Monday, April 11, 2011

Todd Haynes' enthusiasm for 'Mildred Pierce' is catching

Kate Winslet sets her jaw for Mildred Pierce.
By Barry Johnson

Sometimes a friend you trust about such matters is so enthusiastic about a painter, a restaurant, a writer or a movie that you allow yourself to get swept up in the vortex, even though you may have some doubts about how tasty that food/painting/novel/film will be.

That's a little like where I was with Todd Haynes and his HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce, not that Haynes and I are friends or anything. I'd recently watched the Michael Curtiz film version, with Joan Crawford in the starring role (for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1946), and I wasn't sure how Haynes could make that relatively stiff film noir into something with the depth of a good Masterpiece Theater. Not that I hated the movie -- it had its delights, Eve Arden as Mildred's wise-cracking sidekick, for example, Ann Blythe as the wicked Veda and Jack Carson as Wally, the conniving lawyer and sexual predator.

But after watching Haynes five-part series, I have to admit that he was onto something -- as our enthusiastic friends often are -- and the material, especially James M. Cain's original novel brought to life by Haynes and Jon Raymond's script, had resources I didn't imagine it had. And Haynes's visual style utterly upends Curtiz's dark, stark version. Given room to breathe, the story fills with music, sumptuous designs and costumes and gorgeous settings, and the LA of the '30s starts to speak to us.

What really makes Mildred Pierce problematic?  That would be Mildred Pierce herself. Cain's novel is a psychological character study, but it comes with one giant "given" that neither film version can alter: Mildred is a total sap about her daughter Veda. We don't know why, because Veda, unlike her younger sister Ray, is totally impossible, monstrously self-centered and affected as a little girl and increasingly viperous as she grows older. Does Mildred identify with her for some reason? Was Mildred mistreated as a child and wants to make sure her own daughter is indulged? We have no idea. Like I said, it's just a given. It confined Joan Crawford's performance to a narrow emotional spectrum, and it works similarly on Kate Winslet's performance for Haynes, though I think Haynes and Winslet find a way out.

That escape paradoxically comes from emphasizing Mildred's other confining roles. By turns, she's a proud member of the middle class, then she's a casualty of the Great Depression looking for work, a manual worker, then an entrepreneur, a lover (this one's harder for her), a very successful empress of a restaurant mini-empire, a stage mother (briefly), a socialite (briefly) and a wife (briefly). Throughout, she's Veda's doting mother, but with the time a mini-series gives him, Haynes allows Winslet to develop these other parts.

In my favorite scene in the series, Winslet teaches herself to carry multiple plates of food at one time by overlapping them up her arm, practicing in her bedroom with rocks on plates.  She'd determined to be competent at whatever she does, and that little scene screwed that little piece of her personality into place perfectly. But because of Veda, her success in the restaurant trade doesn't give her the satisfaction that it might. Veda doesn't believe in work herself, though she's diligent at the piano. She's one of those characters who believes the work world is beneath her, and even to be around it, to live in the same house with it, sullies her. In short, Veda's "evil" character is the second given of Mildred Pierce.

Veda is a tasty role to play, and Morgan Turner (as young Veda) and Evan Rachel Wood are both creepily, nauseatingly affected little princesses. Curtiz has his revenge on her at the end, but Haynes leaves her headed to New York with a whole city full of lives she can wreck. Brilliant!

Evan Rachel Wood: Is Mildred Pierce really her story?
Veda and Mildred. How you deal with their relationship, with them as characters, determines a lot of your reaction to the mini-series. Are they too exaggerated? Totally unbelievable?  At first I thought so, but then Haynes's enthusiasm for them carried me past my first take, though Turner's mannerism's got a little old by the end of episode three. Wood's Veda is described by her music mentor as a snake, and that's exactly right -- she's a schemer, several steps ahead of Mildred and everyone else, crazy with ambition and the need to dominate, with the voice of an angel and the heart of a ... well, you know.
Will she betray Mildred? She'll delight in it.

Yes, Haynes's Mildred Pierce retains the melodrama. If Veda had a mustache, she'd twirl the end of it before coming up with her next evil deed.  Haynes doesn't try to hide that aspect of the story; he lets it play out in all its gory glory.  But it's just one plane in the more complex geometry he's describing.

