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.