BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 25, 2011
You can see why HBO thought to re-make Mildred Pierce, especially if it had Kate Winslet committed to playing the title part. The James M. Cain novel (published in 1941) is attuned to our grim economy: It’s the story of a single mother in Glendale in 1931 who has to take a job as a waitress and who then builds it into a flourishing, modest restaurant trade, based on the pies she bakes at home. As with so much of Cain, this is a story about money and business—I think he was more interested in those things than in the sex that dogged his reputation. With so many people now struggling in Mildred’s footsteps, it seems an apt choice of subject (even if pies are out of fashion).
But a mini-series, in five episodes and close to five hours of screen time? The new paperback of the Cain novel comes in under 300 pages, and it’s meant as a quick read. The 1945 movie (the one for which Joan Crawford won her Oscar) runs just 109 minutes. Those who recall that movie fondly are going to be surprised. Warner Brothers took a lot of liberties in their adaptation: They introduced an opening murder and then had Mildred’s police-station voice-over guide the narrative. They also dumped the whole sub-plot of the wicked daughter Veda’s musical career. For the most part, however, in the new mini-series, director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Jon Raymond have been faithful to the novel—a lot of the talk is taken directly. But I’m not sure that fidelity was wise.
Cain dealt in melodrama without complaint or apology. He was neither a flavorful writer nor a deep explorer of character. He liked to wind his situations tighter and tighter and he had little love for or faith in his people. But this HBO version is slow—sometimes very slow—in its pursuit of class. You feel it from the start in the very elegant titles and in Carter Burwell’s somber score, even if it might be better suited to Dreiser than Cain. The production work is immaculate: Ed Lachman’s pastel photography; costumes by Ann Roth—and clothes count in this story; production design by Mark Friedberg that gets at the Los Angeles of the 1930s. But, at the very start, we see Bert, Mildred’s soon-to-be-gone husband, mowing the lawn, and he’s shot with artistic blur through a curtained window—a sign of more, far too much, diffusion to come. Cain saw things bluntly—and director Michael Curtiz never wasted time in the earlier film. Todd Haynes gives every sign of thinking he’s on a Masterpiece Theatre project.
Then there’s Winslet, who is in nearly every shot of the five hours. Of course, she’s a marvelous actress and a beautiful woman. Still, it’s hard for people with her acute performing intelligence to be as ordinary, as foolish and misguided as Cain described her. The novelist went further: He admitted that by the end of the story that Mildred was “fat.” This detail is not required of Winslet, and no one has attempted to erase her patina of natural superiority—she’s an actress whose being is tied to insight. And yet, Mildred never gets the basics about people: She never sees that her lover, Monty, is a creep, or that her daughter, Veda, is a snake. So her character spends over four hours in the dark when the audience picks up every alarm signal and cries out, “Don’t do it, Mildred!”
In the original movie, Joan Crawford—never exactly ordinary—was brilliant at being over-emotional, desperate, and her own wrong-headed drama queen (so Veda had competition). She was ideally suited to the pitch of Cain’s melodrama and to the unequivocal intention at Warner Brothers to make a knock-down, drag-out women’s picture in which Mildred and Veda shatter every Hollywood cliché about natural and requited mother-love. By contrast, Winslet is too placid, not fierce enough. She eats pies, where Crawford fed on raw flesh. The story needed “too much”—Max Steiner’s raging music and the gorgeous film noir look where the shadows dipped down into Mildred’s brow until you felt the pits of her rueful, ruined eyes. That’s why it’s the originally version is a camp classic movie now—and so hard to resurrect as a literary classic.
There is one substantial way in which the mini-series exceeds the novel, and it comes as a surprise. Cain makes it clear that Monty is a sexual awakening for Mildred, but he doesn’t write extended or graphic love scenes between them. Haynes has gone to town in enlarging these scenes. I’m not complaining—Winslet and her Monty (Guy Pearce, in a very good performance) are both attractive, and their sex is heated and persuasive. But it does take away from Cain’s Mildred, who never seems open to sexual rapture (it’s not indicated in the novel). What really turns her on (apart from Veda’s disapproval) are making money and running a restaurant. So the sexy stuff seems like window dressing for a series so overdrawn in time it may be afraid of losing viewers.
The real coup here is Veda. Connoisseurs of trash cinema are properly devoted to Ann Blyth’s performance in the 1945 movie (she got an Oscar nomination as supporting actress). But, true to the novel, Veda’s part has now been split into two roles—the kid and the bitch. The child Veda is Morgan Turner, and she is ingeniously hateful. Evan Rachel Wood takes over the adult role and has to mime her way through a good deal of coloratura singing, as well as go pristinely naked in one scene (that does come from the book). She is very effective, but, by adulthood, Veda’s malignance has become rather set and dried. It’s far more disturbing at the childhood stage.
The mini-series dwindles toward its close. Cain muffed his own ending, and the original film tries to tidy that up but settles for being downbeat and unconvincing—one minute Mildred nearly kills Veda, and then the whole fight seems forgotten. The lesson, I think, is that you shouldn’t take classic movies and seek to improve them. (In fact, Haynes tried this a few years ago with Far from Heaven, an updating of Douglas Sirk pictures from the 1950s.) Our movies once were fast, sensational, and reckless. Lifting them up to be something like modern novels only reveals the cunning intuitions that ruled at Warner Brothers and elsewhere in the 1940s. The great American movies were never meant to be literary or respectable.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.