haven’t I given you everything

by Megan Abbott

It is with complicated feelings that I anticipate the upcoming HBO production of Mildred Pierce. (Of course, I don’t have HBO, so it will be an attenuated anticipation.) Supposedly, it’s a more faithful adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel than the 1945 film, impeccably cast with Joan Crawford at her best (both warmer and funnier than she’s ever remembered), Ann Blyth, sly and impudent and magnificent.

And I particularly love the superb Jack Carson, an actor so often stuck in the role of the wisecracking sidekick, parts he made memorable anyway, including with his famed doubletake. Here, he hits the perfect sweet spot of sleazy warmth, a combination for which I’ve always had a weakness. (Recently, I’ve had several conversations about Carson–about his immense capacity to teeter just slightly towards the rancid edge of true sordidness, and pathos. If only he’d had lived long enough to have a part like Gig Young in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Think of how dark he may have let himself get…)

As much as I love the original Mildred Pierce, however, I am not so enraptured with it that a remake seems verboten. My larger worry stems from my deep love of the book. (For a wonderful homage to the book, see Laura Lippman’s piece here, or in A Hell of A Woman.)

For those who know it, the book is an impossibly fascinating study of a woman’s rise in the restaurant business during the Depression. Cain, a master storyteller, tells a too rarely told tale, how a woman, under perilous circumstances (a ne’er do well husband, two daughters to support, about to slip from middle class to the dangerous nether-zone of underclass) makes herself into something quite powerful. And the pleasure it gives her, such as when she makes her first shy pitch to Wally, who will become her business partner:

They have steak places. And fish places. And I thought — well, down where I work practically every other order is for chicken, so it looks to me as though we ought to have plenty of customers. And then I wouldn’t have to fool around with those a la carte prices, or bookkeeping, or menus or leftovers, or anything like vegetables. Everybody gets a chicken-and-waffle dinner, or chicken and vegetables, if they want, but all at the same price. And then I’ll have pies to take out, and keep on getting all the wholesale pie business that I can, and — well, it looks like one would help the other. I mean, the pies would help the restaurant and the restaurant would help the pies.

As Cain does with the insurance business in Double Indemnity, Cain renders Mildred’s efforts with a reporter’s touch for fine detail, the ways Mildred has to maneuver property, handle wholesalers, manage her staff, all while making sure that meringue is two inches thick. The giddiness of Mildred’s pleasure when she sees her first showcase installed, brightly lit with reflectors gleaming on her pies. Her glorious pies. Which will be worth the expense, reflectors at seven cents a piece, wire at ten cents, sockets , screws and plugs for about a dollar. A couple bucks investment, “but it ought to sell pies.”

pies (wayne thiebaud/NY Times)

And it does. Moments like these, moments when Mildred’s restaurant door clangs with entering customers, when she realizes she can expand, her pride is lovingly rendered by Cain.

All this pleasure in the book without even getting to its dark center: the sordid weirdness of Mildred’s twisty relationship with her rotten daughter.

It’s a wonder of a novel, and filled with minute domestic details and the stuff of everyday living, including its everyday raptures, guilt and grief. But the HBO trailer, it worries me.

It looks sumptuous in the way that Todd Haynes’s movies are sumptuous–ways I love (I know Far From Heaven is a divisive movie but for me–I love Douglas Sirk, I love Todd Haynes’s love of Sirk, I love the whole autumn plastic wonder of it.)

But this is not a book I associate with sumptuousness, or the ambery 1930s of so many period pieces. This is, after all, a novel that ends with the line, “Yes–let’s get stinko.” It’s a book about chicken grease and aprons and the gas bill and the delivery truck, all the things the ungrateful Veda detests about her mother’s world. And it’s a tale of mothers smacking daughters and the routine unforgivable betrayals within families that break and rebreak the spirit of everybody and turn them hard. It’s about fighting for every little thing and it never being enough. It’s the best part of domestic melodrama–and Cain, the hardboiled master, does melodrama superbly–no surprise if you think about it. (Crime novels and melodrama have so much in common, primal emotion stretched to its wire-tight limits, battering against social constraints, the law itself. Often exploding into violence.)

That said, I remain hopeful. In a recent interview, Todd Haynes said the most wonderful thing.  Asked about why he’s attracted to melodrama, often derided as “women’s pictures,” he said:

Stories about women in houses are the real stories of our lives.

20 Responses to “haven’t I given you everything”

  1. Great piece, thanks for posting. I share both your reservations about the series and love of the book. I’m pleased it’s Todd Haynes, however, and have hope it’ll be an interesting interpretation. And that is indeed a wonderful quote…

  2. Wow, you are a good writer, Megan.

  3. I have some reservations myself, as I’m a huge fan of the Joan Crawford version, as well as the novel. It’s exciting to see a noir classic get another life, with a large production budget. That said, no one touch Double Indemnity, please.

  4. Thanks, Laura, and Jason!
    I know I should reserve judgment, Haynes is so talented (not to mention the cast)—funnily, J, they shot some of it in Forest Hills!

    • Trying to think of RECENT film adaptations of books I love that worked…you guys have any faves? Not talking about classics like Hitchcock’s REBECCA but recent films…I’m coming up with BLADERUNNER but then that’s like what 1981?

