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.
Haynes oversaw a meticulous re-creation of the book’s middle-class milieu and its costumes and domestic interiors. The miniseries’ luxurious time frame lets audiences sink into Pierce’s world of pie baking, chicken cooking, and Scotch drinking. (That last one was shown in detail in the original movie, which glossed over the entrepreneurial spunk that yielded Mildred’s eponymous restaurant chain.) Though daughter Veda is still full of rage, as played by Evan Rachel Wood, she is a more grounded presence than you’d expect given the actress’s scenery-chewing as Sophie-Anne, the vampire queen of Louisiana, on True Blood. “I loved her on Once and Again,” recalls Haynes of Wood’s subtler performance in her first TV series.
Unlike some of his fellow directors, Haynes is not an “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” snob. “I love television,” the New York–based filmmaker declares. “I mean, there are so many great shows, do I even have to mention them? Mad Men, Six Feet Under…right now I’m addicted to The Good Wife.”
Pierce takes a complex view of mother-daughter relationships. “I think Mildred’s need for approval from her child is something that every mother does feel, whether it’s a daughter or a son, actually,” says Winslet, herself a mother of both. “And with Veda being this determined, defiant creature, so out of Mildred’s grasp… I think that in Veda, Mildred saw her own disappointments, like little pieces of Mildred kept dying every time she saw how brilliant and wonderful and rich Veda was.”
It’s a dynamic Haynes was eager to explore. “The perils of separation and the devouring of mothers and daughters by each other is innately dramatic,” Haynes says. “Maybe gay men can understand that, like women, more than straight men. But,” he adds, “I hate making these categories.
“I think female subjects remain the most colorful because women play this object in historical posturing, and particularly in changes in status and class,” he continues. “Women play that out in how they dress and behave. Think of our moms and how they register social standing. Who we’re supposed to be as a family is determined by the physical manifestations and values of the mother—my mom, certainly.” As women change their hair and their clothes, he says, the cultural cues shift.
Not to take anything away from the Crawford film, but Haynes’s approach is a more nuanced examination. Interestingly, Crawford herself is going through a bit of a reassessment lately, thanks to a biography, Possessed, by Donald Spoto, which contradicts the image cultivated by Mommie Dearest, just as Haynes’s project prompts a reconsideration of Crawford’s finest film. Cain’s nearly forgotten masterwork is a deeply felt story filled with more melancholy than rage, about an ordinary woman who makes her circumstances extraordinary.
“Mildred creates this dynasty, this little empire of productivity out of romantic and familial frustration and yearning,” the director explains. “So there’s no clean character, there’s no one uncontaminated, there’s no Joan Crawford in this movie who’s going to come out completely clean — it’s a very different story.”
As if on cue, Jeff Klein, the owner of the Sunset Tower Hotel, comes over to say hello (Klein’s fiancé, John Goldwyn, was a producer on Haynes’s I’m Not There). “I cannot wait for Mildred Pierce,” Klein gushes sincerely. “It’s my favorite movie ever.”
“I hope you like it,” Haynes replies. And without missing a beat, adds: “It’s very different.”