Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mildred Pierce Is Must-See TV

I visibly cringed when I read that TV was about to remake that classic film noir Mildred Pierce.
The 1945 classic got Joan Crawford her only Oscar and boosted the careers of its other stars: Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth, Eve Arden.
And it's been on the Late Show so often I almost know whole scenes from heart. And that thundering score by Max Steiner!
But it's not James M. Cain's story.
His 1941 novel bristles with the authenticity of Depression South California. Less noir and more an insightful character study of a determined working class woman, it certainly deserves a more modern, reverential treatment.
Director Todd Haynes who loves to recreate the American past --witness his study of the 1950s Far From Heaven--went back to the original source material and drained most of the melodrama that had been inserted in the Warners original.
This time out it's recent Academy Award winner Kate Winslet. Forget the Crawford shoulder pads and that pained aura of nobility.
Winslet is soft spoke, modulated --none of the grand gestures. She so sinks into this portrait she's hard to recognize --her hair is an unbecoming brunette, she wears little if any makeup save a slash of red lipstick.
In the original movie Crawford was a hard working mother and wife in Glendale who became a waitress when her husband deserted her and turned her ability at making pies into a money-making chain of restaurants.
The basic story is still there but fleshed out. Winslet is in fact so mousey that the character's masochistic tendencies become irritating at times.
And the character of her older, narcissistic daughter Veda is still unexplained..
Ann Blyth turned Veda into a little monster and was nominated as best supporting actress.
Here Veda is initially played (and very well) by Morgan Turner and as a grown up by Evan Rachel Wood.
But Haynes' recreation of Glendale and Hollywood circa 1931 is completely believable but never over blown.
The Crawford version inserted a killing to make the melodrama snap and crackle. Here a series of precise character studies is substituted --one scene where Mildred is interviewed about a housekeeping position by a grand lady does not advance the plot but expertly sums up the desperate nature of the early Depression.
The film's meticulousness might be misinterpreted as a certain slowness by viewers used to great blobs of emotion leading up to the next commercial break.
But this Mildred PIerce runs over 5 1/2 hours and five episodes. It's a viewing experience directly challenging the conventional TV way of story telling.
The production is chock full of memorable acting turns: Guy Pearce (the Zachary Scott role) as the drunken playboy lover, Evan Rachel Ward (replacing Ann Blyth) as the nasty older sister Veda, Mare Winnigham (replacing Eve Arden) as true friend Ida and recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo is well cast as Mildred's best buddy who lives next door.
The movie meanders its way through the story like a dream and reintroduces the subplot of Veda becoming an opera star that was dropped from the film.
In the end it all revolves around Winslet's portrayal of mother love.
Was Mildred something of a sucker for pandering to her daughter? Or did she just feel guilty and over compensate with lavish gifts? You'll be fascinated if you buy into Mildred's grand plan for remaking her family and discarding the past.
MY RATING: ****.

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