Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Todd Haynes opened his mini-series MILDRED PIERCE rather quietly Sunday night. For fans of the 1945 film noir version (and I certainly include myself in that club) that quietness might have come as something of a shock. Michael Curtiz opened his film with a murder, followed by a quick plunge into the mystery surrounding the killing. Haynes has kept his promise to hew closer to the book by James M. Cain. This ain't your mommie dearest's MILDRED PIERCE.

No, this is good old fashioned slow groove mini-series melodrama. The central conflict of the first two episodes isn't murder or mystery; it's a woman's attempts to find a job. If that seems like low-voltage stuff, it is.

But what makes it so interesting is that Haynes, like Cain before him, is taking the inherent class conflict seriously. If the Curtiz version of the story has a problem it's that Joan Crawford's Mildred is a long suffering saint. Her wicked daughter Veda is simply devil spawn, the most ungrateful child ever put on screen. Kate Winslet's Mildred, on the other hand, seems much more like Veda's mother. You can sorta see where Veda got her class snobbishness from. Like many parents, Mildred has passed on the worst of herself to her child and must watch in horror as it gradually becomes the child's defining characteristic. What Cain got at--and what, at least on the basis of the first two episodes, Haynes seems to be trying to get at--is the terrible way children can become ghoulish mirror images of their parents.

Veda scores a laugh in the first episode when she berates someone as being "distinctly middle class" but this contempt for the middle class makes sense in light of Mildred's reluctance to take a job to support her children. Crawford's Mildred hopped to work when the opportunity arose. There was no way that a Hollywood heroine was going to insult her audience by implying that manual labor was for an inferior breed of people. Winslet, on the other hand, ends up puking in a toilet at the thought of debasing herself. At the outset of the Depression, she's still clinging to a bourgeois image of herself. When she takes the job it's more an act of desperation--one which Veda cannot understand or forgive.

Part 3 debuts Sunday, April 3rd.

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