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Why Did HBO Remake Mildred Pierce?

HBO’s remake of Mildred Pierce concluded last week and now that the five-hour mini-series has marinated in my brain for a while, I have a few questions. The main one that lingers is, “Why the hell did they make this movie, anyway?”

I’ll warn you now if you’re waiting to see this thing on Netflix or DVD, spoilers lurk ahead. Though, if you’ve seen the 1945 film version (starring Joan Crawford in one of her most iconic roles) or read the 1941 novel, there’s not a whole lot to spoil. HBO’s Mildred Pierce differs greatly from the Crawford film (there is, for example, no murder to solve), but the basic plot points are mostly the same.

Now that we’ve got the spoiler warning out of the way, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet as the title character, Mildred Pierce is a beautiful-looking period drama set in depression-era California. While the action is slow (it is five hours long, after all), the costumes are beautiful, the set dressing is flawless, and you get to see Guy Pearce naked. Other than that, though, I’m not exactly sure what Mildred Pierce has to offer. Originally conceived as a “women’s movie,” the storyline follows a divorced mother who starts a restaurant in order to supply her spoiled daughter with a luxurious life. Along the way she takes on a lover, gets married, and ultimately loses it all.

Like many feminists, I’m very interested in the struggles of the women who came before me, and from that angle, I was very interested in Mildred Pierce. She tried to have it all, and I would have loved it if Haynes had used societal pressure and social norms as the reason why she couldn’t pull it off. But this is not an update of an old story – rather it reiterates the troubling messaging of the original work.

For example: Mildred, who has been working her ass off as a single mom and waitress, spends the night with a gentleman while her parents take her kids for the weekend. Her punishment for having sex with a rich playboy from Pasadena? Her kid DIES. Everyone gasps and asks her, “Where were you?” as if her presence could have prevented the kid from dying of an infection. It’s an old trick that wasn’t uncommon in pre-women’s lib fiction, but hardly a message that we need or want to hear in 2011. Mildred is constantly slapped in the face by her own creators, being told that if she focuses on her career she will lose her family and that if she focuses on her family she will lose her career. In other words: sorry, sweetheart, but you can’t have it all.

So why remake a cautionary tale designed to keep women in their place? I have no clue. I didn’t even find Kate Winslet that compelling in this film – her acting is stiff and I couldn’t tell if she was going for polite and proper or kind of dim with Mildred. I’m guessing her propriety was an acting choice (since I don’t think anyone could argue that Winslet is a lousy actress), but as a result Mildred is difficult to penetrate, muddling the motivation for a lot of her actions.

Is this just a continuation of the Bad Mother theme that has been so prevalent in narratives from the first half of the 20th century, or a revisitation of issues that women faced during the depression and pre-war years? Did Haynes add anything to this story or should he have left it alone? Talk to me in the comments.

Picture of Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce from the HBO website.

By Sissy Larue

30-something, mother-of-two, former rock 'n' roll reporter, currently into retro house-wifey things, bad TV and any movie that I can sneak out of the house to watch.

9 replies on “Why Did HBO Remake Mildred Pierce?”

I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one puzzled by this movie. When Mildred ran off with the playboy guy the day before her restaurant opened, I laughed out loud at the absolute absurdity of it. Nothing in the proceeding hour and a half led me to believe that Midlred Pierce would run off with some dude on a whim; quite the opposite, in fact. And then her kid died and I felt like I’d been slapped in the face with the “SEX WILL KILL YOUR KIDS, YOU DIRTY WHORE” towel. Subtle!
I really should have stopped watching after the uniform fight scene, which was so absurd and confusing and… why was she apologizing to that ungrateful brat at the end? Huh? (But, seriously, that scene just makes the “running off with random dude” even more ridiculous.)

I think this is a really interesting question!

I was also particularly struck by that juxtaposition of Mildred running off with her (very new) lover, and arguably having the best time that she’s had thus far in the movie, and then her kid dies. The thing is, it sort of explains why she tries so hard to please Veda, since she’s her only remaining kid and she’s desperate to have a relationship with her. But I also think that the sort of guilt that she’s made to feel, as if her having a moment of fun and pleasure led to her child’s death, is something that could still happen today. I could imagine a woman feeling guilty and being made to feel guilty for something like that even if she couldn’t have prevented it.

