The worst thing about Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce (2011) is that it does not have Eve Arden in it. But not long after the miniseries begins, this absence can soon be forgotten. It is a marvellous reconstruction of James M Cain’s novel, perfectly located in the time and place of early (and later, late) 1930s Hollywood, seeping with the songs and aura of that time.
‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows’, a song of thematic importance that is embedded in the miniseries as an accompaniment and also a textual reference, becomes a little spent after a while. It stands as a signifier of Mildred’s own goals, of her ambition, and of her desire to establish a fulfilling, reciprocally loving relationship with her hideous daughter. Unfortunately, too, Haynes does not capture the deep shadows, the high contrast between spaces of safety and spaces of threat, in the same way that Curtiz does to illustrate the vileness in the story. Curtiz cinematographer, Ernest Haller, photographed so many classics: Jezebel (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939), Mr Skeffington (1944), Rebel Without A Cause (1955), Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962). His multiple productions with actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis probably helped; he knew how to photograph their faces, knew the direction of their cheekbones, the height of their forehead, the way that light would surround their eyes. Edward Lachman does not quite saturate the world of 1930s Hollywood in the same way, but of course, he is shooting in colour, and 65 years later.
Should this adaptation be entirely distinct from its 1945 predecessor? It can’t be, because Mildred Pierce is such a high-profile “women’s picture” and female-led noir. But even considering any similarities and differences, Haynes’ is really wonderful. Curtiz soaks his Mildred Pierce in melodramatic bravura; Haynes puts his on a slow burn with no less virtuosity for the melodramatic underside of Mildred’s life and the people who enter it. Mildred’s love for her daughter Veda (Morgan Turner for three parts; Evan Rachel Wood for the latter two) suffocates her, and it is easy to see why she falls for the deceitful charms of Monty (Guy Pearce). Her intentions are grand, and Mildred always wishes to see the best in people, and to believe people are seeing the best in her. With the near-six hour running time, Haynes’ and Jon Raymond’s screenplay can flesh this out more than the film did, and we see on Kate Winslet’s tired face how much pressure she is under, and how many times her trust and her love has been betrayed. When she discovers Monty in bed with her daughter (I nearly wrote this as her final betrayal, but there is another), the disbelief and devastating sadness in Winslet’s face is heartbreaking. She barely holds an expression–it is more of a total hopelessness that overtakes her body–and there is nowhere left for her to go except far away from everything that she has. With that final betrayal, her daughter’s final rejection of her own mother, Joan Crawford composedly declares, “I don’t care any more, Veda.” Kate Winslet, in hysterics and high melodrama, shouts, “Don’t ever come back…Never again, I won’t have it.”
Haynes’ adaptation, then, is probably more satisfying than Curtiz’ because it drags us through the emotions with such ruthlessness, and Mildred’s pain is so exhausting, that I was completely spent by the end of it. And Veda’s selfishness and cruel behaviour is given so much more time to develop its repulsiveness, her monstrosity glaring. So the final toast, to Mildred and her husband Bert (Brian F O’Byrne), is a great one. “Let’s get stinko,” they cheers to one another. We all need to after six hours–or a lifetime–of so much melodrama.