12:01am

Fri March 25, 2011
Television

Ambitions Meet Quiet Noir In 'Mildred Pierce'

The 1945 movie Mildred Pierce starred Joan Crawford as an ambitious woman capable of anything — even murder. But it turns out that this film noir was quite a departure from the novel it was based on.

Although author James M. Cain was known for his hardboiled plots in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, his novel Mildred Pierce was a comparatively quiet portrait of a single mother in 1930s Los Angeles.

To make ends meet, the title character works her way up from baking pies to owning a string of successful restaurants. Rather than murder, the novel's only crime is the painful, turbulent relationship between Mildred and her ambitious daughter Veda.

It was this version of Mildred Pierce that inspired director Todd Haynes' new HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet.

"The Mildred that emerged on the page was someone quite different from the Joan Crawford Mildred," Haynes tells Morning Edition's Renee Montaigne. "It was no longer a film noir; it was almost a social realist document about rough times in a very specific economic moment in our history."

In the midst of the current economic recession, Haynes found the story intensely engaging — and relevant.

After Mildred sends her unemployed and cheating husband packing, she finds herself a "grass widow" in the Great Depression. Struggling to take care of her family, without the help of her husband, one character describes Mildred as "the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July."

"It's really about a woman taking stock of herself in a whole new way and looking at what her sort of value is, now that she has to go out on the street and find some sort of livelihood to sustain her middle class life," says Haynes.

"What's so interesting is how quickly in one decade, the 1920s, a middle-class sense of pride and entitlement — and a sense that your kid's life is going to be better than yours — how deeply those expectations were already in place by the end of the 1920s," says Haynes.

After a difficult search for employment, Mildred finally takes a job in a hash house as a waitress, despite her middle-class social standing. In the wake of the Great Depression, Haynes explains, "you see these people scrambling to kind of retain a sense of self."

Though Mildred is willing to sacrifice everything for the well-being of her daughters, Veda is ashamed that her mother has taken a job that is so beneath her. Veda can be scheming, even cruel, but as Haynes explains, she is the product of her parents' making. Portraying the character in a sympathetic light was one of Haynes' greatest narrative and dramatic challenges, he says.

"You really need to see somebody not cast in stone the way she might have been in some people's memories in the original film version," he explains. "In our story, she's trying out these different guises and she's assuming a set of values that her parents provided for her and demonstrated for her as good."

Although Veda's obsession with high-class values verges on outright snobbery, the emphasis on cultural values and high learning was shared by the middle class, too.

"You see it being very complexly tied back to Mildred all the time," Haynes explains. "Mildred's investment in Veda, which only intensifies after a certain family tragedy occurs, is too much. Her feelings and her investment in this child are really more those of an unrequited lover."

Aside from her painful relationship with her daughter, however, Mildred was actually a successful entrepreneur at a time when most businesses were failing. "The story itself harkens to the time just about to come, during the war years, where women have no choice but to assume dominate roles in the industry, [and] at home, while men are away overseas," says Haynes.

But Mildred Pierce is beyond just being ahead of her time, Haynes says. In her story, "women have just taken the reigns and are active, and men are more on the sidelines."

Yet the character is still unable to see her success as the achievement that it is. In the end, her extreme attachment to her child is perhaps the story's greatest tragedy.

"She takes her innate skills at business for granted. The thing she's fixated on is the thing she isn't getting, which is Veda's love."

Haynes' five-part miniseries, chronicling Mildred's triumphs and failings, will air on HBO beginning this Sunday. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Film noir was at its height in 1945 when "Mildred Pierce," starring Joan Crawford, offered moviegoers an ambitious woman who was capable of murder.

(Soundbite of movie trailer for 1945 "Mildred Pierce")

Unidentified Man: Mildred, a name gasped in the night. The one last word of a dying man, but one word that tells a thousand stories of a woman who left her mark on every man she met.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It turns out this film noir was a major departure from the novel it was based on.

MONTAGNE: For one thing, in the novel there was no murder. The crimes were the stuff of tangled relationships.

WERTHEIMER: Novelist James M. Cain was known for his hard-boiled novels: "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Double Indemnity."

MONTAGNE: But in "Mildred Pierce" he chose to create a portrait of a single mother in 1930s Los Angeles. In the midst of the Depression, she works her way up from baking pies to owning a string of successful restaurants, and all the while consumed by her turbulent relationship with her musically gifted daughter, Veda, who will do anything to get ahead.

This is the "Mildred Pierce" director Todd Haynes revisits in his new HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet.

