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The Originals: “Mildred Pierce” is Another Film I Should Love But Just Don’t

The Originals: "Mildred Pierce" is Another Film I Should Love But Just Don't

With Todd Haynes’ lengthy HBO adaptation of James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” premiering last night, it occurred to me that I had never seen Michael Curtiz’s classic 1945 film starring Joan Crawford as the titular mama. So I remedied this just before watching parts 1 & 2 of the miniseries. I wouldn’t recommend doing this, though, as Haynes’ version drags like molasses when seen immediately after the neatly compacted older film. Then again, it also makes you better appreciate the still-awful Ann Blyth, because the precocious actress Morgan Turner is downright excruciating as the young Veda in the newer work.

I do like the 1945 film, as much as I like classic movies in general, as much as I like having TCM on in the background in my office, but I don’t love it. And I guess this makes “Mildred Pierce” qualify for the discussion Dan prompted earlier on what films we should love but just don’t. Not that the film has the necessary making of a movie that I should love. I’m not a big fictional drama kind of guy to begin with, but maternal melodramas are really not my cup of tea.

Still, Curtiz’s version, as adapted by Ranald MacDougall (who received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay), with uncredited contribution from William Faulkner and Catherine Turney, features all the conventions I’m fond of in other films of the era (and some stereotypes I can do without, like the cough-as-foreshadowing-death cliche), particularly its structuring the story as a narrated flashback following a death. And as a mash up of the film noir and woman’s film genres, it is a great success. There’s certainly no reason to fault it for being familiar and predictable.

Nor should I really criticize Crawford solely on the basis that I prefer her later, campier and crazier performances. If I don’t consider her Oscar-winning work here as powerful as I’d expected, that’s a matter of perspective, I guess (ironically, in many melodramas, I want the acting toned down). And I think she’s a great commanding presence, whether or not this is as much to the credit of how well Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller highlight her face, which I’ve always believed existed solely for the cinema. Watching “Mildred Pierce,” I viewed so many shots of her as being epitomic of film perfection and wondered if they resonated so much because they’re already known to be specifically iconic to me (via film books or sampled clips or whatever), or if Crawford is such an icon because every picture of her is so captivating. I presume the latter applies here.

The single, or primary, problem I have with “Mildred Pierce” concerns Blyth and her character as adapted. Yes, I think she’s terrible in the role and question what the Academy was thinking in nominating her for Best Supporting Actress, even if I found her so sufficient as a spoiled brat that I constantly wished for Crawford to beat her with a wire hanger to set her straight. But I guess most of my issue with her has to do with the writing of the character and the overall relationship between her and her mother as insufficiently translated to the screen in such short length. I don’t think we ever get a real good understanding of why Veda is so spoiled, from the beginning, and her motives continue to be under-explored to the climax. I never bought the character and found her role in Mildred’s story, as significant as it’s supposed to be, the very least interesting part of the film.

Regardless of how much I’m already despising Haynes’ Veda, as portrayed by Turner, and I don’t expect to be any more into Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, I expect and hope that the miniseries will allow for greater development of the character and the mother-daughter dynamic. This may be simply a case of it having a longer running time to devote to this — if Haynes can focus so much time on the evolution of Mildred’s baking business, compared to Curtiz’s use of quick voice-over exposition, there’s no way he could be lacking in room for the more necessary story elements.

I’m interested in hearing from devout “Mildred Pierce” fans on what they love about the film and what you may have to say in the defense of Blyth and the development of Veda. And what does everyone think of Haynes’ version, in comparison, so far?

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