Monday, April 11, 2011


Chickens, coloraturas & class

By Edward Copeland
Having watched Todd Haynes' phenomenal five-part miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce twice (and in the case of some scenes, multiple times), now that it has completed its first run on HBO and I've finished recapping it, I felt like writing on its strengths and weaknesses and relations to James M. Cain's original novel one last time without worrying that I might be spoiling anything. No one should be reading this if they haven't watched it all, but I hope a lot of you have because I'd like to provoke a debate and discussion on some issues that I haven't settled on myself.

I'm not going to repeat the differences between the novel, the miniseries and the 1945 film or my initial praise for its technical aspects that I discussed in my preview/review the preceded the airing of the first episode. I might repeat things I mentioned in passing in the recaps of Parts One and Two, Part Three and Parts Four and Five simply because it slipped my mind that I've said it before.


Instead of diving into the deeper questions and ideas about Mildred Pierce, I first want one last chance to virtually raise a glass to its remarkable cast, headed by the phenomenal Kate Winslet, simply the best actress of her generation giving one of her best performances in a relatively young career filled with brilliant performances dating back to the first time we took notice of her in Peter Jackson's 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. At 35, she has one Oscar and a total of six nominations. When Meryl Streep was that age, she had two Oscars but one less nomination. If Winslet's career lasts as long as Streep's, could she tie or break the record for most nominations for an actress that Streep extends with each new one?

Specifically as it pertains to Winslet's performance in Mildred Pierce, she's a wonder. Perhaps part of what makes her so strong in this role is that she's never had the chance to develop a character over this long a time period as she did with the five-plus hours of the miniseries. As I mentioned frequently in the recaps, Winslet excelled, as you would expect, in the emotional moments of her character when she broke out in anger, tears or indignation, but her most powerful work came from her silences. As I wrote in the recap of the final part, the number of changes of expressions her face goes through when she discovers her daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) nude in the bed of her husband Monty (Guy Pearce) when she already was in a panic to find her to save her business was simply amazing. Joan Crawford might have won the Oscar for her Mildred in Michael Curtiz's 1945 film, but it's no contest as to who created the finer portrait and it's not just because the miniseries sticks closer to James M. Cain novel than the 1945 film did.

As great as Winslet is, whoever cast this miniseries really deserves some kind of an award of his or her own for there really wasn't a weak link from the major characters all the way down to those who appear in a scene or two. The quality of the performances almost became an element of production design, immersing the viewer in the story's universe completely and realistically. No one seemed out of time or out of place and they all worked beautifully to bring director Todd Haynes' vision and the script he wrote with Jon Raymond to vivid life. It's interesting that in telling a story of a very specific time in America, three of the most important characters — Mildred, Monty and Bert — were played by two actors born in England and one in Ireland. Guy Pearce hit all the right notes as the charming Monty and, watching Mildred Pierce the second time, I actually came to feel sorry for his character, especially after he weds Mildred. He certainly was wrong to be banging her daughter, but the second time through I never had the impression that he was out to take Mildred for a ride or that he particularly enjoyed being her kept man and Mildred did treat him badly once Veda came back. Brian F. O'Byrne also is quite good as Bert. O'Byrne's most notable work has been on the stage with most of his film and television roles being small ones, but he really does make Bert a more sympathetic character as the series goes along considering when we meet him he's an adulterer who leaves his wife and two young daughters for another woman. By the end, he's the most purely positive portrayal of a male character in the story.

This post could go on forever listing all of the great cast members such as Melissa Leo's fine work as Lucy, Mare Winningham's as Ida and all the brief appearances such as Brenda Wehle as Mrs. Turner at the employment agency, Hope Davis as Mrs. Forrester/Lenhardt and two of my personal favorites: the great scenes given to Veda's eventual music instructors: the incomparable Richard Easton as Mr. Hannen and Ronald Guttman as conductor Carlo Treviso, who gives Mildred that highly entertaining speech explaining that while Veda is a one-of-a-kind talent she's also a one-of-a-kind monster and Mildred's seems sensible so why would she want Veda back to wreak havoc in her life? To me, the biggest surprise was James LeGros as Wally Bergan. Hadn't seen LeGros in quite some time, but I remembered him best from his days as a long-haired regular of indie films of the late 1980s and '90s such as Near Dark, Drugstore Cowboy and Living in Oblivion as well as other Haynes' films such as Safe. I think the last time I remember seeing him was in one of those bad, later season episodes of Roseanne. To see him again, not only giving what may be his best performance ever but transformed into a middle-age man with a receding hairline and a distinct, protruding pot belly he's not afraid to show, he was amazing. Wally Bergan oozes sleaze and is a smarmy rogue that Mildred knows is capable of backstabbing, yet through LeGros' performance you can see the oddball charm that he has, usually displayed through humor, that makes it so easy to take advantage of people who know his history well. Then, Mildred has the same weakness when it comes to Veda and Wally was Veda's eager partner in scamming the Forresters out of money over the fake pregnancy. As for LeGros, the physical transformation still knocks me out. If I didn't see his name in the credits, I don't know if I'd have recognized him immediately. That's why I thought I'd put a photo of him from Living in Oblivion next to one in Mildred Pierce just to compare.

