Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Mildred Pierce: Masterpiece in the Making

The critical consensus on the Todd Haynes Mildred Pierce HBO miniseries that began on Sunday night (and continues for the next two weeks) is that it’s slow and plodding and unimaginatively faithful to a corny and old fashioned book. The critics unanimously prefer the 1945 movie, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and starring Joan Crawford (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). The black and white film zips right along, they agree, not despite but because of the drastic changes wrought by Curtiz and a team of screenwriters that included an uncredited William Faulkner. They gutted the first half of the story and threw in a lurid murder to keep things moving. I guess they thought that Mildred’s story just wasn’t compelling enough to stand on its own, and today’s critics seem to agree.

For my money, they’re all wrong, all the way down the line.

I’ve only seen the first two parts, which take us about 125 pages into a roughly 300 page novel, but so far it’s spectacularly good, rigorously faithful to the James M. Cain novel yet visually gorgeous and flawlessly cinematic. There’s a general sense in Hollywood that being overly true to a n adapted book doesn’t work. Film versions of books as diverse as 1984 and The Great Gatsby and Sophie’s Choice seem to bear this out. But Cain was made for the movies. His dialogue snaps like a starched shirt in a stiff breeze. The blistering exchanges in the miniseries come directly from the book without one word altered. This exchange with Mildred’s neighbor Mrs Gessler, for instance, on the subject of Mildred’s recent divorce:

“I don’t know. I feel as though I’d picked his bones. First the kids, then his car, and now the house and -- everything he’s got.”

“Would you kindly tell me what good the house would do him? On the first call for interest he’d lose it, wouldn’t he?”

“But he looked so pitiful.”

“Baby, they all do. That’s what gets us.”

With her husband gone, Mildred needs a job and winds up working as a waitress. Her real skill is cooking – she sells pies and cakes out of her house. But she can’t make enough with small time catering to support her two children, Moire (called Ray) and Veda. Ray is a little spot of sunlight and the girl who plays her in the miniseries, Quinn McColgan, is fresh and funny and delightful She seems like an actual child, without the crust of precocious self-awareness that hinders so many other professional kids. Ray doesn’t even appear in the original film, so there’s no comparison to make in her case. But the rest of the cast shines in comparison to their predecessors. Guy Pearce as Monte Beragon makes his dissipated playboy both sad and glamorous in a way that Zahary Scott never managed. But of course the real casting coup of the new version is Kate Winslet.

Winslet is the opposite of Joan Crawford: where Crawford was cold, Winslet is warm; where Crawford was self-contained and calculating, you can see every emotion rising up inside Ms. Winslet and blooming on her face. You were a little scared of Joan Crawford; you fall in love with Kate Winslet -- and that makes all the difference.

This passion and transparency sharpens the scene where Veda confronts her mother about her job. Veda, a blithe arrogant little snob at age eleven, has given her mother’s waitress uniform to their house-keeper. The cruel, baiting justification: it couldn’t be Mildred’s, so why not give it away and put it to some use? They fight, Mildred spanks her, they both apologize and then you literally see the idea forming behind Winslet’s eyes, as Mildred realizes, in a dangerous flash of inspiration, the only way to win back Veda’s respect: she’ll start her own restaurant. Veda loves the idea; she knows there’s money there, and nothing else matters to her. Mildred is on a roll: she took the waitressing job to learn the business –- it’s research! And the funny thing is – she has learned the business. Watching Mildred become a skilled waitress has its own specific exhilaration. The second installment of the mini-series begins with her practicing the art of carrying four plates at once in her bedroom , her own plates weighed down with stones.

I hesitate to say more about the story itself, since despite the critical rap that the show is slow paced and uneventful, the first two hours feature a wild cascade of events, some thrilling, some tragic, with the highs and lows sometimes only moments apart. But events are just the superstructure, the rebar of plot. We care what happens to Mildred and her daughters because of the vivid characters, rendered through crackling dialogue, profoundly nuanced performances and meticulous direction. Todd Haynes shoots much of the movie through window glass or reflections in mirrors, keeping us at a crucial distance. We need to step away from the tragic parabola of Mildred’s life, it’s so much like our own – as lovers, as lonely divorced people, as parents, as workers struggling with an economy just like the one in the film. It’s eerily familiar that Mildred’s husband made and lost his fortune in a housing bubble grotesquely similar to our own.

We’re only two fifths of the way through the story. If Todd Haynes can maintain this level of passion and artistry and I suspect he can (Veda is about to grow up into a truly appalling Evan Rachel Wood), then HBO will be successful – Emmys for everyone -- and I’ll be happy. We’ll have a new version of record to replace the trashy Michael Curtiz version. And best of all -- James M. Cain would be proud.

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