Todd Haynes's "Mildred Pierce"

David Hudson

"It's not your mother's Mildred Pierce," declares David Ehrenstein in the LA Weekly. "Todd Haynes's 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's 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."

"Haynes barely even alludes to the 1945 Joan Crawford noir, a landmark text for semiotics students," notes Time Out Chicago's Ben Kenigsberg. "Working with material so sensational that his underlines aren't needed, Haynes allows the narrative to speak for itself — which may be why it's his best film since Safe (1995). Like that movie, Mildred Pierce is set in California, long a crucible in film and literature for testing the luridness and loneliness of the American dream." The story follows Mildred, a single mother, "as she rises from a waitress to the head of a self-built restaurant empire. It's all in the name of providing for her chronically ungrateful daughter Veda (played by a wonderfully petulant [Morgan] Turner as a child and a sultry, sashaying [Evan Rachel] Wood beginning in part four), whose toxic class snobbery is alien to Mildred but for whom she never fails to pay for piano lessons."

Haynes's miniseries runs over five hours and, for Dan Callahan, writing in Slant, "it isn't enough to say that he has stayed faithful to the book; he has put it up on the screen practically page by page and line by line, and has thought through every aspect of the material, fleshing out and dramatizing all of Cain's rushed-over ideas about class and familial competition. As a director, Haynes is the exact opposite of Cain as a novelist; he has taken Cain's raw pulp inventions and teased out the ironies and reversals in these inventions at a dreamy, leisurely pace that reflects the mind of his Mildred… Haynes outright borrows from Sirk and Fassbinder in his visuals, trapping his characters behind staircases, windows, and home furnishings until it becomes increasingly clear that the only thing that matters in this American Depression society of the 1930s is money and how to get it and how to control people once you have it."

"Too distant and hardscrabble to evoke nostalgia, Haynes's Mildred might have appeared in the disillusioned days of The Godfather or Chinatown," suggests J Hoberman in the Voice. "In an appreciation of Cain, published in the mid-60s, Joyce Carol Oates describes Mildred Pierce as most convincing in its 'plodding, repetitious, unimaginative progress, its depiction of a strong/weak heroine whose profound ignorance is matched perfectly by the characters who surround her.' So it is in the new Mildred. Haynes has taken Cain's methodical narrative rhythm and deranged banality to heart. Much of the miniseries is devoted to the contemplation of Mildred's milieu. For all its intermittent histrionics, Haynes's miniseries is less a narrative than a fastidiously designed world. The pale greens and dusty corals evoke the colors of Depression glassware; Mildred's unglamorous cronies, played by Mare Winningham and Melissa Leo (in the part played by Eve Arden in the original), have the unadorned, care-etched faces of the women in Dorothea Lange's FSA photographs."

Dennis Lim talks with Haynes and producer Christine Vachon for the New York Times: "Sensitive to the effects of the Great Depression on family and gender dynamics, Cain depicts Mildred's relationships — with a series of unreliable men and with her self-absorbed older daughter, Veda — primarily as transactions, 'played out,' as Mr Haynes put it, 'through money, through finance, through class. The novel felt intensely relevant,' said Mr Haynes, who read it in 2008, with the Great Recession looming and conversations about class in America taking on renewed significance. 'I love how it links potential pathologies in maternal desire with potential excesses in middle-class yearning.'" Odd, then, that, for the NYT's Alessandra Stanley, Haynes's "painstaking effort to restore every brushstroke of the author's original story paints over the ambiguities of class and social ambition that play out within the Pierce family dynamic."


But Matt Zoller Seitz declares this Mildred Pierce to be "a masterpiece." And, as he explains in Salon, he had a few reasons to approach it skeptically. Bowled over, he asks, "Where to begin appreciating this great work? The acting alone is enough to merit a separate column. Kate Winslet's performance in the title role is terrific — intelligent, focused and seemingly devoid of ego. She never indicates, emphasizes, showboats or otherwise tells you how to feel about her character, a divorced single mother who splits from her distracted, cheating husband (Brian F O'Byrne), takes a grueling job as a waitress, starts selling her delicious homemade pies on the side, works her way into the restaurant business, has a torrid and troubled affair with a penniless former playboy named Monte Beragon (Guy Pearce) and struggles to mother her daughters, master her fate and understand herself. Winslet might be one of the greatest working actresses without evident self-regard. Strong as she is in dialogue scenes, she's even more effective in silent close-ups, letting conflicting emotions play out on her face as she watches, listens and thinks. O'Byrne and Pearce are equally strong and just as subtle."

David Thomson, writing in the New Republic, disagrees: "In the original movie, Joan Crawford — never exactly ordinary — was brilliant at being over-emotional, desperate, and her own wrong-headed drama queen (so Veda had competition). She was ideally suited to the pitch of Cain's melodrama and to the unequivocal intention at Warner Brothers to make a knock-down, drag-out women's picture in which Mildred and Veda shatter every Hollywood cliché about natural and requited mother-love. By contrast, Winslet is too placid, not fierce enough. She eats pies, where Crawford fed on raw flesh. The story needed 'too much' — Max Steiner's raging music and the gorgeous film noir look where the shadows dipped down into Mildred's brow until you felt the pits of her rueful, ruined eyes. That's why it's the originally version is a camp classic movie now — and so hard to resurrect as a literary classic."

For New York's Emily Nussbaum, "whatever Mildred Pierce's weaknesses, there's no denying its sensual dazzle. The script is full of period pleasures: 'varlet,' 'mush,' 'stinko.' You sigh over every dress. Even a close-up of restaurant workers chopping chickens feels like a waltz. If this visual splendor sometimes feels like tablecloth pornography (oh, God, the thread count!), it's a highly effective form of cinematic synesthesia."

