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.