Published in 1941, Mildred Pierce was written by James M. Cain and is a dramatic story of a mother willing to do anything to preserve her family’s social status through a divorce and the Depression, largely for the benefit of her conniving and wealth-hungry daughter Veda.
Adapted to film in 1945, Mildred Pierce has long been one of my favorite old Hollywood stories, so I was very excited to come across a vintage copy of the book at a used book shop. Now I can say that I’ve read the book, seen the film several time, and watched the HBO miniseries… so, here are my thoughts on them all!
James M. Cain’s novel offers a very frank discussion of sex and romantic relationships — pretty scandalous stuff for being published in the early ’40s! The book is also packed with drama and several major twists, tracking Mildred’s career as a restaurant entrepreneur, odd family relationship dynamics, the loss of a young child, the break-down of a marriage, and plenty more. This book is a wild ride from start to finish. I couldn’t put it down.
The film is equally gripping, though very different from the novel due to the fact that some of the book’s subjects couldn’t pass the censors. It stars Joan Crawford in the role of Mildred and Ann Blyth as her daughter Veda. Michael Curtiz took the helm as director.
Blyth nails the class-obsessed and greedy character of Veda, and Joan Crawford likewise nails the ambitious character of Mildred, a mother who wants to provide everything that her children want despite her own struggles. The antagonistic mother/daughter relationship between Blyth and Crawford truly makes the film, despite the emphasis being shared with Mildred’s business activities. Their performances are two of the most memorable of the classic era. Blyth was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Crawford took home the trophy for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
The film opens with a dramatic shooting rather than an argument between Mildred and her husband, which was how the novel opened. The rest of the film’s story is told through the frame of a police interrogation, with Mildred recounting her sordid tale through flashbacks. Though it differs from the book, this structure is successfully used, bringing a great sense of tension and a noir-style edge to the story.
References to the Depression and prohibition, which were important to Mildred’s journey in the novel, are missing from the ’45 adaptation. (Cain wove them into Mildred’s marriage problems and career, first with Bert being out of work and unable to find a job, then with Mildred having to take a job as a waitress, and later with Mildred introducing alcohol to her restaurant with the repeal of the 18th amendment.) But like the use of a different framing device, this doesn’t harm the film at all. The story still makes sense, the timeline is still easy to follow without these landmark events, and the film is very enjoyable to watch.
Cain’s novel may be over 70 years old, but according to Hollywood it still makes great source material for the moving image… and after watching HBO’s 2011 miniseries, I have to agree. Told in five parts, each about an hour in length, the miniseries stars Kate Winslet as Mildred and Evan Rachel Wood as Veda (Morgan Turner as young Veda). It was directed by Todd Haynes.
Censorship in today’s Hollywood ain’t what it used to be, and as such, HBO’s version of Mildred’s story didn’t require a made-from-scratch murder plot to replace the novel’s “unfilmable” material. Haynes’ Mildred Pierce follows the novel very closely and, to me, felt very much like watching the novel come to life directly from the page. Since I loved the novel, I was delighted to discover that the miniseries was a very true adaptation rather than an imitation or drawn-out remake of the ’45 film.
Everything about the miniseries is of top-notch quality. Cinematography? Stunning. Kate Winslet’s performance is Mildred? Strong but sensitive, and very easy for the viewer to sympathize with. (I’m so glad she was cast in this role — Winslet is one of my favorite actresses working today, and always does very well in period pieces. She plays the character of Mildred her own way rather than attempting a Crawford impression, which I very much appreciated.) Morgan Turner delivers a spectacularly (and appropriately) obnoxious portrayal of the younger version of Veda. With the novel being so well-adapted and acted, the story’s most heartbreaking turns are portrayed with high emotional impact.
Whether reading it, watching it as a film, or watching it in five parts, the story of Mildred Pierce is sure to leave an impression. In my opinion, all three versions are great!