Based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce tells the story of a middle-class housewife’s struggle to give her children a better life during the Great Depression. Though she finds works as a waitress and begins to work her way up, she also begins to deal with the ambitions of her eldest Veda as their lives turn tragic. The story would eventually become a feature film in 1945 by Michael Curtiz that starred Joan Crawford in the title role, which would win her an Oscar for Best Actress. In 2011, the melodramatic story is told once again into a new medium for a five-part TV miniseries. This time, under the helm of one of American cinema’s great talents in Todd Haynes.
Directed by Todd Haynes with a teleplay by Haynes and Jon Raymond. Haynes’ adaptation of Mildred Pierce is a re-telling of the novel by expanding on the melodrama with the realism of the 1930s. While some might consider the project to be a companion piece of sorts to his 2002 film Far from Heaven. The miniseries is a different take on the world of housewives that Haynes had previously explored in Far from Heaven and Safe. Even as he goes for a grittier yet stylistic approach to the story with Kate Winslet in the title role. Also starring Evan Rachel Wood, Guy Pearce, Mare Winningham, Melissa Leo, Brian F. O’Byrne, James LeGros, and Hope Davis. Mildred Pierce is a sprawling yet evocative drama from Todd Haynes and company.
It’s 1931 during the Great Depression in Glendale, California when Bert Pierce (Brian F. O’Byrne) leaves his home and his wife Mildred after accusations of infidelity. With her two young daughters in the glamorous Veda (Morgan Turner) and the playful Ray (Quinn McColgan), Mildred realizes that she needs work. While her neighbor Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo) helps out along with Bert’s business partner Wally Burgan (James LeGros). Still in 1931, as Mildred struggles to find work in any kind of field. While an employment agent helps her find work, she gets a job offer to work for a maid by a rich woman named Mrs. Forrester (Hope Davis).
Mildred turns her down as she continues to try and find work where during a lunch break, she sees an argument between waitresses as the manager (Mark Margolis) fires one of them. Realizing they’re short, Mildred volunteers for the day as she accepts the job of being a waitress. While she only tells Lucy about the job, she hopes that no including Veda would know about this.
With help from Ida Corwin (Mare Winningham), Mildred succeeds as a waitress as she brings in some money. While things are fine at the restaurant, the only thing the customers complain about is the pie as Mildred brings in pies of her own to help boost things. Realizing that she can make money on her own with her cooking skills, she also learns the ropes of the restaurant business with Wally’s help to start a restaurant. Though Wally reveals that in order for Mildred to have her own business, she needs to divorce Bert. Bert reluctantly does so though he still gets the chance to see his daughters.
Mildred’s secret comes out when her new assistant Letty wear Mildred’s waitress dress. Mildred has a confrontation with the snobbish Veda while revealing the plans she’s having for the restaurant. On the last day of her job as a waitress, a man named Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) arrives as he asks Mildred for a day at the beach in Santa Barbara. Mildred accepts where romance happens between Mildred and the fruit company heir. On the way home, Mildred would encounter tragedy that would change her life as well as her relationship with Veda.
After the family tragedy Mildred faced, she decides to move forward to open her restaurant called Mildred’s. With her maid Letty (Marin Ireland) helping out for the first day, it starts off slow until it grew in that first night. With Ida and Lucy helping out, the first night becomes successful as Monty makes an appearance much to the delight of Veda. With Monty in Mildred’s life and making an indelible impression on Veda, everything seems to be going well. Even as Monty gets a chance for Veda to audition for a prestigious music teacher. Though the audition is a success, Mildred knows that she has to get a top piano for Veda so she can continue to practice.
With Prohibition on its way out and Monty having money troubles, Mildred takes Lucy’s advice to have a little bar in her restaurant. Yet, it’s not enough to deal with Monty’s financial issues while Veda’s time with Monty makes Mildred uneasy. Even as Veda is unimpressed by Mildred’s present while saying things that upset Mildred about Veda’s conversations with Monty. At a rainy night on New Year’s Eve, Mildred confronts Monty about his conversations with Veda along with the fact that she works and he doesn’t.
