Mildred Pierce Is the Film Event of the Year So Far — And It's on HBO
To my previous rule of "Only Remake Bad Movies, Not Good Ones," let me add the codicil, "But It's OK to Remake Good Ones If the Original Strayed from the Source Material." Because that's what Todd Haynes does in his breathtaking five-part HBO adaptation of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce (premiering this Sunday, March 27). Rather than try to summon the magic that made the 1945 version so memorable (Joan Crawford won a well-deserved Oscar in the title role), Haynes goes back to the original Cain novel to tell a story that fans of the original movie know only in bits and pieces.
In the continuum of Haynes movies, Mildred Pierce probably fits best with Safe and Far From Heaven, two movies about women trying to make sense of their roles as wives and mothers in a very specific period of history. But where Far From Heaven was a look at 1950s life as presented through the prism of 1950s movies (specifically the sudsy women's pictures of Douglas Sirk), Mildred Pierce gives us the Depression the way it looked off-screen rather than on -- the spot-on cinematography by Edward Lachman (Erin Brockovich, Far From Heaven) hews closer to Dorothea Lange realness than the MGM shopgirl-makes-good aesthetic. (And I, for one, will be thrilled when Depression-set stories stop feeling so bloody relevant.)
Mildred (Kate Winslet) is a mother of two who has to make her way in the world when her unfaithful husband Burt (Brían F. O'Byrne) walks out. She feels shame in taking a job as a waitress, but her culinary skills lead to a successful side business selling pies to the diner where she works. Her snobbish daughter Veda (Morgan Turner as a child, Evan Rachel Wood as an adult) is mortified, but feels better when Mildred tells her that the waitressing was just a way for her to learn the restaurant business so she could open a place of her own.
Soon, Mildred does just that, starting with one location in Glendale but later opening branches in Beverly Hills and Laguna Beach with the help of devoted neighbor Lucy (Melissa Leo) and fellow waitress Ida (Mare Winningham). Smarmy socialite Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce, whose hair and mustache immediately tip you to his rottenness) sidles up to Mildred, although it's really he and young Veda who have the most in common -- they deplore the idea of dirtying one's hands with actual labor, and they both disdain Mildred for doing it, although they're perfectly content to live on her handouts.
Veda's despicable, of course, but she's a fascinating character, doted upon and encouraged by Mildred, as though Veda's snobbishness were Mildred's own inner qualms about class and the role of women made manifest. Wood (who doesn't pop up until episode four) is just fine as adult Veda, but this is one of those rare instances where the younger performer makes more of an impression -- it's Turner who really owns the role here and crafts one of the most complex (and hissable) villains in recent memory.
Leo and Winningham are also terrific, speaking the 1930s slang and patter with perfect pitch and providing the kind of excellent second-banana support that the great character actors of Hollywood's studio system brought to every classic movie of the Golden Age. Pearce makes his roue thoroughly charismatic and sexual -- unlike the original movie's Zachary Scott, or most of the other leading men plopped down opposite Crawford in her heyday -- and the passionate love scenes between Monty and Mildred are shot with a frankness that Cain would have appreciated.
But the whole show, acting-wise, belongs to Winslet. Any thought that she would even attempt to parrot Crawford's iconic role is immediately dismissed, and she puts her own imprint on this character who's part Horatio Alger all-American striver and part Theodore Dreiser-style tragic heroine. And her accent is so dead-on you'd swear she'd lived in Glendale her entire life.
I hadn't read the Cain novel beforehand, but thumbing through it after watching the mini-series, it's clear that Haynes and co-adapter Jon Raymond took the text as gospel, incorporating as many scenes and lines of dialogue as possible. If nothing else, the HBO Mildred Pierce stands as one of the most faithful literary adaptations I've ever seen -- and as proof that the mini-series format is sometimes the best way to go when you want to be faithful to a rich and incident-laden novel.
Just the opening credits of each episode makes Mildred Pierce feel like one of the film events of the year -- besides Haynes and Lachman, there's Carter Burwell composing music (which blends seamlessly with radio hits of the era), Ann Roth designing costumes, and longtime Haynes collaborators Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler producing. But the end product transcends even its impressive pedigree: Riveting, gorgeous, and powerful from start to finish, Mildred Pierce stands among the finest work from one of this generation's most fascinating filmmakers.
[Photo: HBO Films]