HBO’s glossy makeover of ‘Mildred Pierce’ proves a little too faithful to its source material
by Steven Foster
In the original film version of Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford won an Oscar, presumably for stretching herself by portraying a loving mother. But the film took almost insane liberties with the original James M. Cain novel, which made it ripe for a more faithful adaptation from, say, the loving and moneyed hands of HBO. Out director Todd Haynes has previously done “period” with his lush love letter to Douglas Sirk, Far from Heaven, but with HBO’s coffers, he’s able to extend his nostalgic vision to an exhaustive 340-something minutes.
Hence, this Mildred is painstakingly detailed—so much so that you can practically smell the pies Mildred bakes to sustain her family after her husband leaves her in the lurch during the Great Depression. Every artifact, from the square stop signs to the strangling undergarments, is richly reconstructed. Even the dialogue rings of early-America slang. But the relationship between Mildred (an Emmy-winning Kate Winslet) and her shrewish daughter Veda (played with zeal by avowed bisexual love-her-or-hate-her Evan Rachel Wood) is where the detailing becomes excruciating.
Mildred tries desperately to give her daughter a better life, and the vampire-like Veda only craves more. She’s ungrateful, selfish, desperate, and vain. And though Mildred is no victim nor martyred saint per se, she nevertheless seems to take on the traits of an emotional punching bag. The two characters quiver and quake. They fight, they break up. They kiss, they make up. They’re like a Katy Perry song with all the fun sucked out of it. The actresses tear into these roles with glee, right down to the full-frontal nudity they both offer up in typical HBO fashion. But the luxurious pace tends to make the movie drag so much that when Mare Winningham shows up in the Eve Arden role as the smart-mouthed waitress-turned-business-partner, you start wishing the movie was more about her. Winningham kills in the part, as does the handsome Guy Pearce, dangerously appealing as the Pasadena playboy Monty Beragon.
As for the disc itself, the deluxe package is pretty sweet with the usual audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes. And the miniseries itself does have its merits. But where you might imagine yourself going on a couch-marathon bender watching back-to-back episodes of something like Dexter, Mildred Pierce tastes better when savored in small batches. They’re like Mildred’s famous pies—delicious, but you won’t want to eat one whole in a single sitting.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.