BY Ari Karpel
March 09 2011 5:00 AM ET
The 1945 movie Mildred Pierce opens on a beach house at night. Gunshots ring out from inside, where a moustachioed, tuxedoed man clutches his chest. As he falls to the floor, he moans weakly, “Mildred!” A door slams, and a car peels away.
So begins one of the great films noir of the first half of the 20th century. Mildred Pierce is a murder mystery cum women’s picture (as they were termed at the time, a vague precursor to today’s chick flick) in which Joan Crawford plays a headstrong businesswoman bent on doing anything to protect her even more headstrong daughter, Veda.
The film was a major comeback for Crawford. She’d recently escaped the shackles of her MGM contract and turned in a riveting, steely performance that laid a lifetime (and beyond) of camp cred on her padded shoulders and restored her box office stature. Mildred Pierce earned the controversial actress her only Academy Award (she was nominated for Best Actress twice afterward, for 1947’s Possessed and 1952’s Sudden Fear). She didn’t attend the ceremony, but, as depicted in her daughter Christina’s chronicle of life with a monstrously abusive mother, Mommie Dearest, she listened on the radio and invited the press into her bedroom for interviews after she’d won.
Mildred Pierce and Joan Crawford — two larger-than-life figures — are ineluctably linked in the gay cultural canon. Which is why the moment word of a Mildred Pierce remake was reported, online commenters started tossing out phrases like “gay sacrilege.”
So let’s take a deep breath and step back for a moment to consider the facts: The 5½-hour Mildred Pierce miniseries coming to HBO March 27 is not a remake of the Crawford movie. Rather, it is a new adaptation of the 1941 novel, which is vastly different from the first screen version it spawned and is a left-behind classic in itself.
First of all, there is no murder (cue melodramatic music!). “The biggest thing in the [original] movie is the murder,” says Christine Vachon, an executive producer of the don’t-call-it-a-remake. “You take the murder away from the movie, there is no movie.”
Take away the murder and you have James M. Cain’s original book, a stunningly ahead-of-its-time depiction of a strong, independent, and sexual divorcée struggling to fulfill her own career aspirations so that she can make a great life for her daughter — all set against the backdrop of the Depression in Southern California (the Crawford movie was set in the 1940s and ditched the more meaningful considerations of class mobility).
“She is incredibly modern,” says Todd Haynes, who cowrote and directed the new Mildred Pierce. Haynes first made his mark on the cultural map with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a 43-minute retelling of the life and death of the anorexic 1970s singer, acted out by Barbie dolls. A hit at film festivals in 1988, it was pulled from circulation when Carpenter’s brother, Richard, won a copyright infringement lawsuit against the film, condemning it to a future of bootleg house-party viewings and renegade YouTube postings.