Ambitions Meet Quiet Noir In 'Mildred Pierce'

Evan Rachel Wood and Kate Winslet embrace in a scene from HBO's new miniseries, Mildred Pierce.

Evan Rachel Wood and Kate Winslet embrace in a scene from HBO's new miniseries, Mildred Pierce. Andrew Schwartz/HBO hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Schwartz/HBO

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.

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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.

Kate Winslet stars in HBO's Mildred Pierce, from director Todd Haynes. i i

Kate Winslet stars in HBO's Mildred Pierce, from director Todd Haynes. Andrew Schwartz/HBO hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Schwartz/HBO
Kate Winslet stars in HBO's Mildred Pierce, from director Todd Haynes.

Kate Winslet stars in HBO's Mildred Pierce, from director Todd Haynes.

Andrew Schwartz/HBO

"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.

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