Saturday, September 1, 2012
Fragments from the Past: Crawford vs. Winslet in Mildred Pierce
I started writing this essay over a year ago and never finished it despite the fact it is probably my best piece of writing. At the time, I was bogged down with depression and other fun stuff and just never had the gumption or clarity of mind to finish what I started. Though I could add a lot more to the essay now, I am in a totally different mental realm than I was just a year ago and don't think I could capture the same angry spirit I had then. I'm just too damn happy! So, I've decided to post what I have and hope you like it.
When I think of the women's picture genre, two films automatically come to mind: Bette Davis' Cinderella-inspired Now, Voyager and Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce. Though it's not a reliable adaptation of the James M. Cain source novel, Mildred Pierce cracks through the male-dominated film noir genre like a piece of broken mirror on a pulsing wrist and reveals the bloody veins, meat and tears of American female ambition and desire. By adding murder to the mix and toning down the sex and homoerotic, incestuous vibes, the classic adaptation demonstrates what women will (and had to) ultimately do to get ahead in a man's world.
In the Kate Winslet version, no such murder takes place, which makes for a less defining classic women's picture and more of an intriguing cultural document about ‘30s living and suffering. Todd Haynes & Co. nail the great depression décor of Glendale, CA and create one of the more faithful adaptations of any novel ever brought to the screen. However, that's partially the problem with it. Haynes' analytical approach to filmmaking often hatches robust yet robotic characterizations that make his narratives far less humane than they ought to be. Both his Sirk/Fassbinder homage, Far From Heaven, and Bob Dylan essay flick, I'm Not There, suffered because of his starchy methods and Mildred Pierce, his most touchy-feely effort to date, isn't left unscathed either.
More like Jeanne Dielman than a '30s starlet vehicle, Haynes' grueling, nearly six hour long mini-series is an endurance test in feminine misery. Unlike Crawford's Mildred, Kate Winslet's Pierce never experiences a single moment of awe-inspiring righteousness - an element that golden age Goddesses (and Gods, for that matter) like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis thrived on. Women’s pictures were designed to lift their stars up to the cinematic heavens where audiences could worship their plights and delights, no matter if they were wrong or right. With both Haynes’ glacial craftsmanship and the lack of personal righteousness in contemporary film culture (we have character actors and flavors of the week, not Goddesses or even movie stars anymore), Kate Winslet’s Mildred lives in a constant void of negativity, no matter how hard she works or how much she wants to persevere.
Crawford's characters may not have always “won” in the traditional sense, but they always persevered. That's who she was on screen and that's the ideology at the core of her films, even when it concerns murder. As I mentioned earlier, the main difference in plot between the miniseries and original film is a dead body. The first half of both versions are very much the same: Mildred kicks her deadbeat husband out of the house, starts her own successful restaurant/pie business, has a fling with and eventually marries a playboy named Monte (Zachary Scott & Guy Pearce) and vies for the love and appreciation of her demon spawn daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth, Morgan Turner & Evan Rachel Wood). However, in the Crawford version, Veda murders Monte with a rage of bullets because he scorned their love affair after Mildred discovers them in the act. Despite everything, Mildred agrees to take the blame for Veda and tries to convince the police she's actually the murderer.
Maternal sacrifice is no stranger to the women's picture genre. Flicks like Stella Dallas and Madame X get most of their glory from the idea that a mother is willing to give up everything (dignity, love, motherhood, etc.) to help her child have a happy life. Joan's Mildred wants to be Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, but she can't because she's Joan Crawford and that's just not done in a Crawford film. No if's, and's or but's. Can you imagine Joan Crawford crying on a rainy sidewalk feeling sorry for herself? I don't think so. Cain wanted his story to be a parable of the Great Depression and how greed and too much success can ruin a person's life. Crawford's Mildred is only greedy and successful enough for her own satisfaction, no matter what she might say about trying to help her darling Veda.
Though she might have accomplished everything under a maternal guise, the classic Mildred rose to the top of her field to ultimately become the Joan Crawford we know and love. She wears the great clothes, fools around with the handsomest of men and blue collars her way out of the kitchen and into owning her own business at a time when the majority of American males were unemployed. When Monte, Veda and Mildred's male business partners try to hornswoggle Mildred out of her money and career at the end of the film, she allows the situation to play itself out and wins the women's picture jackpot: she gets to keep her business because Monte died, gets rid of Veda because she killed Monte and winds up looking like a Saint because she tried to take the blame for the murder.
By 1945, Joan Crawford had been acting in movies for twenty years. Mildred Pierce is the role she's best remembered for, with good reason, but that performance and that character is the culmination of two decades worth of shop girls, stenographers and factory workers fighting their way out of the lower class and transforming into successful women. Crawford herself also had to fight like hell to become the movie star we know today. She was Mildred Pierce to a certain extent. Love her or hate her, few people can legitimately argue that Crawford wasn't extraordinary when she played within her range. Kate Winslet is a more versatile actress, but her Mildred fails to capture the biting fury that Crawford – righteously – bleeds into the character. Even with her sacred movie star persona, Crawford represented working class women on screen in a way that no other actress has since. Michael Curtiz (the '45 MP director) might not be as artistically minded or as talented a filmmaker as Todd Haynes, but he worked with enough Gods and Goddesses to know when to step back and marvel.
Kate Winslet fits Cain's idea of the character to a T. She's voluptuous, sexy and has the perfect spring in her step for a working girl. Much like my Grandmother who has spent the majority of her life bent over a conveyer belt at a canning factory or hunched over a kitchen stove, Winslet physically embodies Mildred's painful body perfectly. Her entire physique reeks of practicality; everything from her sturdy, duck-like walk in chunky heels to the staunch, stiff way her shoulders and back seem to arch from the pain of wearing those heels in the kitchen day-in and day-out. At the beginning of the miniseries, these character attributes are played to her advantage because they aid in her confidence to get out of her kitchen and get paid for starting a professional one. She looks like a rock star as she gracefully maneuvers from the restaurant kitchen to greeting her customers in the dining room. However, after success sets in and Mildred starts fraternizing with the upper crust, her blue collar backbone fails to elude her and singles her out as a common carnation in a corsage of orchids. Joan Crawford possesses the spirit of Mildred Pierce, but Kate Winslet owns the mind and body.