The Misconstrued Virtues of Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce

Image courtesy of HBO.

**** (out of 4)

In 2011, Todd Haynes, the filmmaker behind Far from Heaven and Carol, directed Mildred Pierce, an HBO miniseries that’s decidedly more faithful to James M. Cain’s original novel than Michael Curtiz’s well-known film version. For those who aren’t familiar with any version of Mildred Pierce: the titular character is a middle-aged California woman (played by Kate Winslet) who divorces her cheating husband (Brían F. O’Byrne) and becomes a successful restaurant owner during the Great Depression. Her life, however, is ultimately ruined by her daughter Veda (Morgan Turner, Evan Rachel Wood), a spoiled and spiteful opera singer who manipulates her, insults her, and eventually sleeps with her second husband (Guy Pearce).

When Haynes’ adaptation was first released, it received a fair amount of acclaim, and Winslet went on to win an Emmy for her performance. But the miniseries also attracted a lot of criticism for two big reasons. First, many critics thought that the miniseries was unrealistic, particularly with regard to its depiction of Mildred and Veda’s relationship. In a review for USA Today, for instance, Robert Bianco complained that the miniseries was “operatic” and illogical, calling Veda “ludicrously…ridiculously shrewish” and Mildred unbelievably “sightless.”

Its implausibility aside, Haynes’ adaptation was also criticized for being slow. In a review for Newsweek, the author Stephen King noted, “I think [James] Cain would marvel at the [miniseries’] acting and production values, but roll his eyes at the [miniseries’] plodding pace.” Similarly, The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman questioned the miniseries’ “very slow pacing,” asserting that “you begin to wonder when events will accelerate.”

All of these criticisms are understandable. But they ultimately misconstrue the intentions and thematic interests that guide Haynes’ direction. On the one hand, accusations of an unrealistic mother-daughter relationship miss that the miniseries is a melodrama that views this mother-daughter relationship as primarily symbolic. And criticisms about the miniseries’ slowness ignore the ways in which that slowness actually gives us insight into character psychology.

Image courtesy of HBO.

Let’s start with the criticism about Haynes’ depiction of Mildred and Veda. On the most general level, claims that any part of Mildred Pierce is unrealistic are beside the point. Far from being a careful work of realism, after all, Cain’s original novel was a melodrama that unabashedly made use of implausible plot turns and theatrical-sounding dialogue. When you consider that Haynes’ adaptation copies Cain’s dialogue almost verbatim – and, for that matter, that Haynes himself is kind of a specialist in melodrama – it’s clear that this miniseries ought to be thought of as a melodrama as well. In that sense, suggesting that Mildred Pierce should be more plausible is like saying that Singin’ in the Rain shouldn’t have featured songs because people don’t sing in real life.

Beyond this general misunderstanding of genre, moreover, criticism specifically targeting Mildred and Veda’s believability rests on a misguided assumption. It assumes that the miniseries’ primary interest is – or ought to be – the relationship between the two women in and of itself. In other words, it presumes that Mildred Pierce is a narrative oriented towards the personal, a story that treats its characters and their particular stories as final ends.

This assumption, however, neglects an important feature of melodramas. Then and now, melodramas aren’t usually interested in the characters per se. Rather, melodramas frequently treat their characters as symbols. Instead of taking them literally, in other words, the viewer is invited to see the characters’ stories as allegories, vehicles that the director uses to discuss larger issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class.

For the purposes of clarity, here’s a quick example of what I mean by all of this. Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life follows a man who goes haywire after taking too many cortisone pills. If you analyze the film as a literal depiction of pill addiction, you’re bound to find it “vapid” and “pitiful” (to quote then-New York Times critic Bosley Crowther). Yet the film arguably wasn’t going for a literal depiction of addiction in the first place. Instead, the film uses this addiction narrative as a metaphor for analyzing – and critiquing – American consumerism and traditional notions of masculinity.

Image courtesy of HBO.

In keeping with this metaphorical tradition, Mildred Pierce sees Veda and Mildred’s relationship as a tool for understanding larger economic and social issues in 20th-century America. Specifically, the miniseries’ metaphorical intentions are neatly illustrated by two scenes in the final episode. In the first, Mildred and her ex-husband Bert have a crucial conversation about Veda while standing in front of a closed-down oil field. Later, after Mildred and Veda have one final, relationship-ending argument, Mildred runs past the empty premises of Pierce Homes, a failed business of Bert’s, and enters her restaurant, which has closed down due to bankruptcy.

In both of these instances, Haynes’ choice of setting proves apt. By setting key turns in a broken mother-daughter relationship against the backdrop of failed businesses, Haynes implies that the former is just a particular, emblematic manifestation of the latter. In a way, in other words, he subordinates the story of Mildred and Veda, suggesting that it’s merely symbolic of a broader narrative about the American Dream’s fragility and the era’s economic and social anxieties.

