It's not your mother's Mildred Pierce. Todd Haynes' five-part HBO miniseries isn't a “remake” of the Joan Crawford classic or a radical reworking of its ideas, like the gay indie auteur's Douglas Sirk–inspired Far From Heaven. Rather, Haynes and co-scripter Jon Raymond have fashioned a scrupulously faithful adaptation of James M. Cain's 1941 novel.
The contrast between Haynes' series and Michael Curtiz's 1945 Oscar winner is embodied in the disparity between Crawford's grand-scale star performance as Mildred and Kate Winslet's subtle and modest take on a woman who discovers that motherhood and a career don't mix — and that the former can be far more destructive than the latter.
Cain made his reputation with his first two novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936), both crime thrillers that became movie classics. Mildred was something else; a Zola-like study of mid-20th-century America, recounting one woman's efforts to survive the Great Depression to make a life for her ungrateful daughter, Veda, that was better than her own.
Cain has always been viewed as a hard-boiled crime writer like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but his real masters were socially conscious novelists such as Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair.
Neither dealt with female sexuality with Cain's candor. And '40s-era Hollywood was opposed to candor of any kind. What it wanted was character and drama laid out in bold, plain strokes — not the subtlety and detail that were Cain's specialty. So producer Jerry Wald cannily converted Mildred into a noir that fit the proscriptions of the Production Code. Curtiz's film forces Mildred's second husband, upper-class ne'er-do-well Monty Beragon, and her romantically predatory daughter to “pay” for their sexual sins — but not before flaunting the spectacle of a mother competing with her own daughter for her husband's attention.
This “moral” makeover also served to flatter Crawford's image. While effortlessly sexy in her youth (especially in the 1932 Grand Hotel), by 1945 she had become decidedly unerotic on-screen (her ice-cold implacability would later be parodied by Carol Burnett as “Mildred Fierce”). With Ann Blyth's Veda as the erotic center, Crawford could be the sort of woman she wanted to be on-screen — ambitious, determined but demure. Once a predatory husband-grabber herself in films like The Women, the older Crawford now aimed to be a glossy stand-in for middle-class women with simpler, less sexually oriented goals.
By contrast, Kate Winslet's Mildred beds more than one man, for business (as with James LeGros' scheming Wally) and pleasure (with Guy Pearce's peerless cad Monty). Cain's use of sex was simply realistic to life, and Haynes and Winslet — keyed to modern viewers and with no moral police to mind in the realm of pay TV — follow his lead.
As for Veda, Haynes depicts her as the embodiment of carnal anarchy.
“She stepped in primly, sniffed contemptuously. … Though she was only 11, she was something to look at twice.” That's how Cain describes her — and how Haynes directs the conspicuously talented Morgan Turner to play her. Turner's Veda sneers at Mildred's rise from waitress to restaurant-chain owner and lusts for high society as if it were her birthright. When Evan Rachel Wood takes over as the adult Veda, the mother-daughter conflict becomes far more severe than Crawford's showdowns with Blyth.
Veda's viciousness gets its due, but her artistry does, too. Like Cain's mother and fourth wife, she becomes an opera singer — an important aspect of the novel that the 1945 version ignored and Haynes makes a cinematic meal of. The featured attraction at an L.A. Philharmonic concert, Veda performs a series of classic arias with Mildred's favorite song, “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows,” as an encore — a tribute to Mother offered with sly disdain. With gorgeous costumes and lavish sets, this climactic scene is an anomaly in a production, designed by Mark Friedberg and shot by Ed Lachman, that's otherwise as strikingly compact as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz.
And, like Fassbinder, Haynes doesn't hesitate to go where others would fear to tread.
“She was acting less like a mother than like a lover who has unexpectedly discovered an act of faithlessness, and avenged it,” Cain writes of Mildred's feelings for Veda. Haynes ups this ante with a shot of Mildred giving Veda a decidedly unmaternal kiss. Like everything else in the series, including almost every bit of dialogue, it's right there on the page of Cain's novel, but seeing it on the screen is a very different matter.
Mildred Pierce isn't an avant-garde art film, like Haynes' Poison, Safe or I'm Not There. It's aimed directly at a mass audience that it never talks down to. But it talks about sex, class and mother love with a brutal honesty that makes it the most deliciously subversive thing Todd Haynes has ever done.
MILDRED PIERCE | Directed by TODD HAYNES | Written by HAYNES and JON RAYMOND | Debuts Sun., March 27, on HBO