For the New Yorker, Hilton Als places the novel in the context of Cain's life and work. Sam Adams interviews Haynes for the AV Club. More on the series from the Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth ("a wonderful achievement") and Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times ("a revelation"). Earlier: Richard Porton in Cinema Scope and, in January, "Todd Haynes @ 50."

Updates, 3/26: Troy Patterson in Slate: "One way of reading things is to suppose that contact with the medium of television has inclined Haynes to imagine Mildred Pierce as the classiest soap opera ever aired, lustrous and languorous in tracing the lengths that mothers will go to for their daughters and the knots they tie themselves up in while doing so. I am saying — with the rather irrational, possibly unfair disgruntlement of a possessive fan — that the movie is not as weird as I would like."

For Alonso Duralde, writing at Movieline, "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… Just the opening credits of each episode makes Mildred Pierce feel like one of the film events of the year — besides Haynes and [DP Edward] 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.

Michael Guillén interviews Haynes: "In a way the term 'melodrama' is so clumsy and imprecise unlike other genres that we might talk about — like westerns, film noir, gangster movies or whatever — because it also incorporates a kind of pejorative attitude about emotional or sentimental excess. But it's almost because of that, that it makes me want to get in there and roll up my sleeves and figure out why?"

Viewing (16'53"). The AV Club's Scott Tobias and Keith Phipps discuss Mildred Pierce and the work of Haynes in general.


And finally for now, a little eye candy. Book designer extraordinaire John Gall presents new work for this spring's releases of Cain's Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. These fabulous covers were conceived by Megan Wilson and executed by Evan Gaffney.

Update, 3/27: "There's terrific acting in Todd Haynes's chilly remake," writes Stephen King for Newsweek, "and as for Winslet and Pearce … holy crow. I detest the term 'chemistry' to describe actors playing people who are sexually attracted to each other, so let's just say these two are in perfect, ferocious sync. Imagine Bogie and Bacall in hell and you'll get the idea." Even so: "It's too damn long. I suppose that sounds impudent, coming from a guy who's written several doorstop-size novels, but I stand by it… And yet Mildred Pierce has a visceral, snake-farm fascination."

Update, 3/29: "The signal virtue of Haynes's film is its meticulous attention to the economic realities of its era," writes Ed Howard. "In countless small details in the first episode of the series, Haynes emphasizes how every penny, every nickel, every dime must be carefully managed. On Mildred's first shopping trip after her husband leaves, she places items into her basket, weighing each one in her hand as she looks at the price, and Haynes pulls in for a tight closeup on the shopping basket as she mentally calculates the total cost, finally discarding an item that would push her over her budget… As Mildred tells Veda in the second episode, everything in their lives, everything they own, has a cost, and Haynes makes sure that that cost is felt concretely, that every penny of it feels like it matters."

Update, 3/30: "To read Mildred Pierce now is to experience a double vision, in which we confront both how much and how little things have changed," writes David L Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. "Mildred Pierce has been regarded by some as a proto-feminist manifesto, which is how it was taught to me in college when I first read the book. Yet if that is a compelling reading, for me, ultimately, it's not nearly nuanced enough."

Updates, 3/31: The New Yorker's Richard Brody has his problems with the mini-series. "First, the casting of the admirable actress Kate Winslet is off; she lacks brass. (Jennifer Jason Leigh would have been my first choice.) Her performance is surprisingly both slack and calculated, as if she had to keep doing something without being very sure of what to do. I doubt the problem is hers. I admire the director Todd Haynes’s artistry, but here he seems to have tucked it away in a safe place, and his artistic reticence appears due to a strange reverence for the source material."

"The Crawford version is as grooved with familiarity as the face of a family member," writes Tom Shone, adding that "by comparison, the new Mildred Pierce cannot but seem a rank imposter — somebody impersonating your mother. But it's got some interesting things to say about class that are largely absent from the Curtiz version, largely because of changes wrought to the character of Veda — a sleazy lounge act in the Curtiz, a 'cheap little tart' in Cain's words, rather than the coloratura soprano he envisaged as the embodiment of Mildred's dreams and then some, the moral of the tale being: be careful what you wish for."

The Oregonian's Shawn Levy interviews Haynes and Jon Raymond, while Novid Parsi talks with Melissa Leo for Time Out Chicago.

Listening. Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner discuss Mildred Pierce in the first segment of this week's Slate Culture Gabfest.

Update, 4/2: Jon Raymond on co-adapting the novel: "Contrary to the jacket copy ('the story of a bitch!'), within 10 pages I could see this was not 'hard-boiled' in the least. If anything, this was an openly literary endeavor (as if the crime books were not), the portrait of a middle-class woman struggling to feed her family in Depression-era LA, and keep her torrid, cruel elder daughter, Veda, close to the breast. The sex depicted in the book was frank, the relationships natural, the economics precise. And more than that, the sentences were incredibly limber, tumbling out with clear relish for the highs and lows of American language. The prose had Cain's saltiness, for sure, but the music here was grander, looser, more nuanced."

Update, 4/10: Eric Kohn introduces the second part of his interview with Haynes: "Boldly repurposing the writings of Jean Genet to reflect the concerns of an AIDS-afflicted gay community, Poison [1991] emerged as one of the definitive works of New Queer Cinema, toying with genre and identity and announcing Haynes's arrival as a major film artist. The director spoke to indieWIRE about the particular climate surrounding the release of the film, why it couldn't happen today and the way his original filmmaking community has evolved."

Mildred Pierce on HBO: Parts 1 and 2 this Sunday; Part 3 on April 3; Parts 4 and 5 on April 10. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

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