If you are an aficionado of American film genres as I am, then you know that film noir and melodrama are considered to be “modes” of filmmaking, rather than coherent genres in their own right. Unlike the gangster film or the Western, these two modes cannot be defined by a specific setting, nor do they have consistent plot formulas or conventions. Rather, these two modes of filmmaking transcend generic boundaries, so that we can speak of noir-science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise) and Western melodramas like Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee). In other words, noir and melodrama are like a cloak that other films (generic or not) can try on as way to compliment, but not consume, their own unique elements. So while Mildred Pierce is a drama about the plight of the American woman of the 1930s and 1940s, who is constantly subject to the whims of the lecherous, selfish men around her, it is also a tortuous account of a mother sacrificing everything for the happiness of her children (maternal melodrama) and a murder mystery that begins at the end and then winds its way backwards to discover the truth (film noir). This is an amazing combination. For me, that’s the cinematic equivalent of carrot cake cheesecake. Have you ever had that? They actually mix carrot cake together with the cheesecake!
Since I mentioned cheesecake, let’s move on with this review. After its simple and decade appropriate Art Deco credits (love!), Part One of the miniseries opens with a pair of busy hands making biscuits and pies. We see close ups of perfectly crafted pie crusts awaiting their bright lemon custard fillings and stiff white meringue toppings. Yes, this is food porn. Indeed, throughout the first two parts of the miniseries, Haynes gives loving attention to food. Some might view these scenes as slow, but I enjoyed Haynes’ “elastic attitude towards time,” to quote Matt Zoller Seitz’s recap in Salon:
TV has permission to do this — settle into a scene the way you might settle into a warm bath, and linger. And yet it rarely avails itself of this privilege. On most scripted TV dramas, as in most movies, the mentality is more often “Just get on with it!” All climax, no foreplay, as it were.
Yes, we gets lots and lots of food foreplay here, but it serves a purpose. As in all melodramas, Mildred Pierce‘s mise en scène serves a specific narrative and thematic function. In his famous essay “Tale of Sound of Fury,” Thomas Elsaesser argues that the melodrama is an expressive code, a form of dramatic mise en scène. Specifically, in the domestic melodrama of the 1940s and 1950s, the scope of action is restricted. All of the turmoil is happening inside the characters, rather than outside. Characters want to speak and act, but social decorum, class restrictions, and pride prevent them from doing so. And so the mise en scène becomes a vehicle for helping to express the tense emotions roiling just below the surface. In the image, below, for example, Mildred is carefully decorating a cake as she carefully points out to her husband that most folks wait to water their lawns until later in the day (so that the water isn’t dried up by the heat of the late day sun). But Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) has watered the grass early in an effort to meet up with his mistress. She lays out her reasoned argument, bit by bit, as she adds small decorative details to the cake (a cake she must make because her husband is no longer supporting the family financially). Thus, in Mildred Pierce extended, loving shots of food offer us insight into characters, their experiences, and their emotions.
Along the same lines, the opening shots of Mildred’s impressive pastry skills signify not only that Mildred is talented, but also that she is a hard worker and a perfectionist, two traits that are central to her character’s development over the course of the story. Furthermore, it is significant that Mildred’s talents are definitively domestic. When Mildred goes looking for work after good-for-nothing husband, Bert, leaves her to fend for herself and their daughters, she discovers that she has “no skills.” Her head hunter reminds her that as a housewife she is only qualified for domestic work: waitressing and housekeeping. But what we know, and what it takes Mildred about 75 minutes of screen time to realize, is that her seemingly useless “feminine” skill set will eventually lead to the creation of an empire. An empire of PIE!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To return to the mise en scène of food: one of my favorite shots of the miniseries so far is an extreme close up of the ham sandwich Mildred orders after a discouraging day of trying to find work. Mildred has spent her morning pounding the pavement and becoming increasingly aware of the fact that the only jobs available are in the service industry. Mildred, you see, is a bit of a snob. As she explains to her neighbor/confidante, Lucy (Melissa Leo in another “feisty role”), she has something inside of her, pride or possibly nobility, which makes it difficult for her to accept a job in which she must kowtow to class-based roles and take commands from others. This, we are told, is why young Veda (Morgan Turner), her first born, is such a shit; she’s her mother’s daughter.
Anyway, at this point, we know that Mildred has little money to buy food. In an earlier scene Mildred calls a customer to see if she wants her usual order of baked goods, while fixing her daughters breakfast. When the woman declines we see Mildred pause, and then decisively cut a sausage in half, placing a serving on each girl’s plate. Mildred’s breakfast is a single triangle of toast; she starves herself so her daughters can eat. Therefore, I was relieved to see Mildred order herself a ham sandwich. When the meal arrives, Haynes offers an aerial shot: the bright white plate matching the white bread, the bright pink of the ham, and a dish of mostly-white coleslaw. Unlike the elaborate, sustaining meals we have seen Mildred prepare in her own home, this meal is devoid of color, and we can only assume, flavor. As Mildred chews her sandwich, she looks around the diner, overhearing a conversation in which two men discuss the Great Depression and how the lack of jobs is only going to increase. This is the turning point for Mildred — does she want a lifetime of tasteless sandwiches or is she going to swallow her pride and do whatever it takes to feed her family?
