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Mildred Pierce (Blu-ray Review)

9 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$39.98 two-DVD set, $49.99 four-BD set
Not rated.
Stars Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood, Melissa Leo, Brian F. O’Byrne, James LeGros, Mare Winningham, Morgan Turner, Hope Davis.

Without even attempting to sail Titanic into any kitchen pantry discourse, you’d have to say that there isn’t a whole lot in Heavenly Creatures or Holy Smoke or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Little Children or The Reader or even the domestic scenes in Revolutionary Road to help us envision the prospect of Kate Winslet cracking eggs into bowls while fashioning those widely acclaimed homemade pies mom used to make. Especially now that we have a case where Winslet is actually playing a mom who’s ladle-friendly (and long-suffering to boot).

Which is to say that despite the actress’s Emmy-winning performance (and Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries of the James M. Cain novel got 21 nominations in all), Winslet couldn’t have been anyone’s knee-jerk casting choice for the famed title hard-knocks restaurateur here. Yet by the time all five-and-a-half hours of this miniseries have elapsed, many or most should concede that she has met enough of the challenge to add even more heft to her filmography in the career long run. And besides, despite all those blue-collar roles she excelled in during her early tenure at Louis B. Mayer’s MGM, who automatically thinks of Joan Crawford as someone who could have baked pies for profit during the Depression/Prohibition era? Wouldn’t Joan have exploded if she or anyone else had splattered even microbe-sized batter on her floors?

But as it famously turned out, MGM terminated Crawford’s contract in 1943 by mutual consent, and the first screen version of Mildred Pierce reinvented the actress two years later as Warner Bros. tough-broad royalty, often in film noir vehicles that are more fun than ever to watch today. Taking more liberties with Cain’s novel than Haynes’ version does, the original movie was packed with the kind of hard-boiled noir showmanship that its producer (Jerry Wald) and director (Michael Curtiz) knew how to put across, helping to win Crawford the Oscar for best actress. Haynes’ marathon travels a Southern California road that is much closer to Cain’s, and the beauty of the two screen projects is that they in no way compete with each other — even though a lot of old-school viewers wondered if Haynes really reaped three-and-a-half hours’ worth of fresh material out of all the extra time it took him to tell the story. This version has it detractors — but on the other hand, I’ve noted it on some year-end critics’ best lists devoted primarily to theatrical releases. On balance, it really kept me going for the duration without quite knocking me out, despite an explosive and then wistful wrap-up that I found extremely satisfying.

At the heart of the story is the still-true degree to which parents bust themselves for their children, often without getting thanks in return. With a younger and incomparably sweeter daughter deceased in childhood and a marriage gone affably bust, someone has to pay the rent during the Depression. Mildred knows pies and parlays her flair into a baker’s business arrangement at the eatery where she waitresses — all to the class-conscious disgust of daughter Veda (with child actress Morgan Turner eventually morphing into Evan Rachel Wood). If Veda isn’t quite the psychopath from birth that the title character is in the presently in theaters We Need To Talk About Kevin, she still offers (from the very beginning) a persuasive brief for the glories of corporal punishment. Even though humble Glendale proved good enough in real life for the formative years of John Wayne, it isn’t good enough for Veda. As in the novel but in not the Crawford version, this snobbish little snit has the loftiest of artistic ambitions. And if it turns out that she hasn’t the stuff of a concert pianist (her initial hope), she does have the pipes to make it as a classical singer. By the time the story is over — and this was true as well of Ann Blyth’s less-talented Veda in the Crawford version — you’ll want to give them one of those Frank Sinatra/Henry Silva karate chops from The Manchurian Candidate.

The production benefits from good supporting casting which includes two actors who are not just right for their roles — but also reasonable physical approximations to their screen antecedents from the mid-1940s. As the somewhat shifty land expert who helps Mildred find real estate for the restaurants she launches, James LeGros (at least by this point of his career) likely has the same waistline Jack Carson would have had if the movies had ever shown him without a shirt. And if you’re looking for someone to approximate the romantically freeloading lounge lizard look that the original’s Zachary Scott almost always had, slapping a mustache on Guy Pearce is a good way to go (and Pearce won an Emmy to go along with Winslet’s).

Even 10 months after this miniseries’ original airing, Winslet is still a smashing 36 in real life — which means she was probably an early 35 when playing someone who had already had substantial part of her life get away. So even if Haynes & Co. had to de-glamorize the actress as much as possible to portray a working single mom in the girdle era, one interesting side issue here is the sense we get of the limitations a still attractive Mildred apparently has in the choice of men. This is one of the things I prefer about this version — as well as the look this epic gives us of creeping oceanic land values as America crawled out of the Depression up to a point just before the onset of World War II. Otherwise, there’s a lot to say for the Curtiz version in terms of speed and economy, two words you’ll never hear anyone use about the Haynes approach — on which the filmmaker (with varied associates) elaborates on during each episodes individual commentaries.

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