Which brings us to our pair of Vedas. The remarkable Morgan Turner who took the part from age 11-14 in Parts One through Three and Evan Rachel Wood who played her in Parts Four and Five from 17 to 20. Wood was good, but at times I felt she was a bit too mannered, while the amazing Turner didn't seem to make a misstep, perfectly balancing the part of Veda that was still just a normal kid and her rotten side. When Turner's Veda would be manipulative, she didn't forecast it as much as Wood did as in the scene where she tells Mildred she kept the "pregnancy" from her because she couldn't bear to disappoint her. She was so easy to see through whereas the young Turner played it much smoother and actually held her own better in her one-on-one confrontation scenes with Winslet than the more experienced Wood did. I'm eager to see what comes of this young actress, who just turns 12 later this month.


Without a doubt, the Mildred Pierce miniseries is the finest work produced by director Todd Haynes so far. It seems as if he must have planned every aspect of it much like those blueprints for homes on Bert Pierce's den wall. His repeated use of similar motifs, such as Mildred behind the wheel of a car at emotional low points, to often viewing people through window, Veda especially through the screens of windows and doors. What I loved the most actually goes to the script he wrote with Raymond, allowing scenes to play them out with lots of monologues or duets, that linger to really get the viewer involved.

Haynes also recognized that perhaps his greatest visual asset in his arsenal happened to be Kate Winslet's face. It was especially evident in the final part where Guy Pearce delivered most of Monty's monologue while the camera stayed on Winslet's Mildred, but he took that approach before. Often, he'd choose to have our eyes look elsewhere while dialogue went on offscreen. I also admired his respect for the audience in figuring out what year it was. Only twice (at the beginnings of Parts One and Four) does he put an onscreen notice of time and location. Through the rest of the series, he leaves it to the viewer to be smart enough to figure out by radio speeches and election talk concerning Hoover and FDR or the repeal of Prohibition what year we'd reached.

I also have to wonder if young Morgan Turner is just naturally a great young actress or if Haynes nurtured her to get that amazing a performance out of her.


The climax comes and plays out so quickly in the miniseries that some of the details might have been lost on viewers who haven't read the novel, whose ending is slightly different. When Mildred finds Veda with Monty and snaps and starts choking her, Veda fakes that it affects her singing voice by reverting to the voice she had before Treviso trained her to sing like a woman. One of the jokes that gets lost by most people is that Veda is said to have originally had a singing voice like a man. Since all of the male characters created by Cain are flawed or worse, to say the least, I thought it was funny that Veda was the worst man of all. The reason she fakes it, of course, is because she's thinking so fast that she sees it as a way to scam her way out of her Pleasant Cigarette contract and then get the more lucrative Consolidated Foods deal, which Mr. Hobey said had no expiration date, and find her way in New York. The one part of the novel that the miniseries completely omits is that Mildred, feeling guilty for depriving her daughter of her livelihood, takes her back in with her and Bert. Veda then suddenly leaves one day and Mildred puts it all together and the ending with her and Bert is the same. In the novel, there also isn't a welcome home party for Bert and Mildred from Reno. Ida's betrayal remains a full one and Lucy gets obsessed with an affair Ike is having and they lose touch.

While Cain's novel certainly isn't a crime novel in the same vein as his books Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, when you get down to it, Veda really is a grifter at heart and it's more evident in the book and, upon second viewing of the miniseries, that she gets her scheming instincts from Mildred. She doesn't do it for personal gain as her daughter does, but to get what she wants in her personal life, most often related to Veda. The second time around, I found Mildred to be less sympathetic at times as I did the first. For example, take the bizarre political conversation she has with Monty while they are taking a drive where she seems to be ready to vote for FDR, but reluctantly, hoping he will balance the budget (something Hoover tried with disastrous results that deepened the Depression) and showing contempt for people asking for help because of the economy.

While it's never broached in any of the adaptations, I wonder exactly when Veda and Monty began their sexual relationship. They were discussing his sex life openly when she was 14, when did it actually begin? Did it happen before she was older? Was a degree of pedophilia involved? While Veda already was a handful when her sister was still there, would Mildred's obsession with her have grown so out of control if Ray had lived? Did Mildred drive Bert away in the first place? The Bert Pierce who comes back seems like such a decent fellow, what drove him into the arms of Maggie Biederhof in the first place? Though there was a faked pregnancy, with all the sex going on in Haynes' highly sexualized version, how did no one get knocked up? Let's start a discussion about the best limited series for television that I've seen in ages. One last thought: I've been reading Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat, which is a compendium of his lyrics through 1984with notes and comments about the shows as well as self-criticism, and I just finished the chapter on Gypsy. It made me think how funny it would have been if Veda had had Mama Rose as her mother instead of Mildred. Imagine that.