Moments later, a job opens up in the diner and Mildred takes it. Yes, this job is in the service industry, but unlike the housekeeping position offered by Mrs. Forrester (Hope Davis), a cruel snob, this job is filled with female allies. True, head waitress, Ida (Mare Winningham) bosses Mildred around, corrects her techniques, and ultimately tells her she did a terrible job on her first day. But we know that what Ida is actually doing is helping Mildred. She’s making her into a good waitress, and Mildred needs to be a good waitress.
This leads me to the second thing I loved about this mini-series: its focus on women. This is a world in which men use women to fulfill their sexual desires, keep their homes clean, raise their children, and support them in their careers. When they’ve had enough, the women are tossed aside to become “grass widows,” an American institution. Men control and limit Mildred’s actions: Bert leaves her financially destitute, Wally (an unrecognizable and totally awesome James LeGros) takes advantage of her new status as “grass widow” (though we get the sense that Mildred was a little bit horny and didn’t mind this too much), and Mildred is dependent upon people like Bert, Wally, and Monte (Guy Pearce) to finance her restaurant. Nevertheless, Mildred Pierce celebrates the bonds between women. Her neighbor, Lucy, fills in the holes left by Bert’s absence: she makes excuses for leaving “left overs” in Mildred’s fridge so that the proud woman won’t go hungry and she (rightly) urges Mildred to keep her new job as a waitress.
*SPOILERS LURK BELOW! PROCEDE WITH CAUTION!*
And then, of course, there are the bonds between mothers and daughters. This female relationship forms the heart of Mildred Pierce. Motherhood is what motivates Mildred to get past her own pride, look for work until her heels bleed, refrain from bad-mouthing her husband in front of her daughters, and to spend any extra money she earns on food and clothing for her daughter (notice that for most of Parts One and Two, Mildred can be seen wearing just one “nice” dress). When Ray dies at the end of Part Two (I won’t say much about this since, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I have difficulties watching and dealing with the death of children on film and television), we know Mildred’s fate is sealed. The love she had for her two daughters will now be channeled into one, all-consuming love for Veda. That’s the thing about maternal love. It may change forms, but it doesn’t disappear. And love like that can be dangerous (see, for example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved). So far I have yet to pick up on the noir aspects of this story, but with Mildred’s and Veda’s unhealthy relationship established at the end of Part Two, the twisted tale of jealousy and deceit that ends in murder is just around the corner.
A Few Other Things:
* When Mildred is sitting in the diner eating her nasty ham sandwich, we hear two young women discussing Greta Garbo. One of the women mentions that she loves Garbo so much she could watch her sleep. Then both women declare in unison, “Garbo snores!” This conversation is intended to serve as a contrast to the more “serious” economic discussion the two men near them are having. But it’s also a great little nugget for film buffs who remember the tagline from Garbo’s first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930), “Garbo talks!”
* I am (or rather, was) smitten with Mildred’s youngest daughter, Ray (Quinn McColgan), because she is almost exactly like my own daughter: a motor mouth who will talk and talk and talk, even when no one is listening (she, too, is her mother’s daughter). Ray is always recreating scenes from films, such as when she performs the famous moment when James Cagney is shot in Public Enemy (1931), “I’m not so tough!” That’s one of my favorite movie scenes (and is at the center of the arguments I make about the links between gangster films and melodrama in the first chapter of my book).
* Todd Haynes is killing the cinematography so far. Everything is a feast for the eyes. I swooned over the 30s era fashions while my husband swooned over the automobiles (yes, I see the gender breakdown there, but I’m being honest).
* Once again Kate Winslet’s boobs appear on screen. When I mentioned this to my husband he noted, “Well, those boobs won her an Oscar. Maybe they’ll win her an Emmy too.” Leave it to the software programmer to come up with the most cynical yet succinct summary of Winslet’s career that I’ve ever heard.
So what did you think of Parts One and Two of Mildred Pierce? Too long? Too slow? Will you watch again? And most importantly, did it make you want to eat some pie? Please share your thought below.
This entry was posted in Television and tagged Evan Rachel Wood, film noir, Great Depression, Guy Pearce, HBO, James LeGros, James M. Cain, Joan Crwaford, Kate Winslet, Kate Winslet's Boobs, Mare Winningham, maternal melodrama, Michael Curtiz, Mildred Pierce, pie!, social problem film, Todd Haynes.