Mr. TODD HAYNES (Director, "Mildred Pierce"): The Mildred that emerged on the page was someone quite different from the Joan Crawford Mildred. And I think right away it just cast a different image in my mind. It was no longer a film noir. It was a sort of - almost a social realist document about rough times at a very specific economic moment in our history that, of course, was reminding me of what was happening right now.

So this story and this character and this woman felt intensely and newly relevant to me when I read the book.

MONTAGNE: The notion of the women having to take care of themselves and their families, that comes up very early in the movie. It's right after Mildred has sent her husband packing. Let's take a listen to a scene in the movie where Mildred tells her friend Lucy that she's told her husband to get out for good.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mildred Pierce")

Ms. KATE WINSLET (Actor): (as Mildred Pierce) I've got my own ideas and I just can't change them for somebody else.

Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor): (as Lucy Gessler) So what are you going to do? You just joined the biggest army on Earth. You're the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July, a grass widow with two small children to raise on your own. That dirty bastard.

MONTAGNE: You know, as her friend says, Mildred is now a grass widow. And that is such an interesting expression. It's certainly gone out of style.

Mr. HAYNES: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: But you get it.

Mr. HAYNES: Yeah, it's an amazing moment. It's really about a woman taking stock of herself in a whole new way and looking at what her sort of value is, now that she knows she has to go out on the street and find some sort of livelihood to sustain her middle-class life. And she takes a job at what she calls a hash house as a waitress.

MONTAGNE: Well, in terms of her love for her daughter, Veda, you know, a job that should have engendered pride in the children whose mother is going out and sacrificing so much for them - let's take a listen to the interaction between the two.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mildred Pierce")

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) It so happens that I've taken a job at a restaurant in Hollywood.

Ms. MORGAN TURNER (Actor): (as Young Veda Pierce) As a what?

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) As a waitress, as you well know.

Ms. TURNER: (as Veda Pierce) Ye gods. Ye gods and little fishes.

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) So you and your sister can eat and have a place to live and a few clothes on your backs. I've taken the only kind of job I can get.

MONTAGNE: Why is Veda so ashamed?

Mr. HAYNES: What's so interesting is how quickly in one decade, the 1920s, sort of a middle-class sense of pride and entitlement, and a sense that your life is going to your kids' life is going to be better than yours, how deeply those expectations were already in place by the end of the 1920s, which was really the first year of intense prosperity and housing bubbles all over the country. And then it all ended.

So you see these people scrambling to kind of retain a sense of self. And Mildred wants everything for her daughter.

MONTAGNE: Mildred is also to some degree living through her daughter. But Veda is so scheming and so cruel. You wonder even why Mildred, though she may be her mother, remains devoted to her.

Mr. HAYNES: Well, I think that was a sort of narrative and dramatic challenge. You really need to see somebody not cast in stone the way Veda might've been in some people's memories in the original film version.

In our story, she's trying out these different guises and she's assuming, you know, a set of values that her parents have provided for her and demonstrated for her as good; cultural values and values of high learning, and the high-class way of doing things. Which, you know, always sort of verges on something horrible and snobby, but also things that the middle-class values as well.

And, you know, Mildred's investment in Veda, which only intensifies, is too much. Her feelings and her investment in this child are really more those of an unrequited lover.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mildred Pierce")

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Haven't I given you everything you've ever wanted? If there was something you needed, couldn't you have come to me first, instead of resorting to this - to blackmail?

Ms. EVAN RACHEL WOOD (Actor): (as Veda Pierce) You want to know why? With enough money I can get away from you - you and your pie wagons and chickens and everything that smells of grease, from every rotten, stinking thing that even reminds me of this place, or you.

MONTAGNE: Do you see Mildred Pierce as someone who has fallen into the challenges of her moment, which is the Depression? Or someone who's actually ahead of her time?

Mr. HAYNES: I think in many ways she - the story itself sort of harkens to the time just about to come during the war years, where women have no choice but to assume dominant roles; men are away overseas. And what's so interesting about this story is that it's beyond that. Women have just taken the reins and are active and men are more on the sidelines.

Although the interesting thing about Mildred is how unreflective she really is. She kind of takes her innate skills at business for granted. The things she's fixated on is the things she isn't getting, which is Veda's love.

MONTAGNE: Director Todd Haynes. His miniseries, "Mildred Pierce," starring Kate Winslet as Mildred, begins this Sunday night on HBO.

Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. HAYNES: Thank you, Renee. It was a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And Im Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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