Two shots of Kate Winslet as a sensually relaxed and then alertly vibrant Mildred Pierce during the first night’s tryst with Guy Pearce as Monty Beragon (Todd Haynes HBO mini-series, Mildred Pierce, 2011
The alluring presence of the subversive male, Monty Beragon — the last thing he’d think of doing is supporting any family (Guy Pearce that first night) – he does have some of Clark Gable’s quality, only more deliberate
Dear friends and readers,
For a couple of weeks now a movie has gotten to me where I live. I’ve been more personally engaged by the HBO mini-series adaptation of John M. Cain’s 1941 Mildred Pierce (written/directed by Todd Haynes) than I have in a long while. I watch mesmerized, sometimes feeling so depressed about myself, sometimes unbearably moved when Kate-Mildred has done some emotionally painful act I would never allow myself to do but have thought of, citing her and using stills from the movie when I wanted an example women’s married and love life, and motherhood and career troubles. See “A small typical history” and my response to the (silly) Anne-Marie Slaughter essay, “Why women still can’t have it all.”
I read John M. Cain’s novel and discovered that the movie follows the literal surface of the book closely, and faithfully conveys some of its themes, but goes far beyond it in presenting a coherent examined account of the heroine’s experience, and then I watched the famous 1945 murder-mystery film noirish version with Joan Crawford as Mildred (screenplay by a team that included Wm Faulkner, Ranald MacDougal, Catherine Turner, directed by Michael Curtiz)
The 2011 is a compassionate but unsentimental dramatization not (as Jeanine Basinger says in her wonderfully perceptive A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960) of a central conflict a woman who driven to a career experiences between the demands of that career and wife- and motherhood, but rather her difficulty in creating for herself an authentically fulfilling existence sexually and as a mother, given the rotten values or norms those around her either enact instinctively and which she unwittingly passes onto her daughter.
This blog will be an account of watching the 2011 mini-series as it unfolded; a second will deal comparatively and concisely with the 1945 film and Cain’s other novels turned into 1940s film noir and women’s films; a third blog will review Jeanine Basinger’s book.
I watched the first of this six hour adaptation of McCain’s novel late last night. McCain may not be a genius of the Joyce type, he doesn’t soar even occasionally in the way of Mantel, but he is a striking mirror of US life in the early and mid-20th century. He’s rather like James Jones who wrote Some Came Running, John O’Hara (Butterfield 8); Gore Vidal remarks that these books mirror the loneliness, anonymity, and inculculation of excruciating class and money inferiority used as a knife edge to drive oneself to workaholism and social-networking in US life; the success and glamor are false; boredom, self-regard, a kind of glumness and fear of death characterize these novels. Mildred Pierce differs from all the others in that the woman at the center is not a femme fatale, the story is centered in her experience (and thus proto-feminist), and when at the end it’s clear something has gone very wrong in this family, it’s not her fault. It’s just the way things are. I’d say the most striking thing about the book is its lack of reflective thought.
For the story of the 2011 film, see the story of Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce. Except for some 1) white-washing (in the book Mildred embezzles money from her publicly-sold restaurant company’s stock and in the 2011 film she does not) and 2) more importantly the way the mother-daughter becomes central and supersedes the story of Mildred’s infatuation with Monty and Bert’s quiet or implicit rivalry with Monty — the film’s events and plot-design are those of the novel.
It’s Kate Winslet’s movie. She is in every scene. In this segment, she is instead simply trying to hold onto her integrity and not go down in the world and how hard it is.
We open with her cooking cakes and husband out in the garden. He comes in, honey I’ll be late for supper. It emerges he’s seeing a woman and she is very angry, they fight and he leaves, suitcase in hand, taking the car with him. What now? We watch her try to cope and seem very quiescent, not hysterical at all. She has no training for money-making jobs. WE see these abrasive encounters with employment agency people who tell her she’s got to be realistic, no one wants her, these are hard times, no opening for receptionists, and as for salesladies they are paid on commission. She is humiliated by the way she’s treated — rightly — by one encounter with this rich woman who wants her as a submissive housekeeper, who tries to control her every movement and is gratingly nasty. Slowly we watch her lean to accept a position as a waitress.
Wally Burgan (James LeGros), her husband’s “friend” realizes the husband has left. Mildred’s friend and neighbor, Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo), the confidant (with confidants like this who needs enemies?) gives her advice on how to manipulate this man to want to marry her. Don’t let him take you out, then you owe him; cook for him.
She obeys and ends up in bed anyway. He’s no beauty and the realism of the sex makes Girls look glamorous. They are awkward, the encounter doesn’t go on for long, afterwards they bicker about how he tried to cut her husband out, but he is supportive.
