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.”
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.