Mildred also has man problems. Her husband at the beginning of the series, Bert, is apparently cheating on her as he tries to rebound from losing out on a sweet investment to his ex-partner Wally. He has his better qualities (he sees Veda for who she is, for example), and so does Wally, who helps Mildred get started in business. But Wally's really out to serve Number One, not Mildred, as it turns out. And then there's Monte, the penniless playboy, a sybarite and a parasite, whom Mildred falls for twice with alarming results. Curtiz made Wally into an amoral lech (played with relish by Jack Carson), always making a play for Mildred.  Haynes's Wally is less tom cat than unscrupulous businessman (though we don't hear his side of it, of course!).  He expands Monte's part for Guy Pearce, who can seem so weary from the pleasures of the flesh sometimes. And do you think he has Mildred's interests at heart? No, you're not that gullible.

Mildred is luckier with the women in her life, except for Veda. I miss the hilarious Eve Arden as Ida in Curtiz's film, here reduced to a bookkeeper worried about Mildred's growing extravagance. But Haynes adds another trusted confidant from the novel in Lucy (Melissa Leo) and surrounds Mildred with earnest waitresses, maids and other helpers. Haynes doesn't make it a battle of the sexes, though; he's more subtle than that.

The background for this Mildred Pierce is the Depression and LA before it became America's second city, which Curtiz ignores completely. Haynes is far more interested in both, and they give the mini-series a sense of realism to balance the psychological melodrama of the plot. You may start to exclaim at every street scene, because the cars and the houses are so beautifully "period." And the interiors take your breath away -- Haynes knows how to do color and design, as we learned in Far From Heaven. Subtle and intricate and glowing, these reach their apotheosis in the last episode when Mildred refurbishes Monte's mansion and Veda gives a vocal recital in an orchestra hall. The fabrics! The flowers! The furniture! And the costumes, though entirely appropriate, are wonderful -- I'm thinking of a deep blue hat that Mildred sports, so deep you can almost feel it in your fingertips.

See? Haynes's excitement about this project, reflected in the details and the movement, moment by moment, wins you over, even if you think that maybe Winslet has held her head in her hands one too many times by Episode Three -- and you know the real suffering's still to come.

I am not criticizing Winslet here, though. Like Crawford, she has that "given" and she can't escape it. She can't please Veda no matter what she does, no matter what she sacrifices or what she gives her. And that's her life's work, except maybe for her own small weakness for well-sculpted playboys. And that limits her range of possibilities, the spectrum she can play. No side-of-her-mouth slang for Mildred, no emotional growth, no new personality vistas. She may become a leading restaurateur, but she's stuck behind the rock, pushing it uphill, and when she reaches the top, it rolls back down right over her; Sisyphus is a hard role to play.

Veda: I can still see Wood's look of pure hatred for Winslet as the series reaches its climax. Not petulance -- Veda's way past that. So, Wood practically snarls at her: I've done the worst things I can do to you, betrayed you in the most profound ways, and but if I can hurt you more, I will. Maybe this is Veda's story, more than Mildred's. And as Mildred sobs at the end, we have a feeling that more pain is in store for her, not matter what she says.


New York Magazine interviewed Haynes after some negative reviews were published. I especially liked one of his lines: "I think it’s good for us, in our era of constant distraction and digital multitasking, bite-size information and endless texting, to have an experience where you actually move through someone’s life without leaping hysterically, flashing forward, and jumping around."

LA Weekly's review is positive and gives a good comparison of novel, film and HBO miniseries. J Hoberman in the Village Voice is also favorably disposed, though the review contains some backhanded compliments.


The Rush Blog said...

I am not criticizing Winslet here, though. Like Crawford, she has that "given" and she can't escape it. She can't please Veda no matter what she does, no matter what she sacrifices or what she gives her. And that's her life's work, except maybe for her own small weakness for well-sculpted playboys. And that limits her range of possibilities, the spectrum she can play. No side-of-her-mouth slang for Mildred, no emotional growth, no new personality vistas. She may become a leading restaurateur, but she's stuck behind the rock, pushing it uphill, and when she reaches the top, it rolls back down right over her; Sisyphus is a hard role to play.

That is the point of Mildred's character. All of her hard work in becoming a successful businesswoman was due to her desire to please Veda and have an excuse - at least in the latter's eyes - for being a lowly waitress in the first place. Because of this major weakness, she will never grow.

Sisyphus IS NOT a difficult role for any good actor or actress. It's a difficult role for modern audiences to accept. And in the post-feminist world, it's a difficult role for audiences to accept when it comes in the form of a female character.

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