Drew reviewed the first three episodes of HBO’s ambitious ‘Mildred Pierce’ miniseries last week, and was pretty much over the moon for it. The final two parts aired this past Sunday and, when all is said and done, I don’t think I’m quite as enamored with it. Did any of our other readers watch this? What did you make of it?
First, let’s get the recapping part of this recap out of the way. Parts 4 and 5 of the miniseries jump the story forward four years, to 1937. During that time, Mildred’s daughter Veda has somehow aged about 12 years and is now played by Evan Rachel Wood. Meanwhile, no one else appears a single day older. Veda is still a spoiled bitch, in fact more now than ever. Pampered with all the luxuries her mother can lavish on her, she nonetheless plots and schemes to leave her bourgeois life (and especially her mother) behind. This includes attempting to blackmail a richer family into believing that their son knocked her up. (She’s not really pregnant.) When Mildred finds out about this, the two of them have a huge blow-out. Veda storms out of the house, vowing never to speak to her mother again.
Mildred of course can’t bear the thought of being without her precious angel, and tries time and again to get in touch with the girl, to no avail. During this time, her business has flourished, and now extends to a franchise of three restaurants and a dedicated pie bakery. She winds up getting back together with layabout Monty (Guy Pearce), and moves into his ridiculously oversized mansion. Mildred pours a ton of money – too much for her own good – into refurbishing the place, and pays more attention to it than to Monty himself. Regardless, they get engaged. Mildred desperately wants her daughter to come to the wedding.
Veda has, remarkably, managed to make something of herself after all. Although not as talented at the piano as everyone had hoped, it turns out that she’s a dynamite singer. In no time at all, she’s an up-and-coming opera superstar, with diva attitude to match her diva voice. Monty convinces her to come to the wedding and patch things up with her mother. Soon, Mildred focuses all of her energies (and all of her money) into Veda’s career. To keep up with her many personal expenses, she starts siphoning money from the business.
Before long, the business is in trouble. Mildred’s lawyer Wally (James LeGros) stabs her in the back and organizes a hostile takeover with her creditors. After consulting with her ex-husband Bert (with whom she’s on good terms again), they decide that it’s about time Veda started pitching in. After all, she’s making the astounding sum of $500 a week now. Why shouldn’t she contribute her share? But they have to act quickly to stop Wally. Mildred races home to fill her daughter in, only to find – to absolutely no one’s surprise but her own – that Veda is in bed… with Monty! They’ve been having an affair right under her nose. Veda lays out the cold hard reality to her mother in particularly heartless fashion.
Mildred flies into a rage and attacks the girl, nearly strangling her to death before Monty can pull her off. Veda races downstairs, stumbling and gasping, before choking out a hoarse yelp and collapsing. She’s alive, but Mildred has apparently destroyed her voice.
We next catch up with Mildred a few months later. She’s divorced Monty, remarried Bert, and moved back into the old house. She’s been ousted from the business, but has no hard feelings for former partner Ida (Mare Winningham) taking over. Ida and Mildred’s best friend Lucy (Melissa Leo) throw her a surprise party and suggest that she may still be able to keep her pie business going on her own.
Veda turns up. She says that she’s forgiven her mother. Her voice is recovering, and she’s moving to New York. It takes Mildred a minute, but she eventually pieces together that Veda’s been faking her throat injury to get out of her current lower-paying contract in California, so that she can accept a higher-paying gig in New York – and finally get away from her mother once and for all. Mildred blows up again. She screeches at her daughter to get out of her life and never come back, a demand with which Veda is more than happy to comply. To calm her down, Bert sits Mildred down at the bar in her first restaurant, tells her that their daughter is nothing but trouble, and says that they’d be better off forgetting all about her. He puts a drink in her hand, and the miniseries ends with the peculiarly anticlimactic final line: “Let’s get stinko.”
OK, so, with all that out of the way, why am I disappointed in the miniseries? To be fair, I was with it for the first couple of episodes. It was a bit slow-moving and not much happened, but the period detail and costumes were pretty great. I like most of the performances. Kate Winslet is of course very good, and I have to say that Melissa Leo is a hell of a lot better in this than in that crap movie she just won an Oscar for. Yet by the time it all wrapped up, I really felt that there just isn’t enough story here to justify a five-hour investment. Drew ended his last recap by saying, “If you don’t know the story and found the first few sections a little snoozy, hang in there. The shit is most definitely about to hit the fan.” But the last two episodes hardly pick up the pace or drama at all. There’s very little fan-hitting.
I have to admit to having no familiarity with the James M. Cain novel this is based on. I saw the 1945 Michael Curtiz movie years and years ago, and vaguely remember liking it, but can’t recall too many specifics about it, other than its heavy film noir atmosphere (completely abandoned here) and Joan Crawford’s showboating performance. This miniseries may well be more faithful or respectful to the book, but geez, where’s the fun?
What story there is, isn’t all that special. Sure, you can argue that this is supposed to be the epic tale of a woman struggling to seize a piece of the American dream for herself. That’s all well and good, but what it really basically boils down to is the story of an ungrateful brat and her clingy mother, with a bit of personal betrayal and marital infidelity thrown in. The whole thing culminates in a ‘Dynasty’-style catfight that’s just kind of silly. This is soap opera stuff, not the makings of a major event prestige production.
I get that this is supposed to be melodrama with a capital “M.” My recollection is that the old movie embraced that with abandon. I think the biggest problem with the new one is tone. Even though most of the plotting here is pure pulp, director Todd Haynes plays it so very seriously, as if there’s supposed to be real dramatic weight to this fluff. Until the very end, he and Winslet dial the histrionics way down – too far down. When the screeching and slapping do finally come, they feel so out of place. I can see that final line being a perfect ironic kicker to a hard-boiled noir. But here? “Let’s get stinko”? From this Mildred Pierce’s mouth? It just sounds ridiculous.
I know that Drew is a big fan of Haynes. I can respect that, but I could go either way with most of the director’s work. I could appreciate what he tried to do in movies like ‘Safe’ and ‘Velvet Goldmine’ on an intellectual level, but neither film worked for me narratively or emotionally. (I hardly thought it possible that anyone could make the ’70s glam rock scene seem so boring as ‘Velvet Goldmine’ did.) I’ve admittedly never seen ‘Far from Heaven’, which most critics describe as his masterpiece. It was obviously that movie that got him the job here, being that he suddenly had a track record for doing period piece melodrama. Still, he approaches this material from too much of a remove (as he had in his early films). This feels like an exercise that he’s trying to study, not a story or characters that he’s actually invested in.
The climax of the miniseries features a startling exhibition of full-frontal nudity from Evan Rachel Wood. This is supposed to be a jaw-dropping moment (certainly not the sort of thing they could have put in a movie in 1945). Even here, the moment is undercut by the fact that we already got a bunch of steamy nudity out of Kate Winslet back in episode 2 (and frankly, Winslet is a lot nicer to look at naked than the skeletal Wood). It’s almost as if Haynes pre-emptively sabotaged what should have been the most shocking scene in his own movie. ‘Mildred Pierce’ is rife with issues like this. It’s a handsomely mounted production, but it just doesn’t come to anything in the end. “Let’s get stinko,” indeed.