HBO’s “Mildred Pierce”: My Review

Many people who see “Mildred Pierce,” Todd Haynes’ five-part HBO miniseries (premiering March 27) about a housewife from Glendale who kicks her husband out of the house and kicks herself into entrepreneurial gear, will not have the burden of having seen the original movie, a 1945 classic that won Joan Crawford an Oscar. They won’t miss the black-and-white cinematography of the original, its sepia shadows defining film noir in stunning architectural terms. I did miss those compositions; Haynes’ Technicolorish version will impress neophytes as lush, just as his red-and-yellow remake of “Far From Heaven” seduced moviegoers with fashionable hues in 2002. I expected to long for both the original look and for the original star. But in fact there were long stretches of the HBO version where I forgot about Crawford completely. Not just because because Kate Winslet, who plays Mildred here, is an engaging enough actress to banish thoughts of Crawford’s mannish shoulder pads, but because in one crucial respect the two actresses are so alike that thoughts of one dissolve into thoughts of the other: they are both bulldozers.

Better than any other Oscar winner of our time, Winslet, 35, embodies the get-out-of-the-way quality that prompted someone in “Queen Bee,” one of Crawford’s 1950s menopausal melodramas, to say, as the matriarchal star left the room, “Whatever it is, it’s on wheels.”

Such fierce, neurotic drive gives Winslet sufficient power to make it through scenes that aren’t especially well shaped. (Haynes wrote this adaptation of the original James M. Cain expertly potboiling novel with Jon Raymond.) With her waved hair and crepe print dresses, she is more glamorous than Crawford, which makes her transformation from cake-baking housewife to coins-grabbing waitress more difficult to swallow. But she has much more time in a miniseries to develop the character, and provide an up-from-the-gutter portrait of Depression-era America that is inspirational to viewers while tapping into our own current hardships.

No living actress could provide the HBO version with the zing that Eve Arden, as Mildred’s restaurant mentor, gave the 1945 movie. (In our era, the self-deprecatingly witty best friend tends to be played sassy-gay, so let’s be grateful that Sean Hayes or Rupert Everett didn’t get the part.) As the new Ida, Mare Winningham immaculately embodies her name: she’s a winning ham. She charmed me more quickly than did Oscar F-bomber Melissa Leo, who plays Mildred’s buck-up-girl neighbor, Lucy Gessler. The men, meanwhile, are more consistently dead-on in their portrayals. Brian F. O’Byrne is startlingly good as Mildred’s first husband, Bert, he of the weakness for Mrs. Biederhof. (I, too, have a weakness for Mrs. Biederhof, or at least for the actress who did her in the 1945 movie: Lee Patrick, whose characterizations in two 1950s classics – a tough lesbian inmate in “Caged” and the daffy Doris Upson in “Auntie Mame” – display range that Meryl Streep can only dream about.)

As for the two performers who share billing with Winslet on all the promo posters, Guy Pearce and Evan Rachel Wood, what can I say other than that they at least look the parts. That’s too harsh on Pearce: as Monty Beragon, the penniless aristocrat who marries Mildred but “squires” her daughter, Veda, Pearce is admirably oily. Wood has yet to win me over in any role, a streak unbroken here. She confuses nostril-flaring with haughtiness. And she’s dainty when she needs to be sly. Seeing her as an opera singer instead of a gams-flashing saloon songbird is the wrong kind of camp.

If the ensemble isn’t of the consistently shiny quality of the 1945 version, the miniseries does provide Haynes, whose masterpiece in my book remains “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” with his widest canvas yet. He shows himself not just a visual magician and a grand-scale artiste but a keen observer of class differences. You know, those differences we supposedly don’t really have in America. Hah!

3 Comments to “HBO’s “Mildred Pierce”: My Review”

  1. Anything with Melissa Leo in it has to be superb! Give her a break! If you did not like her performance, say so! Tell us why you did not like her. To refer to her as “Oscar “F” bomber, Melissa Leo,” is funny, but hardly worthy of a review. Are you a critic or a comedian?

  2. This is an adaptation of the book (which you clearly have not read), not a remake of the movie. So your comparisons to Crawford and your complaints that Veda becomes an opera singer, etc., aren’t particularly fair or relevant.

  3. The casting is amazing, and especially getting to see Mare Winningham in a supporting (but should be starring) role…. should be sublime.

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