Also, I’m not sure if you’ve seen Walk Hard (an awesome parody of Walk The Line & Ray), but the protagonist’s dad keeps saying “The wrong kid died!” throughout that movie, and I sort of wanted him to walk on here and say it.

Generalized comment:

I haven’t been able to see the remake because we canceled HBO to save a bit of cash, but I have seen both the original movie and read many of Cain’s novels. I just wanted to interject that I don’t believe that the author (Cain) is himself a misogynist nor does the book come off as particularly woman hate-y, but he is pretty deft at capturing the social tone of the times. This translates into a novel where the daughter hates her mother for doing something that we’d laud in modern times and a whole host of other out-dated views on parenting, women, working, and motherhood. He’s one of the hard boiled novelists — along with Chandler and Hammett and Thompson (among others)– so there’s no sun behind the clouds, you know?

I haven’t read the novel, but I totally understand what you’re saying. I don’t really have a problem with the daughter hating the mother and the mother going to crazy extremes to please the daughter — that part is actually interesting to me. And I can definitely get behind dark stories that don’t carry a happy ending. But I didn’t get the feeling that this new mini series (or the Crawford movie) was making a statement about how society was unkind to women during these times. It really seems more like Mildred is being arbitrarily punished by the scrip writers. I think the younger kid dying is the worst example of this. Again, I don’t necessarily think Mildred Pierce is a misogynist piece of garbage, I just don’t really understand what Haynes was trying to say with it in 2011.

I’m really curious to see this, based on your comments. The source material is something that it would be really hard to be neutral on. I mean, I can’t even really understand why this kind-of obscure book was slated for a mini-series — it feels like it has vanity project written all over it. Not that I mind. I’d pay money to watch Winslet paint her walls.

(*Spoilers Up Ahead*) Sissy, I had the exact same thought as you! I have to preface my comment by admitting that I’d never even heard of the Joan Crawford version nor of the book on which it’s based. I was looking forward to this series filling up my Big Love-less nights and had heard vague references to Milly P since last season —words like ‘controversy’ and ‘sacrifice’ were thrown around so I was intrigued because I really didn’t know what to expect.

After an hour and a half in of the 2-hour premiere, i had to stop watching — the part after Mildred slaps young Veda for her stunt w/ Mom’s hash house uniform — I hated how passive they were making Mildred out to be in terms of her family. Her husband leaves her, she has too much pride to work for a rich snob so she picks herself up w/ those pies at the hash house and yet instead of admiring her pluck & determination to make it through the freakin’ Great Depression (!)—she comes home to a spoiled brat who mocks her uniform!! Argh!!! I did tune back in to see how poor Mildred is severely punished for daring to have some fun like you said with the aforementioned playboy.

I didn’t watch Part 3 but I did catch some of the finale while waiting for another show to air–at this point we learn that her estranged daughter, whom she’s now reunited with, is running up high expenses and is nearly bankrupting/endangering Mildred’s restaurants. It got worse from there as you know, but I was really not expecting that—I hated it! Those scenes just left such a bad taste in my mouth. The next day I asked co-workers for their thoughts, whether they’d seen it—many wondered the same thing: among other issues, what was the reason her daughter was so hateful? I hated how the Dad, the smuck who started it all seemed to get a pass, from both Mildred and his daughters and society as well. I wondered about the book as well—I realize it comes from a different era but it really made me wonder WHY the author was punishing Mildred so (misogynist?)—she loses everything, absolutely everything, in the end and I don’t understand what she did that was so wrong.

I didn’t think of it as a women’s movie at all and all it did was infuriate me. I did add the original movie to my queue — there’s a murder, you say? Perhaps it’ll quell my need for satisfaction on Mildred’s behalf? Sigh. I did think the remake itself was beautifully envisioned, great costumes, & cast (ERW is absolutely beautiful in this, I’d no idea) but like you, I didn’t understand the point of telling this story now, especially now, when Moms seem to be criticized for every decision they make concerning their kids (how to birth, breastfeed, etc etc).

Thanks for listening, I clearly had to get this off my chest!

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