This subordination makes it clear how we should interpret Haynes’ depictions of Mildred and Veda. Far from being a maternal figure we should take literally, Haynes’ Mildred is best seen as a figurative embodiment of the self-conscious, competitive mentality of middle-class social climbers. Similarly, instead of interpreting Veda as Haynes’ attempt at realistically rendering a spoiled daughter, we ought to see her as a representation of such social climbers’ insecurities vis-à-vis economic and social status.

The upshot of this entire analysis, then, is that critics who found Mildred and Veda’s relationship unbelievable failed to grasp Haynes’ intentions and interests. This miniseries is not a work of realism but a melodrama – and as a melodrama, it has larger, allegorical ambitions that aren’t necessarily served by believability. To attack the show’s treatment of Mildred and Veda – or, for that matter, any other part of the show – as unrealistic is to ignore how Haynes uses outwardly implausible characters and narrative turns to make a broader critique of middle-class American values.

Image courtesy of HBO.

Meanwhile, in order to understand why it’s actually a good thing that Haynes’ miniseries is slow, we should first establish why it seems slow in the first place. While none of the aforementioned reviewers mentioned this explicitly, I’d say that Mildred Pierce’s apparent slowness stems from its cinematography. Even during the narrative’s most dramatic moments, Haynes relies on long takes, to the point that the overall miniseries’ average shot length (~8 seconds) is significantly longer than that of typical blockbusters (~2-3 seconds). In terms of how it moves, moreover, the camera often relies on tracks and pans that are extremely smooth and very gradual in pace.

Generally speaking, the value of this cinematography derives from the feelings it evokes. By virtue of their smoothness, for one, the camera’s tracks and pans all project a sense of calm and elegance. Crucially, however, these smooth movements never feel relaxed or uninhibited. Rather, their pace and trajectory always seem very tightly controlled, as though the camera were resisting the urge to break out into sharper, more agitated movements.

The significance of these controlled movements becomes clear when you consider what Mildred is like as a character. Throughout the show, Mildred is depicted as someone who’s very concerned about her image and reputation. In fact, her fixation with outward façades is the main subject matter of the miniseries’ first episode, in which she repeatedly turns down jobs that she believes will make her look disreputable.

In this sense, the film’s camera-induced slowness is Haynes’ way of illustrating a key component of Mildred’s bourgeois worldview. Through its smooth yet noticeably constrained movements, the camera illustrates her desire to construct and maintain an elegant façade, even if she has to repress her class and status anxiety in the process. The overall miniseries may consequently feel plodding. But an adaptation with fewer long takes and faster movements wouldn’t have done as good a job of depicting Mildred’s – and, since this is an allegory, middle-class Americans’ – obsession with respectability.

Image courtesy of HBO.

One final observation. Despite the criticism it received, Mildred Pierce did garner significant praise for its meticulous rendering of 1930s California. In his aforementioned review for Newsweek, for instance, Stephen King had plenty of negative things to say about the miniseries, but he nevertheless stated that “The Depression-era set decoration is perfect, and you get to appreciate all of it because Haynes lingers on each stucco bungalow, each deserted seaside road, each overdecorated Beverly Hills manse.” In an equally laudatory vein, Dan Callahan noted in Slant Magazine that “Mark Friedberg’s production design is marvelously suggestive; the series envelops us in the 1930s, and…[provides] an all-encompassing notion of what it might have been like to actually live in California then.”

What’s missing from this well-deserved praise, however, is any acknowledgement of the insularity of the miniseries’ depiction of 1930s California. The town that Mildred lives in, Glendale, is portrayed as a pristine suburban paradise. But just looking at it, you wouldn’t know that, in reality, Glendale was a sundown town. Or that the town is just a short drive away from a migrant labor camp that famously featured in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Or that, as Ira Katznelson illustrates in his book Fear Itself, the 1930s were a decade in which many people seriously believed that the American model of liberal capitalist democracy was on the verge of collapse.

In this sense, there’s a subtle irony to Haynes’ portrayal of Glendale that critics largely overlooked. By intentionally omitting so many important, discomfiting details about the time period and region, the miniseries suggests that people like Mildred lived in a bubble, a bubble that was worlds removed from the reality of many other Americans. Beyond its merits as a direct depiction of 1930s California, then, Haynes’ miniseries also obliquely showcases the extent to which 20th-century white Americans blocked out serious sociopolitical problems.

Image courtesy of HBO.

***

Mildred Pierce (2011, HBO)

Starring: Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood, Melissa Leo

Running Time: 336 minutes (5 episodes)

Produced by: Todd Haynes, Christine Vachon, John Wells, Pamela Koffler, Ilene S. Landress

Written by: Todd Haynes, Jon Raymond. Based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel of the same name.

Directed by: Todd Hayness