  5. hey Megan! As Jason says reading anything you’ve written is always a treat.

    Yeah if you’re concerned that this remake is gonna be too silky and rich I’m sure you have good reason to be. I have had the great pleasure of working with Todd (did music for VELVET GOLDMINE) and he’s a brilliant and extremely deliberate director. I love his quote, that’s so great!!! But the man does like things to look gorgeous (and why not if you’re making a film) so I think you can forget about the chicken grease….plus HBO does a good job with most everything but I’m sure would want this series to be expensive-looking and sexy to insure people watch it.

    The remake is going to be a totally different thing. Which is kind of good when it comes to remakes, it’s always better when the source material is rethought as opposed to just recreating an older film, even if it doesn’t wind up fulfilling our vision of the source material, at least there’s an attempt at a new approach.

    And if you look at it the 1945 version, it’s relatively grease-free as well…

    always tough with film adaptations of books one loves no matter what the genre, films will always have to fulfill some baseline requirements in order to justify the expense of making a movie, vrs literature which isn’t beholden to such stuff

    • Love, love Velvet Goldmine–all Haynes’s work. But this seems a case of a tricky match (not as ill conceived as DePalma and Ellroy, but..). The original movie is not faithful either, and I like it on its own terms, but I do think that there are at least two kinds of melodrama–the glamo-dripping ones (and the Sirkian, ironic variations on them) and the chicken grease ones. And this is definitely chicken grease, and that’s what gives the book its beauty. It’s a book fascinated by everydayness, and feels no need to elevate it or make it grand because it rides on its own fascinations. Let’s get stinko, indeed!

  6. You know, I thought chicken & waffles were an African American tradition! So interesting that they were mentioned in the original Mildred, which I assume takes place in a pretty white world (I haven’t read the book). Where does the book take place? Megan, I am dvr-ing the whole series so you can watch when you come visit!!

  7. So-Cal!! Glendale, in the first section (later, Pasadena, Malibu)

  8. My primary concern about this new version is its running time. Lately it seems like filmmakers have forgotten what the word “adaptation” means. Cain had objections to the 1945 film, which grafted a noir plot onto a book that was an express effort to move away from that kind of story, but in many ways the movie is a marvel of economy while remaining true to the source material. This fetishizing of fidelity irks me.

    As for Jack Carson, three words: The Hard Way.

  9. Yeah, Vince, THE HARD WAY! Not to be confused with the Michael J. Fox/James Wood buddy movie (!!!). I love Jack Carson in THE HARD WAY… he was in sweet dope mode there. He could do the sweet dope (sometimes tragically sweet, as in THE HARD WAY) AND the slimy opportunist. What a strange couple of specialties to find in the same guy! He’s the best.

  10. Wouldn’t he have been great as Sidney Falco? but c’mon Gig Young! Of course, apparently Gig Young had some serious demons offscreen to fuel that whole shebang. And I don’t think Jack did. Jack (JACK-JACK!), did you know, I’m sure you did, that Doris Day and Jack Carson were an item? Sadly, she dumped him for that husband of hers that stole all her money….what a heel.

  11. Wow! I think I have a movie on dvr with Jack and Doris in it. I will have to look for the sparks.

  12. they’re in several together! and check this out: (don’t be scared. be a little scared.) http://www.flickr.com/photos/45005123@N03/5459360454/

    I like this one best:

  13. Jack and Doris were an item?!? I had no idea. I’ve seen a couple of their films together. It’s a Great Feeling features Jack and Dennis Morgan playing themselves, which is terrific. The Doris Day scenes are … less so. Romance on the High Seas is a hoot. It has Oscar Levant in the Oscar Levant role, and he has one of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue. He asks for Doris’ character like so: “(Her name is) Georgia Garrett. Georgia as in marching through, Garrett as in starving in.”

  14. I’ve been tempted to assign MILDRED PIERCE to my students in my MANAGEMENT class. Cain’s detail in running a restaurant, dealing with wholesalers, pricing decisions, quality control, and other aspects of everyday business life makes MILDRED PIERCE a case study in entrepreneurship (as well as a case student in obsessive devotion to a loathsome child).

  15. WAY late to this thread, as I was waylaid by a traveling pie salesmen and had to eat my way out of trouble…but two things need sayin’ here…

    1) Guy Pearce < Zachary Scott.

    2) Jack Carson had a thing for blondes. After he and DD fizzled, he married Lola Albright. On the set of THE TARNISHED ANGELS (where he's the best thing in the movie) he was overheard telling Dorothy Malone that if she'd dyed her hair blonde back during their WB days he would've never married Lola. This apparently got back to Lola and precipitated one of those "suburban powder keg" moments that you ladies were discussing in a different thread! For a nice dark turn from Jack, get thine hands on THE TATTERED DRESS–overall a rather meh noir what with two leaden leads (Jeff Chandler/Jeanne Crain) but Jack is the nasty, conniving sheriff who makes one and only one mistake–he takes up with a brunette!

    • Oh, Don, thanks for this!! I’m kinda a sucker for Tarnished Angels myself, but that backstory makes it even better!
      Gotta get my hands on Tattered Dress….!


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