With Mildred’s becoming a success as Mildred hopes to expand her business, Lucy finds a location at Laguna that would become a place where Mildred would exceed her finances. With help from Wally and Ida, Mildred’s third restaurant at the Laguna becomes another success as she also expands her entrees. After the news of her teacher‘s death, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) tries to get an audition with a famed music impresario named Treviso. Instead, the audition becomes a disaster leading Veda to party with a group of young people.
Mildred is worried about Veda’s partying ways as she gets an unexpected visit from Mrs. Forrester. What Mildred learns from Mrs. Forrester has her worried while she asks Veda what happened. Veda revealed she turned to Wally for help as Mildred learns the realization of what Veda is trying to do. Yet, what is more shocking is Veda’s motivation to do so as Mildred kicks her out. With Veda gone, Mildred focuses on her business yet she longs for information about Veda. Then, she hears the news from Bert that Veda has succeeded as an opera singer.
After learning about Veda’s success and hearing her sing through the radio, Mildred is desperate to contact her. She realizes that Veda’s music instructor is Treviso who is happy about working with Veda though suggests to Mildred to not make any contact with her for her own sake. With ideas of finding a new home in Pasadena, Mildred runs into Monty as they reconnect. Selling her his estate, the two get married as Veda makes a surprise appearance. Though everything seems fine as Veda becomes a big success. Mildred learns about some holes in her finances as it becomes clear what’s been happening. Even Bert reveals what’s been happening as people from her business have tried to warn her about something. It is there that Mildred faces not only betrayal but also heartbreak.
While the original 1945 film was a noir-like melodrama set in the 1940s, it was a very stylized approach to what James M. Cain had originally intended with the book. Under the direction of Todd Haynes, Cain’s story about a woman trying to win the heart of her ungrateful daughter expands into something much bigger and more realistic. Even as Haynes uses Mildred’s struggle early in the miniseries as an allegory to what was going in the late 2000s during the troubled economy. Yet, Haynes and co-writer Jon Raymond delve into the story about this woman’s desperate to succeed in her own times and win her daughter’s heart. Even by going to Cain’s novel and bring in characters that weren’t present or under-utilized in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film.
The relationship between Mildred and Veda is the heart of the miniseries while characters such as Bert Pierce, Ida Corwin, Wally Burgan, and Monty Beragon are more prominent in the book. Even the character Lucy Gessler, who wasn’t in the 1945 film, is presented in the miniseries. With these supporting characters, they bring in their own perspective about the Mildred and Veda relationship though it’s told through Mildred’s perspective.
Since it’s told in nearly six-hours and in five parts, it’s all about Mildred’s progression from a wife whose husband has left her for another woman to struggle on her own. When she eventually takes a job as a waitress so she can raise her daughters. During this time as a waitress, she learns about the restaurant business and with the help of a few people. She starts her own restaurant and eventually succeeds by turning it into an empire. Yet, part of the motivation isn’t to give her daughters the chance to feel secure but also for them to have a very good life. Unfortunately, one of them wants more than that.
The character of Veda is someone that wants ambition and wants to succeed at any cost. When family tragedy occurs in the Pierce family, it does bring Veda and Mildred closer which also serves as Mildred’s reason to want to have Veda around her. Instead, Veda becomes more ambitious and falls for Monty’s lifestyle. The chance to play music and later, become a singer is Veda’s chance to not only leave Glendale but also leave the mother who she feels is holding her back.
With the relationship of the two progressing throughout the duration of the story, there comes various people involved that would look at this relationship. The one person that would help create the divide in the two is Monty. Monty is a rich playboy who likes to live a lifestyle that he can afford, at first. By the time his own finances dry up, he goes to Mildred for money as she takes care of him. Instead, his own time with Veda would be the breaking point as they won’t see each other for a few years. When he does reappear, he would be responsible for the reunion between Mildred and Veda. Yet, that wouldn’t last as he would create the problems Mildred would face the near-ruin of everything she’s worked for. What’s even worse isn’t just betrayal but also an indication of how foolish she can be.
Part of Mildred’s fault is her ability to try and please others such as Monty and Veda. Yet, they take advantage of her hospitality making Mildred into a tragic figure of sorts. Even by the miniseries’ climatic moment is where she finally reaches her breaking point following everything that has just happened to her. The ending of the miniseries isn’t as stylish as Curtiz’s film but it’s an indication of what Mildred has learned and realizes in the end.
