As much as I love the original 1945 version of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, this new 5-part HBO series starring Kate Winslet offers a much more nuanced and accurate psychological portrait of a troubled mother-daughter relationship.
While the cult classic gives us a relatively innocent, devoted mother-as-doormat, abused and manipulated by her ruthless daughter, this new mini-series shows that a bad seed like Veda is created not born.
Joan Crawford’s Mildred certainly over-indulged her daughter; but in Todd Hayne’s faithful adaptation of the original novel by James M. Cain, Kate Winslet’s character shares and supports many of Veda’s grandiose fantasies and secretly craves the very aristocratic style of life that Veda feels is her due. This new Mildred also harbors a great deal of disowned rage and a ruthless will to have her own way, “carried” and enacted for her by daughter Veda.
Winslet’s Mildred Pierce is a divided character: on the one hand, she’s a responsible women, baking pies at home for extra money, determined to do whatever is necessary to support herself and her children when husband Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) walks out on them. On the other, when snotty Mrs. Forrester (Hope Davis) treats her condescendingly during a job interview, she becomes increasingly angry and offended, finally walking out on the interview with barely concealed rage.
At first blush, this might seem like pride and self-respect: Mrs. Forrester, after all, is an offensive snob. But Mildred (with no work experience that we know of and no job-related skills other than cooking and homemaking) also feels it to be a terrible humiliation when she later takes a job as a waitress.
This was the era of the rising middle-class. World War I had changed the economy forever and altered social relations, lifting many people out of domestic service; in a certain light, Mildred’s attitude makes sense because to wait tables represents a a kind of social regression. During the scene where she confesses to neighbor and good friend Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo) that she has accepted this job, she feels so upset and overwhelmed with shame at the idea of wearing a uniform and taking tips that she finally throws up. (For a discussion of how purging can be use for the purpose of emotional regulation, click here.) No-nonsense Lucy gives Mildred a pep-talk, telling her what’s obviously true: Mildred is in a jam and has no choice but to take this job because she’s broke; besides, Lucy adds, “nobody pays attention to that uniform stuff any more.”
Mildred makes Lucy promise not to tell the children. “I just can’t have them knowing anything about it, Veda in particular.” Lucy’s expressive face shows what she thinks about Veda, who “if you ask me, has some peculiar ideas.”
“You don’t understand her,” Mildred objects, with intense emotion. “She has something in her that I thought I had and now find I don’t. Pride or nobility or whatever it is.” Here we have the psychological issue in a nutshell: Mildred once believed she had something inside of her, what’s she’s calling pride or nobility, but now Veda must carry it instead and live out Mildred’s dreams for her. Lucy sees Veda for who she really is. She wouldn’t stoop to the level of waitressing or baking on the side but she’ll let her mother “do it for her … and eat the cake” too.
At the end of Episode One, Mildred insists that this is exactly what she wants, for both her daughters. “Not just the bread, but all the cake in the world.” To have “all the cake in the world” sounds rather grandiose. This a middle-class family, and yet Mildred aspires to something that sounds almost aristocratic.
Teenager Veda (Morgan Taylor) shares this aspiration. She’s pretentious, affected and condescending, not so very different in tone and manner from the snooty Mrs. Forrester. She complains to her mother about how things have deteriorated financially since their father moved out: “One might think that peasants had taken over the house” — as if she were to the manor born.
She forces the hired help Letty (Marin Ireland) to address her as “Miss Veda,” walk ten steps behind them whenever they go out and carry their bags for them. Veda later snoops in her mother’s closet and finds the hidden waitress uniforms, forcing Letty to put one on. When Mildred finally admits with obvious humiliation that she’s a waitress, Veda sneers at her. After slapping Veda for disrespect, Mildred explains that everything Veda owns and wears costs money, sounding almost as if she’s pleading with Veda rather than chastising her.
Veda replies, “Aren’t the pies bad enough? Did you have to go and degrade us by becoming a waitress?” Mildred erupts in a rage, violently spanking Veda; she feels humiliated and ashamed, unbearably so because she actually agrees with Veda. Not only does Veda carry all of Mildred’s aspirations, but she also expresses the contempt Mildred herself feels for her line of work.
The rage that comes boiling forth is a reaction to unbearable shame, but also an expression of Mildred’s resentment over her own frustrated longings. “You don’t ever give me credit for any finer feelings, do you?” she tells Veda. “The truth is, I felt exactly the same as you.” Like her pretentious daughter, Mildred feels she was meant for something better; like Veda, she loathes herself and her contemptible job. Though they so often seem to be at odds, mother and daughter actually feel exactly the same way.
Mildred’s longing for a life more aristocratic becomes clearer once she meets wealthy Pasadena socialite Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce). He’s handsome and charismatic, but it’s really when she learns that he doesn’t do any kind of work but simply “loafs” that her interest deepens. “Don’t you ever want to do something?” she asks, but doesn’t sound disapproving. “Why should I?” he replies and kisses her (followed by one of several racy sex scenes between them). In the very next scene, after she shows him her about-to-open restaurant, Mildred tells him, “I guess I’ve sort of fallen for you, Monty.”
In Mildred and Veda’s world, Los Angeles during the 1930s, Monty is as close to an aristocrat as they are likely to meet; mother and daughter both fall in love with him.
[This review continues in Part Two]