She has two daughters, Ray, a sweet young child (Quinn McColgan) and Veda (Morgan Turner), who has been taught by Mildred to think the world of herself, and (alas) now disdains her mother: this is a place the film does not depart from conventions. She is the ultimate sweet mother trying to protect her children,and probably caters to them too submissively, presents a false picture of their world.
It’s important to see that in this and the next part there is a real love shown between Veda and Mildred. They do more or less cooperate. Veda does want her mother’s approval; she also wants to look up to her mother.
One flaw throughout is that Mildred’s her mother and father are kept at a distance from her as if they exist to take the kids for weekends. Realistically they would be a strong presence and influence outcomes. Similarly Bert’s parents exist to complain and insinuate that Mildred is not a good mother (where was she the night Ray got sick) and take Bert in.
But perhaps the film is mirroring today in the US, 2012, the disjunctions in extended families.
Unexpectedly, as I came to the climax of Part 2 I felt depressed. While there were some sequences I’d love to watch again and again (such as Mildred’s first encounter and weekend escape with Monty to his beach-house), almost obsessively, the total effect was to make me feel bad about myself and at the same time feel that what I’ve experienced is common.
Cain’s is a mainstream book and this self-consciously a mainstream film. It’s as if it’s a self-reflexive imitation; one can see this in the perfection of the costumes; the actors have been instructed to seem to imitate 1940s types in movies. (Upon watching the 1945 movie I realized they did not; they are 2011 types dressed up in 1940s clothes and talking 1940s slang and sentiments, but what they do and their expectations and taboos are those of 2011.
Now we watch Mildred’s slow climb to success. After she refuses to kowtow to the rich lady, she takes that job as a waitress and begins to do well. She’s still making and selling pies to neighborhood people, and she notices how bad the pies at are the restaurant. Enlisting the help and friendship of Ida (Mare Winningham), the woman who hired her, Ida and she maneuvers the restaurant owner to buying her pies. When this success brings in more money, she hires Lettie (Marin Ireland), a woman like herself in class and type, to help and comes home to find that woman in her uniform. Her darling older daughter, Veda (a New Yorker reviewer feels that in Cain’s book this older daughter, Veda is presented as a bitch) has insisted Lettie wear one of the uniforms Veda found hidden in a pile of clothes. This recalls the woman who was trying to boss, humiliate and hire Mildred as her housekeeper.
Veda is really trying to humiliate and bully her mother (exposure is not going to stop the mother from working as her money is going to support Veda’s singing and piano lessons), intimidating her. It takes Mildred considerable time to break through the taboos and accuse the girl of needling her and then the girl is insolent and she spanks her.
Bert, Mildred’s husband has begun to visit and looks yearningly at Mildred, and in one visit Veda plays the same trick of bringing out the liquor bottle she knows her mother is drinking to show the mother up to the mother. By the end of the scene, though, Mildred is lying to Veda, and saying she has a plan to open a restaurant and is doing this job temporarily as a way of studying them. This sickened me because it means Mildred buys into her daughter’s values of despising people in uniforms. Yet I’d hate to wear a unifor, and this is the first movie I’ve seen that I can recall where the reality that such things are status-losses is brought out openly.
Then we get some fairy tale: by a flick of the hand, Wally the husband’s ex-friend who is Mildred’s on and off not very passionate lover seems to have a free property going for nothing (fairy tale here) and gives it to Mildred to fix into a restaurant. Mildred must get a divorce in order not to be liable for Bert’s debts and lo and behold, the divorce is gotten. She takes Bert’s car from him, and seems to wrest the house too. But much of this is Mildred’s own enterpreneurship; we see her work out what her restaurant should look like; her buy things, her calculating costs as she goes to vendors for foodstuffs:
Montage, time passing, and Mildred’s on her last day of work before throwing herself into running her own restaurant, when a very attractive male shows up, Monty Beragon, and it’s lust at first sight for both. The scenes I said I’d watch over and over come in here. She meets him after she leaves (apparently forever) and we see them in a convertible, then at the beach, then swimming, then making love. To me an alluring sequence also done utterly believably with him as vagabond-smart-aleck. I loved the release.
Alas she comes home to discover younger daughter in hospital. Of course she’s blamed with a “where were you?” Husband, in-laws there. Slow melodrama where child comes near death, seems saved, but then dies. Yes her daughter dies, and she was not there for the first night. But for the next two she is, and the child dies because they have not the medicine to save her. The child gets pneumonia from having been taken to the beach by her grandparents. Mildred stays all night and the third part closes on her going home to older daughter, crawling into bed, hugging and clinging to her.
Nonetheless, and it’s central to see this: Mildred is winning as the world understands it and is supposed admirable: loving mother, responsible at her job, entrepreneurial. Jeanine Basinger says women’s films are centered on a supposed inexorable conflict of love, marriage, and motherhood on the one side, and career on the other. Not this film: were it not for her career, her family would have gone under.
