The Mildred Pierce who was created by James M. Cain in his 1941 novel was an ambitious lower-middle-class woman whose husband left her, whose daughter Veda felt contempt for her, and who, via hard work, guts, and instinct, became successful but still craved love. The Mildred Pierce who was played by Joan Crawford in the 1945 movie, was a tough dame involved in a murder mystery — who killed high-society gigolo Monty Beragon? The Mildred Pierce in the five-part miniseries that began on HBO on Sunday night is a sensitive, wounded sparrow who can bake a pie like nobody’s business — so she starts her own. She’s got a daughter who will eventually (not this week) turn into an Evan Rachel Wood in a constant, very foul mood. This new Mildred will suffer, know romance and lose it, achieve success and lose most of it, and continue to crave the love from her daughter, but (and this is part of the suspense in this least hard-boiled of hard-boiled stories) will she get it?
The HBO Mildred Pierce is an example of beautifully heightened realism — director Todd Haynes has reinserted the Depression-era trappings that director Michael Curtiz assiduously excised from the Crawford film — with a performance by Kate Winslet that raises soap opera a bit closer to art.
These early hours of Mildred Pierce are the best ones, I think. I loved watching all the precise details Haynes presented: About how an abandoned wife and mother was treated in those days; how such a woman would look for a job and what she’d settle for; how she makes friends with other women (Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham, both so wonderfully low-key yet vehement); how she had to apply brute force of will to the task of sweet-talking men into letting her start her own business. The color palette of the production — soft yellows, browns, and greens — frequently makes the movie seem like an urgent dream.
Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her version of Mildred. I’ll bet Winslet will win an Emmy for hers. That’s not because the new Mildred Pierce is truly great, but rather that Haynes knew HBO, not a movie studio, was the place to take the languid melodrama he wanted to unfurl, that Winslet knew the small screen was the place to go a bit dowdy (in the first hours, at least), and that HBO is one of the only places left making expensive-looking TV miniseries: The network, in this area, is an awards-generating machine, because it’s just about the only such machine left in the industry.
All of which isn’t to say that Mildred Pierce isn’t worth watching for all five of its installments. It’s just that, if you tuned in this week to see Wood go nude or to watch a great love story between Winslet and Guy Pearce as rich-man/spoiled-boy Monty, you didn’t get what you wanted this week. You got something else. Something better.
But did you like what you saw?