The teleplay by Haynes and Jon Raymond succeeds in not only the character study of Mildred Pierce as well as other characters. They succeed in also creating the environment of what was it like during the Great Depression. Through Haynes’ sprawling yet stylish direction, he creates something that is not just reminiscent of 1970s cinema. He also brings a contemporary approach to the story while retaining the language of the 1930s. Yet, Haynes is always having his camera interested in what is going on with Mildred’s world and through the people around her.
There are scenes throughout the miniseries where Mildred is looking around whether she’s inside a car or at a restaurant looking around. It’s as if she’s is feeling detached by the world around her. Even as Haynes understands what Mildred is going through with her life. Even as the story progresses, she becomes more refined while is awaiting to be reunited with Veda. The scenes where Veda performs an opera is truly captivating as it’s shown not just from Mildred’s perspective but also in how Veda is displaying those emotions through her singing. It’s not just Veda singing to her mother where it seems like she’s being grateful underneath all of that performance is a young woman becoming more detached from the woman who tried to give her everything.
Haynes’ direction truly succeeds in creating a feeling of detachment while bringing new life to the world of the Depression in California though it’s mostly shot in the state of New York. The look of the 1930s during the Depression might not seem as decayed or in ruins but rather a period where people are struggling while trying to get things moving. Even as he creates wonderful shots and camera movements to get into the emotion of the story. Even as he ends each part with some sort of cliffhanger as the end of the first part really shows a great example of what is happening. The result is truly a magnificent miniseries helmed by one of American cinema’s great filmmakers working today.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman does a superb job with the miniseries’ gorgeous photography. Lachman plays up the sunny yet dreamy quality of many of the miniseries’ exteriors that gives it a Californian feel. For many of the interiors, Lachman brings in an amazing array of lighting schemes whether its to reflect sunlight against the glass in some scenes or creating a mood for what is happening. Lachman’s photography is truly exquisite as it is definitely the highlight of the miniseries’ technical work.
Editors Alfonso Goncalves and Camilla Toniolo do a phenomenal job with the editing of the entire series. With Goncalves on the first two parts, Toniolo on the third, and both doing the last two parts. The editing works in playing up to the drama and uncertainty about Mildred early in the story. Even as presents the story in a leisured yet methodical pacing while not making it too slow. While it’s length works as a miniseries which allows each part to be separated at over an hour each. The editing also works to convey the intense melodrama that occurs throughout the miniseries as it is definitely some fine work.
Production designer Mark Friedberg, along with set decorator Ellen Christiansen and art director Peter Rogness, does a great job with the recreation of 1930s California from the look of the restaurants and homes that characters lived in. Even with the cars as Freidberg and his team do something that is truly spectacular with the period setting including the grand scenes for the opera. Costume designer Ann Roth does a spectacular job with the costumes for the miniseries. Roth’s costumes plays up to the evolution of Mildred’s character from a middle-class woman struggling to find work to a woman with lavish clothes running a business. Even with Veda’s clothes early as child with someone wanting top-class to a much more grander style of clothing to represent her narcissistic personality.
Visual effects supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster does a very good job with the minimal sound effects to enhance the look of 1930s America along a few shots for some of the driving scenes. Sound designer Leslie Shatz does an amazing job with the sound work for the miniseries. From the way cars sounded back then to the surroundings Mildred would encounter throughout duration of the miniseries along with the homes she lives in. Shatz’s work is truly stellar in the way she allows the sound to intensify the dramatic elements of the miniseries.
The score by Carter Burwell is truly wonderful for the way Burwell plays up to the melodrama as well as the period of the music. Creating a score filled with lush arrangements and orchestral flourishes that is bombastic and also understated to play up the drama. Even with something as plaintive as a piano to help play to Mildred’s complex emotions. Music supervisor Randall Poster helps with the soundtrack by creating a mix of 1930s pop music at the time, notably I‘m Always Chasing Rainbows that serves as Mildred‘s sort of theme. Poster also selects varied classical opera pieces for Veda to play with vocals by Sumi Jo to serve as Veda’s voice. The music overall is fantastic as it’s another highlight of the miniseries.
