A Tale of Two Mildreds: The Evolution of Mildred Pierce on Film

Reed Maroc

The main thing Mildred Pierce cares about is her imperious daughter, Veda. She’s better than everybody. You don’t even have to believe it — she believes it enough for you. In the Joan Crawford version, you’re left to guess why this snooty creature hovers superior over the strapped 1930s neighborhood around her, and why long suffering Mildred spoils her rotten. Willful and haughty as a girl, Veda grows up vicious and mean; and although you accept it in the original movie you really aren’t given a chance to understand it. Director Todd Haynes, with several additional hours to tell the story in his sumptuous HBO version, reveals the connection James Cain created between Mildred and Veda and this bizarre behavior. Mildred, ordinary nearly to the point of invisibility, longs to be what Veda is: self-confidently superior to the riffraff around them; and like a demented stage mother Mildred makes her own choices in order to give Veda what Mildred wishes she were given. The idea that leads to Mildred’s greatest success is the result of nothing more than her desperation to not look inferior in Veda’s eyes. We may see Mildred as self-sacrificing and Veda as selfish to the core, but Mildred believes they’re the same. And therein lies the crux of Mildred’s sympathy for and support of Veda’s ambitions.

The stylish 1945 classic is the epitome of Warner Brothers noir — wisecracking and backlit as sharp as Crawford’s shoulder pads. This new, fuller story takes us further into the heart of the evil and greed and betrayals that the original story only hinted at — and shows us that there are reasons for all the foolishness, and because Mildred’s strengths and failures are a real woman’s, her despair is pain we understand.

And there’s more, something that brings the story from then to now in a way that’s almost mesmerizing. Along with some really fine performances (in addition to the top-billers, Mare Winningham and recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo are quietly spectacular), Haynes gives us a chance to compare Great Depression–era Americans with our own Great Recession selves. And I’m not so sure we measure up, not yet anyway. Mildred is utterly unable to take a lowly servant’s job, the thought mortifies her, angers her, just saying it out loud makes her throw up. She resists, though her feet bleed and she counts coins for paltry meals. Relinquishing her middle-class delusion that she doesn’t have to put up with being spoken down to is a bitter pill. But she swallows because she must. She’s pushed, and harshly, to do hard menial work and do it well, incompetence is unacceptable — there are others who’ll gladly take the job. When she meets the challenge, it becomes her gateway to success, and we watch as she and others around her demonstrate the authentic work ethic and pride and generosity, and grittiness and humor and hope that we came to identify as American. From the perspective of our own Great Recession of unemployment and foreclosures versus corporate megaprofits, watching how Americans found gumption in necessity back then is nearly otherworldly. Nearly. But that is us, it’s where we come from, it’s somewhere in our DNA.

And always there’s Veda; then, now, always. That’s why she’s the center of Mildred’s story. Selfish, maybe even sociopathic, with Mildred working her knuckles raw right beside this masterpiece of manipulation, glorifying her, encouraging, protecting. That’s what many of us do when Veda comes along, and Mildred Pierce shows what it costs.