New ‘Mil­dred Pierce’ more faith­ful to James M. Cain than Joan Craw­ford


When trim­ming a house­hold bud­get, pre­mium cable is an easy ex­pense to cut. Hold on to your HBO, though.

Its “Mil­dred Pierce” minis­eries, pre­mier­ing tonight and spread out over three Sun­days, is worth it.

Kate Winslet turns in a sub­lime per­for­mance as Mil­dred, a com­plex, fiercely in­de­pen­dent woman. Over the span of a decade dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, she en­dures di­vorce, a hor­rific tragedy and fi­nan­cial blows. Shrewd and a hard worker, she quickly climbs from sling­ing hash to own­ing a small em­pire.

Based on the same char­ac­ter that won Joan Craw­ford an Os­car for her Mil­dred in 1946, this is not a re­make. Rather it’s an un­flinch­ing ac­count of James M. Cain’s novel of the op­er­atic love that Mil­dred has for her daugh­ter, Veda (Mor­gan Turner as a girl and Evan Rachel Wood as a young adult). Winslet is raw and ut­terly be­liev­able. “There were some real strug­gles,” Winslet says one night from Paris, where she’s shoot­ing “Car­nage.” “I would sit in the back of the car and say, ‘I can’t. I can’t. I don’t know how I am go­ing to do this scene this day,’ just be­cause I knew what I was fac­ing.”

Yet for 16 weeks she did, and she’s in prac­ti­cally ev­ery scene of the 5 1/2-hour minis­eries. Though set in the 1930s — and look­ing com­pletely spot-on from drain­boards to cars — this saga could eas­ily play out to­day.

“In 2008, when I read the book, the fi­nan­cial mar­kets were tum­bling,” di­rec­tor and co-writer Todd Haynes says, not­ing the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween that era and this one. “By the end of the year, we were talk­ing about how we would break it (a film) up into parts.”

As he worked, he en­vi­sioned only Winslet in the role.

“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he says.

The rest of the cast is equally im­pres­sive. Re­cent Academy Award win­ner Melissa Leo plays Lucy, Mil­dred’s neigh­bor and con­fi­dante. Mare Win­ning­ham as Ida, a waitress who be­friends Mil­dred, and Hope Davis as the mother of one of Veda’s flings are ex­cep­tional.

Mil­dred’s hus­band and the fa­ther of her chil­dren, Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne), suffers the ef­fects of the De­pres­sion and finds com­fort in some­one else’s arms.

Then there is Monty, whom Guy Pearce (“The King’s Speech”) in­hab­its. Rich and en­ti­tled, Monty meets Mil­dred when he’s her last cus­tomer as a waitress. Their af­fair starts im­me­di­ately.

He’s an ef­fete, highly cul­tured layabout; she’s a blue-col­lar, mid­dle­brow go-get­ter. In bed, they’re per­fectly matched.

Many peo­ple see Monty as a cad, but not Pearce.

“Not to say what hap­pens in the movie isn’t ques­tion­able,” he says re­fer­ring to piv­otal plot points. “I felt he’s a lov­able, charm­ing and adorable guy. He’s so calm and con­fi­dent.”

Monty glides through the so­ci­ety Veda be­lieves she should be in. Even as a girl in an­klets, Veda acts like a de­posed princess. Mil­dred in­dulges Veda, who buys her­self a mink coat at 17 with­out ask­ing per­mis­sion; still it’s never enough.

Noth­ing is for Veda, cer­tainly not Mil­dred’s love, which will be for­ever un­re­quited. Though Mil­dred ad­mires Veda’s mu­si­cal tal­ent, she can’t grasp the depths of her daugh­ter’s abil­i­ties or lim­i­ta­tions.

Un­der the tute­lage of con­duc­tor Carlo Tre­viso (Ron­ald Guttman in a magnificent turn), Veda shoots to fame. He un­der­stands Veda and tells Mil­dred she is “a snake, a b..., a col­oratura.”

“That char­ac­ter al­most killed me,” Wood says of Veda. “The prepa­ra­tion for the film was just as dif­fi­cult, even with the di­alect, the ’30s di­alect, hav­ing to learn opera in three dif­fer­ent lan­guages, hav­ing to learn piano.”

Much of the di­a­logue is from Cain’s spare prose. Haynes laughs as he ac­knowl­edges this was the first time he wrote the word “yegg,” 1930s slang for a safe­cracker.

Such at­ten­tion to pe­riod de­tail ex­tends to each cos­tume.

Ann Roth, an Os­car-win­ning cos­tume de­signer, breaks from work­ing on Broad­way’s up­com­ing “The Book of Mor­mon” to dis­cuss how she tapped her ware­houses of vintage cloth­ing to out­fit the cast.

“It wasn’t enough time to pre­pare,” she says. “It was a very, very big job. I am not sure it shows on the screen. I lit­er­ally had 2,000 ex­tras to dress.”

Ev­ery­thing, even un­der­gar­ments, had to be his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate. “I have to see if the gir­dle was right and not a panty gir­dle,” she says.

Haynes’ vi­sion in­cluded the movie’s pal­ette of browns and tans. Ini­tially, Mil­dred’s wardrobe, keep­ing with her po­si­tion, was just a cou­ple of dresses. As she suc­ceeded, her wardrobe and house grew ex­pan­sive and her life more com­pli­cated.

“One minute you think you have both hands firmly on her,” Winslet says of Mil­dred’s char­ac­ter. “It’s ab­so­lutely within your grasp, and she re­acts to some­thing she wishes she hadn’t done. And she’s so for­ward-think­ing and for­ward-mov­ing. It was a very com­pli­cated part to play be­cause of that.”

Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce star in “Mil­dred Pierce,” de­but­ing tonight on HBO.

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