Essay on HBO Mini-Series Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet.

September 5th, 2011

James M Cain’s 1940’s novel Mildred Pierce is better known as the 1946 movie that won Joan Crawford an Oscar in the title role.

Classic film noir, its half-lit sets, full-lit close-ups, lop-sided shots and menacing music re-made Cain’s story – opening it with a murder and ending with a jail sentence for Mildred’s daughter, Veda.
This was more than sensationalism – the censorship code of the time required that wrong was seen to be punished. So if you drop in a murder, you automatically create a simple crime and punishment story. The novel is more complex and upsetting. It is the novel that has been faithfully re-made by Indie director Todd Haynes as a six-hour period drama starring Kate Winslet.


Whenever a book/movie classic gets the re-make treatment, the question to ask is why now? Is this a nostalgia piece or a zeitgeist moment?
Set in the 1930’s Depression/Prohibition California, the story begins as mouthy Mildred nags her once prosperous, now busted husband Bert, into the arms of an easier woman.
Desperate to pay their mounting debts and support her two girls, Mildred gets a job as a waitress. She discovers she can use her pie-making skills to supply first her employer’s restaurant and then open her own.
This is Can-Do America with a twist. The twist is in the gender. In the same week that Mildred has the first satisfying sex of her life and opens her first restaurant, her youngest daughter dies of a fever. The child is rushed to hospital while Mildred is spending the night away from home with handsome, aristocratic, dangerously broke playboy, Monty Beragon ‘Where were you?’ accuse the neighbours and relations, oblivious to the fact that Mildred was finally having a weekend off, leaving the kids safe with their grandparents.
Husband followed by child is a heavy punishment for doing not much more than opening your mouth and opening your legs. Is the drive to control women is as fierce now as it ever was?
Slutwalking, gathering speed across the western world is the new feminism’s version of Reclaim the Night We’re fighting for the same freedom – yes it’s about dress and sexuality, but ultimately it’s about being women in our own right, unafraid of and uncensored by male attitudes.
The Dominic Strauss-Kahn fiasco is not about one man – it is the usual mix of power and money (male) versus commodity and contempt (female). The defense lawyers now want to ‘unpick’ the woman’s background. In Italy, Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga parties, the teenage lovelies, the cash, are more than Mafia-style extravagance, they are savage gender-politics.
African maid or Moroccan dancer, stay at home woman, loyal wife. This is the everlasting Madonna/Whore split – really a split in the male brain – that allows men to use women, whether for sex or for chores, excitement or support, and blame the woman when she sees things differently.
Mildred rejects the split. Her success as a cook – the nurturing, feeding female – keeps the Madonna part of her intact, even as she plays freely with the three men in her life, and uses her sex-appeal to marry Monty. Like nearly all women Mildred is Madonna and Whore and presents both aspects positively. What happens is that both aspects are turned into negatives against her. She can’t win.
Sounds familiar? Women are now supposed to be independent and empowered, but the Madonna/Whore binary has morphed into Princess/ Pornstar. The biggest celebrities in the world are Kate Middleton and Lady Gaga. One has re-invented the princess trope as aspirational – find a rich man and live happily ever after, while the other has made a Faustian pact with sex and money – and set it to music.

As Mildred becomes more successful, her bad romance with Monty alienates her snobbish daughter Veda. Monty and Veda gang up on Mildred in an unhealthy mocking relationship that will have shocking consequences. Mildred’s third loss/punishment is the one every mother fears; her daughter, a cold social climber, comes to despise the mother who has done everything for her. 

Many women watching Kate Winslet’s interpretation of Mildred will feel the close pain of the sado-masochistic battleground between Veda and her mother. Mildred expiates her own guilt about sex, and her doubts about success, by providing whatever her horrible child wants, and believes she deserves the recriminations and the misery she receives in return. That Veda really does have a gift and becomes a famous soprano doesn’t alter the dynamic between them. ‘Hurt me’ is the sub-text of Mildred’s love for her daughter.
The troubling picture here is that only a bitch like Veda can be successful in the world and get her man, without self-doubt and punishment – and Veda is not punished – she makes off with everything, including Monty.
Heartening though, in the new TV version, is the friendship between women that allows Mildred to succeed and later to help other women economically survive. This is against the stereotype of women as jealous and competitive. This positive message is timely. I believe that women are inclined to be supportive of each other, but media irresponsibility conspires against it. Every other gossip story is of women betraying women – usually over men, often at work. The huge network of support that women offer each other is not newsworthy.

 Women need images of ourselves as loyal – not because we aren’t, but because we are.
As Mildred starts to lose her business as she drains it of cash to support the insatiable Monty and Veda’s maw, she discovers that her daughter and her husband are sleeping together. Monty’s yelling defence is that once again Mildred has emasculated her man – making him help around the house in return for his ‘kept’ status. Mildred has destroyed Monty’s ego – and if you Google Ten Reasons Why Men Leave Women you will find this high on the list – though not in the number one slot – that happens when a woman sleeps with another man. Number 10 is letting yourself go – and in the novel, though not of course in the Winslet version, the one thing Mildred has gained is the pounds. Yes, she’s fat.
At the end of Mildred Pierce, like some medieval morality play, Mildred is back where she started in the suburban mortgaged house, the restaurants gone and the mansion with Monty sold. One daughter is dead, the other has killed any hope of a relationship. Mildred has even remarried Bert, now cast as the steady male Madonna type to Monty’s whore-like orgy of cash and sex.
Mildred Pierce is not a ‘housewives’ drama; it is a frighteningly modern analysis of a woman’s struggle with social expectations, sexuality, family, success. How little things have changed.