The casting by Laura Rosenthal is definitely top-notch with the array of people that appears throughout the entire miniseries. In small but notable appearances include Paul Sparks as an agent trying to get Veda to New York City in the fifth part of the series, Mark Margolis as the diner boss, Miriam Shor as a diner waitress, Elvy Yost as Mildred’s secretary in the latter part of the miniseries, Halley Feiffer as one of Mildred’s waitresses, and Marin Ireland as Mildred’s maid/assistant Letty. Quinn McColgan is very good as Mildred’s youngest daughter Ray who provides all of the warmth and playfulness that anyone could ask for in a kid. Hope Davis is excellent in a small but pivotal role as Mrs. Forrester, a rich woman who snidely offers Mildred a job in the first part only to return in the fourth when she confronts Mildred about Veda.
Mare Winningham is great as Ida Corwin, a diner waitress who helps Mildred run the restaurant while being the person who tries to warn Mildred about the finances. James LeGros is wonderful as Wally Burgan, a businessman who occasionally sleeps with Mildred early in the series to help her start a business while being the man who would make decisions that baffles Mildred. Melissa Leo is phenomenal as Lucy Gessler, Mildred’s best friend and confidant who helps her run the restaurant business while trying to warn Mildred about Veda’s behavior. Brian F. O’Byrne is extremely impressive as Bert Pierce, Mildred’s first husband who leaves for another woman only to become a supporter of her and one of the few people she trusts. O’Byrne truly brings an everyman quality to Bert who is kind of a sap but a guy that is sympathetic as his own relationship with Mildred in the progression of the story becomes one of the most interesting as O’Byrne really shines.
Guy Pearce is amazing as Monty Beragon, the charming playboy who wows Mildred with his tastes as he helps her succeed. Yet, Pearce also brings a devilish quality to Beragon as he is someone who is more brutish and also lazy as a guy who just likes to live a lifestyle that he can’t really afford. It’s Pearce at his finest as he and Kate Winslet have some wonderful chemistry whether they’re in love or hating each other. For role of Veda Pierce, two actresses play the character in two different age groups. For the younger Veda, Morgan Turner is superb as this young, ambitious little girl who scoffs at the idea of the working class while being very spoiled. Turner adds a smugness to that character that makes her someone that anyone would love to hate. Yet, it’s a remarkable performance from the young Turner as it’s really a set-up for what will Veda become as a teenage girl/young woman played by Evan Rachel Wood.
Evan Rachel Wood gives, what is probably the best performance of her young career so far. Not only does she make Veda more unlikable, she makes Veda into a monster that anyone wishes would be dead. Wood truly brings a very dramatic flair to her character by being a bit over the top and also bringing the idea that she is a talented singer/musician in the way she mimics things. By the time the story progresses and she becomes larger than life, Wood definitely has moments she nearly steals the scenes from Kate Winslet including a nude scene that is one of the most infuriating moments of the miniseries. It is definitely a break-out performance for the young Evan Rachel Wood.
Finally, there’s Kate Winslet in what is definitely one of her greatest performances of her career. In playing the titular character, it is a very different performance than the one Joan Crawford gave in the 1945 performance. It’s stripped down and also very direct about a woman struggling to bring security to her young daughters and to succeed on her own terms. Winslet brings a real weariness to her character while her physicality in the way she reacts to things is just startling. Even as she has a great rapport with her fellow actors including Evan Rachel Wood where the two have great scenes together about their troubled relationship. While it may not be her best performance of her career, it is certainly among one of her best in an amazing career.
Mildred Pierce is a spectacular yet mesmerizing miniseries/melodrama from Todd Haynes featuring a towering performance from Kate Winslet in the title role. Along with some fantastic supporting work by Evan Rachel Wood, Morgan Turner, Guy Pearce, Melissa Leo, Mare Winningham, and Brian F. O’Byrne. It’s definitely a story that really plays to its sense of ambition and heartbreak. While it may not be as overly stylized as Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film, it is definitely a more realistic take on James M. Cain’s novel though both have the same idea. While it is a long story to watch, it is told in the right medium as a miniseries as Todd Haynes truly went all out for this story. In the end, the 2011 miniseries of Mildred Pierce is a dazzling yet intense project from Todd Haynes.
Todd Haynes Films: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story - Poison - Dottie Gets Spanked - Safe - Velvet Goldmine - Far from Heaven - I'm Not There - Carol - Wonderstruck - Dark Waters (2019 film) - The Velvet Underground
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