“Mildred Pierce” (2011)

9 April 2011

Look at her posture: I know how she feels. It’s been a hard week here for a lot of the same reasons why Mildred Pierce struggles in the early episodes — grief, triumph, exhaustion, anxiety, feeling a bit used & abused. (Yes, it’s Week 11 of a long, long semester = grading hell.) All the more reason to be riveted by Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, the 4th episode of which airs tomorrow night. What would you be willing to do to survive? How would you reconcile your sense of self-worth with the indignities of taking on demeaning work to feed your children?

When you watch Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, just set aside the Joan Crawford version and pay attention to how Kate Winslet navigates the precarious waters of self-respect and the conflicts between her own desires and her self-sacrificing impulses as a mother — and all within the context of having her livelihood threatened. This isn’t noir, it’s melodrama. In the end, it revolves around the topic of class: the conflicts between her pride and her willingness to sacrifice that pride to make ends meet and allow her children to grow up more “respectable” than she is. And who could embody those contrasts better than Kate Winslet? We see throughout how beautiful she is, but she carries that cross of unhappiness so obviously … even after her dreary brown outfits in the first episodes begin to transform into lovelier shades of color, the set of her mouth changes from fear to determination, and the lines on her face don’t seem so stark.

There are important assumptions we have to make when watching this series, the most important of which is that a mother will do anything during her own financial crisis to find ways to feed her family after her husband leaves them. Although she’d been baking pies and cakes on the side to sell to well-to-do housewives, it isn’t enough anymore; she now has trouble paying for groceries. What she doesn’t realize is that her absent husband has also left her with the designation of a grass widow — a woman whose absent husband automatically puts her morality up for question. Mildred doesn’t even want to wrangle with that assumption, seeing it as stupid and beneath her; but when her father’s shady business partner, Wally, invites her out for dinner, her neighbor Lucy (Melissa Leo) sets her straight.

“Baby. Baby. You go out with him and he buys you dinner and you get a little tight and you come home and something happens. Of course something will happen ... eventually. And when it happens it’s sin. It’s sin because you’re a grass widow and fast. And he’s all paid up because he bought you dinner. That makes it square.”

Instead, Lucy advises her that she can remain in control of her reputation as well as Wally if she cooks dinner for him and doesn’t allow him to pay for it:

“But if you bought his dinner and cooked it for him the way you do and just happened to look cute in that little apron and something just happened to happen … well, that’s just nature. Old Mother Nature, baby, and we all know she’s no bum. And Wally’s not paid up. Not even close.

Anyway. Last I heard you were up against it. Play your cards right and within a month he’ll be taking you shopping for a divorce.”

“Do you really think I want to be kept?” Mildred asks, shocked by the well-off Lucy knowing so much about the micro-politics of dating for divorcees, shocked by the indignities of her new life. “Yes,” Lucy responds; it’s hard to capture how pragmatic and friendly this line comes across. She’s right: something just happens to happen, and Mildred has to reconsider — again — what she’s doing. Sex isn’t a pleasure or an indulgence or an escape, but yet another burden of complex associations that she must negotiate with care lest they ruin her. When she succumbs, we feel relief and horror all at once.

I hope I’m conveying how dark and profound this show can be; it gets at a nexus of emotions I haven’t seen onscreen before, and it can be brutal. Haynes’ wonderful films are, perhaps, imperfect examples of the filmic art, but I couldn’t care less because they’re so invariably interesting. And the more I watch Mildred, the more I think Haynes is getting at someting important. She’s hopelessly boxed in between her need to protect her children’s futures and some nagging desires of her own — for sex or love, for personal success, for respect. She’s ambitious, even though everyone suggests she shouldn’t be. She’s a sexual being, though she seems to feel she shouldn’t be. Interviewed in the New York Times, Haynes highlights the class elements of this tale:

“The daughter’s ascension represents Mildred’s ultimate goals, but it guarantees that they will have nothing in common,” Mr. Haynes said. “She’s basically sacrificing her to a different class.”

God knows I’d pay to watch Kate Winslet darn a sock, and I love watching her play this role. There’s even a back story in the LA Times about how she filmed it during the darkest days of her divorce from Sam Mendes that may also color my sympathy for her in this part. It’s a very different interpretation of the role than Crawford’s (for that matter, Crawford’s own back story of growing up impoverished and under-educated in Texas and Oklahoma is affecting for very different reasons) and, knowing that earlier film a little, I struggled to reconcile the harried-looking Winslet with the determinedly elegant-looking Crawford during the earliest episodes. See what I mean? You’ve got to set Crawford aside.

It’s worth it. For me, Winslet’s great talent lies in playing women with strong emotions and unpredictable, even eccentric proclivities — I still maintain that her Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) has to be one of my all-time favorite characters. I also can’t forget her first role in the magnificent Heavenly Creatures (1994) as an alienated teenager with a dark, highly sexualized, malevolent streak; it contrasts so well with her turn as Marianne in Sense and Sensibility (1995) or as Rose in the ridiculous Titanic (1997). She’s revived her interest in the dark side more recently with The Reader (2008) and Little Children (2006). As Mildred, Winslet expresses her emotions by showing how hard it’s been to repress them. Those early episodes illustrate her with serious lines on her face, her hair askew. Even her voice, pitched low, seems to exemplify the effort of keeping her emotions under an artifical control. When her business begins to triumph, we can almost feel in her posture how she’s given herself just a little bit of permission to feel some pride.

The LA Times article speaks at length about Winslet’s refusal to enhance herself (Botox, a boob job, etc.), and she’s been outspoken about her refusal to drop to a stick-figure weight. It’s a bleak fact of Hollywood that 25-year-old actresses are regularly instructed to enhance. No one can watch Winslet as Mildred without noting her curves: she has a woman’s body, a real woman’s arms, and she’s breathtaking — I respond to these images not just by feeling simultaneous bursts of desire for her and extraordinary sympathy and recognition.

We know Mildred Pierce can’t end well. In the very first episode, Mildred has returned from her first day of work as a waitress in a diner, which she confesses to her neighbor Lucy. In fact, the realization of what she’d doing for money is so dispiriting that she races to the toilet to vomit. She demands this news be kept a secret from her daughter Veda — she’s just too ashamed. Lucy responds, voicing an opinion we already share about the snooty little prig of a girl: “Veda, if you ask me, has some funny ideas.” Mildred fires back, “You don’t understand her, Lucy: I know she has something in her that I thought I had and now find I don’t — pride, or nobility, or whatever it is.” Oh Mildred, that sentiment is going to bite you.

Mothers and daughters. Pride, nobility, debasement. Wow. I’m riveted — and I’m finding this melodrama deeply cathartic during this, the darkest part of the semester.

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2 Responses to ““Mildred Pierce” (2011)”

  1. servetus Says:

    The LA Times link goes to an NYT article, fyi.

    I loved Kate Winslet in this too from what I saw of it and hearing about its coincidence with her own divorce makes me love her even more.

    • Didion Says:

      Link has been fixed!

      I know what you mean about the extra sympathy re: her real-life divorce. Sometimes I get skeptical when an actor discusses a real-life tie-in to a part — I grew a little weary, for example, when Natalie Portman made such a big deal about getting pregnant after the starvation/misery that was the Black Swan role — but in Kate’s case, I’ll emote on her behalf anytime.


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