This is where I felt bad: I thought to myself how little money I’ve ever made. And when I went to bed, I said as much to Jim who replied: “making money is not important in life” or maybe it was “it’s not important to make money in life.” There’s much more important things (words to this effect). That helped. The movie got to me in other words.
Veda, the older daughter in the film is not a bitch, but rather what Mildred wishes she could be, and Kate Winslet as Mildred is proud of her. And I understood that.
A friend suggested to me that the movie falls off about mid-way. Not for me. We now watch Mildred at long last succeed after very hard work; she is helped by Ida, her waitress friend from the restaurant she was at who becomes a sort of junior partner; also by Lucy, her best friend who urges her to take on liquor in her restaurant once prohibition is over. The best friend becomes her bartender.
She is vitriolically anti-Roosevelt. That’s interesting and in character. Those who fail deserve to, they are losers. Look at her.
Emotionally she is more and more under the thumb of Veda, her older daughter, somehow subject to that girls’ sneers and utterly selfish demands and there’s a powerful mother-daughter scene where she has failed to give the girl a fancy piano for Xmas and the girl disdains her.
Monty, the sexy boyfriend is turning out not to be such a wonderful thing. He has a name, a famous family, part of a Hollywood crowd and initially helps her restaurant as a numinous person there, but as time goes on he becomes a drone, making no money, living off her and he makes no pretenses of love and after a while it does get on her nerves. Worse, he talks about her condescendingly and sexily with Veda behind her back.
At one point Monty accuses Mildred of having no friends; certainly she has no wide circle. I think that’s common for working to lower middle Americans. What time do they have? What do they have to offer others that they want? In the US there is no sense of community outside family and church is a ritual. The best friend is possible if the woman does not change, does not move and her friend stays in the same socio-economic circumstances That’s increasingly uncommon.
The part ends with him attempting to soothe her into acceptance of him by rape (so he calls his brand of sex) and her breaking free and driving home in a storm, almost getting herself killed and entering the house to tell her daughter she can have that piano.
One of the themes brought out in Part Four is women’s friendship. Lucy, Mildred’s neighbor, remains a stalwart support. Ida (Mare Winningtom) the waitress who helped her to her first job and now start her restaurant, has become her partner. Mildred now has 4 outlets! One very fancy one near a beach. We see Mildred and her now best & longtime friend walking on the beach together, arms around one another for a moment. Monty the sexy man (guy Pearce) seems long gone as Part 4 opens. But Mildred’s husband remains in touch; we are not old how he supports himself
The flaw in the book transferred to the film is the daughter becomes a version of The Bad Seed, a film and book of the 1960s where the US false worship of children is put into reverse and parents get back at all they have done for children who were ungrateful, or grew up to be small, mean, cold by reading a book and seeing a film on a purely vicious child. Willam March’s book as movie and play operated as a form of release. Here the girl is too bad, and the efforts of Wood and Haynes to now and then show the girl feeling some remorse are not enough to keep a needed realism.
This segment’s focus and climax is Mildred’s estrangement from Veda, the daughter. The decision was made to have an older actress (Evan Rachel Wood) suddenly play Veda older and I’m not sure it works. Veda is the scheming ruthless amoral woman. She has gotten involved with a group of young people who can give her access to movie part, one is a rich young man, it happens the son of the woman who so humiliated Mildred years ago when Mildred applied for a job as a housekeeper with her. The woman visits Mildred and she is astonished at the accusations the woman is throwing at her, and knows nothing. We can see how her face freezes, her teeth are are guards of her rigidly held jaw:
Turns out Veda has been having an affair with the young man and it emerges is faking a pregnancy, so with the help of old Wally (who helped Mildred to own the building she made her restaurant success in) suing this woman. Mildred is horrified, they fight, the girl insults her egregiously and shows she despises her mother. She is not capable of much love. Mildred means to throw her out and demands she leave, and then thinks the better of it (as she did her husband), but (like the husband) by this time the girl has left.
Estrangement. I was very moved. Mildred “can’t stand it” and actually tracks the girl down and drives to the apartment house Veda lives in and watches her come in. I would not have allowed myself to do that.
Veda is also becoming a success. She had the grand piano, training lessons in playing and singing and as the episode ends she is on the radio singing opera. Mildred did all she could to foster this girl’s pride and talent and her hard work has won out, only she is not allowed to join in. Mildred’s husband is in contact with Veda, and he takes Veda to her own beach restaurant to listen to Veda sing on the radio.
The Part ends with Mildred walking off to a bannister in her fanciest restaurant to look out at the ocean. She looks intense but we are not given any access to her thoughts: pride (she would), depression, what? Haynes seems to be the kind of film-maker who regards voice-over as effeminate. A loss to his film.