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I had some of same questions that you had at the end but I didn't wonder when the sexual relationship started between Monty and started at 14 when the talk of sex came up. Maybe there wasn't a physical one but I was a teenager with a fairly larger cup size than most teens my age and at age 14 when men talked to me about sex it was because they were interested in having sex with me. I thought it was disgusting then and still do but in watching the movie I knew without even reading the book that they Veda and Monty would be lovers when they met again as adults. Why? Because Veda wanted him, he may have even kissed her or touched her in a seductive way. It all boils down to who Veda was and I knew when she was old enough and met Monty again nothing would stop her from seducing him. She was a snotty brat who just had to get what she wanted!
I agree that Wood's performance as Veda was more mannered, but I will disagree slightly that it was "too" mannered. I think it was an actorly and directorly choice and it worked for me for two reasons. First, the young Veda is still sharpening her claws. She is testing how far she can go. The older Veda, on the other hand, knows exactly what she can get away with (anything and everything) and therefore doesn't need to temper or disguise her behavior and actions any farther than what it takes to meet her purpose.
Second, Veda is the consummate performer, both on stage and in life. Remember that Bert says, "They're eating it up," and Monty replies, "Yeah, they're eating it up," with full knowledge of all the levels of that statement. Veda puts on a show when she clings to her mother to get the extortion plot to work, and when she shows up to the wedding party but has her singing announce her presence to Mildred. She has her audience in the palm of her hand, and we are supposed to know that.
I felt it was more in the faceoffs. I really did think that Morgan held her own a lot better when facing off against a powerhouse like Winslet in the fights than Wood did in her fight.
What did you think of the scene at home after Veda was first dismissed by Treviso? I thought it was stunning. Haynes let it run, and Veda goes through so much, trying to hold her superiority (Mother, if you say "goodness" one more time) her frustration, her contempt for her mother (You think I'm hot stuff)...she's in a rage, but to me it finally shows her one vulnerability-her own self awareness.
What I liked most about the series was that Haynes let so many scenes run. That probably was Wood's best scene, but when she used that heightened, artificial language that Mildred even got on Veda for talking that way as a child, I think Morgan Turner carried it off a lot better than Wood did and you would think that Veda would have grown better at it as she aged, not worse.
Edward - both your articles were really first rate. I was also a fan of the 45 film and only recently read Cain's novel; and like you I now feel that I have to downgrade the 45 film. Also feel that when I think of Mildred Pierce I will now first think of Winslet and not Crawford.

One quibble though - re: your reference to the "bizarre political conversation". It would seem to me that this is exactly the type of view Mildred would take given her very specific circumstances. Those that have experienced business success due to hard work and perseverance are often the least charitable to the downtrodden seekers of handouts or other types of relief. Her past experience with Bert would, of course, accent this. (ultimately the handouts to Monty make it all rather ironic). Anyway...great stuff.

By bizarre, I wasn't referencing her attitude toward those seeking help but her idea that the gov't should balance the budget, since Hoover did try that and it made things worse, and part of FDR's campaign was about lending a helping hand to the downtrodden, not balancing the budget, yet she indicated that she was voting for him.
Hey Ed: I'm late to this discussion but just want to note one thing that's a major change from book to miniseries: the attitude toward Mildred. In the book, Cain is pretty openly contemptuous of her -- there are constant riffs on her looking silly and ridiculous, on her having the smell of grease in her hair, on her mental dullness, and on her semi-incestuous feelings toward Veda.

Thankfully, they toned this down for the miniseries. They made her a more three-dimensional character, as they did with Veda. It was nice to see all the book's characters rounded out instead of being the simplified figures they were in the 1945 version. I agree that it loses something in comparison, though it's still a model of craft for its era.
The only part that I thought came off as slightly incestuous was that first night when Veda came home and is sleeping and Mildred comes in and gives her that full kiss on the lips. The second time I watched the miniseries, I didn't think Mildred came off as well as she did in the first viewing.
I haven't read the novel, but the kiss scene really got my attention and kept me thinking. I think that it doesn't have much sense when you're seing the episode, as no incestuous feelings towards Veda have been suggested before and it can be mistaken with a bizarre maternal kiss. But, once you have the whole picture and you can put all the pieces together, this very moment gives you a further perspective of the plot and its characters.
I don't know if I have made myself clear -as my first language is spanish- but I hope you understand.
I have never read the novel, but I did read your description of Veda's final departure from her parents, as written by Cain. I don't know. I think I prefer how Haynes handled it a little better.
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