Much of Part 5 was unexpectedly weaker than what came before — except the very ending. This was partly because it followed the book and the book does degenerate into this fierce conflict between the daughter and mother. Mildred tries to reach Veda by going to the prestigious teacher-orchestra leader Mildred had hired in the first place, but he laughs at her, and then, seemingly by chance, she meets up with Monty again.
They renew the love-making (in appealing scenes) and she allows him to persuade her to buy his old family mansion. Mildred and Monty marry. They give a party for “swells” and this brings Veda back: she sings there, moves in with her mother and allows her mother to pay for everything. We see Mildred between Bert, the husband, still faithfully there (and now living with his parents, his mistress having returned to her husband, now doing much better), and Monty at the Carnegie Hall watching her daughter solo perform before a huge audience seemingly entranced. Mildred is ecstatic, but we see she is neglecting her business and spending money on the house, daughter, Monty that should be spent on the business. Ida tries to reach her to do something about her business, but Mildred evades Ida.
The shit hits the fan: the men (all men) controlling the shares tell Mildred she must sell her house, stop milking the business, and her lawyer-friend, Wally, tells her she must demand Veda contribute substantially to expenses. She fears asking. She knows in her gut her daughter does not love her, but she must ask. She begins with Monty and quickly the situation blows up when she discovers (as we are to suspect) Monty has become Veda’s lover and they are knowingly fleecing her. Veda scorns her, needles her, openly jeers.
Monty opens up to characterize Mildred as using him, as herself disgustingly ambitious, ruthless, horrible it seems. He was her slave it seems. She is so enraged she tries to strangle her daughter, but does not manage even permanent damage on her throat.
Cut to the ending where we see Mildred has had to give up the largest parts of her business to Ida and Wally. She is still doing well, but no longer pretending to be a member of the super-rich. She has divorced Monty, remarried Bert, and they are moving back to their original Glendale house. They are given a party on their return the day of their marriage. Old friends there, including Ida, apologetic for having taken over parts of the business. Mildred understands. Mildred looks disappointed that Veda hasn’t come. Why she expects this is beyond me.
But Veda does come, stands outside in an expensive outfit on her way to NY to resume her career and does seem to look at her mother, herself waiting for some last renewal or memory of their relationship.
The attempt at goodbye, a reconciliation, ends in another scene of insults from Veda, and now bitter recriminations from Mildred who at long last says good riddance. Monty is waiting for her in NY.
Bert pulls Mildred away and says to Mildred: “to hell with Veda,” at long last validating this long-needed idea, and the the last words of the novel and film are “stinko” they will drink until they are so drunk they know oblivion. What makes this moving is the pair look very like what they did when the movie opened: they are wearing the same sort of clothes. And Winslet’s eyes fill with tears. She cannot forget some profound sense of loss. In Cain’s novel this sense of desolation is presented as just the way things are and the mood is flat. With Winslet’s yearning face, the thwarted aspiration and dreams remain
So the last part has its moments and especially in the opening scenes, the first renewal with Monty and thisclose. The depth of feeling that Winslet has endowed her character with, the sense of Mildred’s kindness, goodness, love for her daughter, the honesty of her ambition — it was not her idea to have the mansion — all carry it. As she takes up her drink, we hear over the screen a creamy rendition of Judy Garland singing: I’m always chasing rainbows …”
At the end of the rainbow there’s happiness,
And to find it how often I’ve tried,
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,
And my dreams have all been denied.
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world’s to blame,
I wonder if it could be me.
I’m always chasing rainbows,
Watching clouds drifting by,
My dreams are just like all my schemes,
Ending in the sky.
Some fellows look and find the sunshine,
I always look and find the rain.
Some fellows make a winning sometime,
I never even make a gain, believe me,
I’m always chasing rainbows,
I’m watching for a little bluebird in vain.
So I was again caught up.
The finest parts of the film were Mildred’s slow build up of a career after throwing her husband out, her friendships with other women, her intensities of love and ambition for her children. The prosaic rhythms of slow-unfolding is central to its strength.
Winslet is aware she is enacting scenes from women’s lives. As Jim and I cleaned our house this past Friday, and I put on my house-cleaning clothes I thought of Mildred. When we sat together in our living room over the week, I remembered Mildred. The Christmas scenes from the movie brought back painful disillusionments and fraught disappointments.
It’s more up- than downbeat. Mildred has a real (corny I know) heart. That she’s a good cook is symbolic in the film. She’s good at love-making. She utterly gives of herself to everything she does over and over. Kate Winslet does play varied roles, but in many underlying her presentation of whatever character (from Marianne in S&S to April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road), however twisted, however shaped by a genre or director (as in mysteries or a Polanski film she did), she projects a fine generous soul