Mildred, Mildred, Mildred

Anytime there’s talk of remaking a classic movie, it always generates a lot of excitement in the classic film fan community.  Everyone starts talking about the original movie, a lot of people declare that it can never compare to the original, and then there are some who are willing to give it a chance.  When HBO announced they were working on an adaptation of Mildred Pierce, it was no exception to the rule.  But no matter what someone’s initial reaction is, if you mention that you’ve seen the remake, the first thing they’ll say is, “Well, how was it?”  So, here it is: everything you could want to know about HBO’s Mildred Pierce mini-series, how it compares to the Joan Crawford movie, and even how it compares to the original James M. Cain novel.

Mini-Series Episode Summaries:

Part 1:  Covers Mildred being left by her husband and having to go out and look for a job to support her two daughters.  Since she has no experience, the only jobs Mildred could possibly have are waitress or housekeeper and Mildred has a hard time accepting such menial jobs.  She eventually takes a job as a waitress.  Really, that’s pretty much all that happens, it was a pretty boring episode.

Part 2:  Mildred tries to get better at her job, but also tries to keep it a secret from Veda and Ray.  When Veda discovers Mildred’s waitress uniform, Mildred tells her that she became a waitress as a way to learn about the restaurant business because she plans to open her own place.  Of course, we know that’s a lie, but now Mildred has to follow through with it so she comes up with a plan and starts looking for a location.  On her last day as a waitress, she meets Monty and the two of them go off for a little getaway together.  However, when Mildred returns home,  she finds that Ray is in the hospital.  She rushes over, and even though things briefly start to look good, Ray takes a turn for the worse and dies.  Overall, a pretty good episode.  Far better than episode 1.

Part 3:  Still grieving the death of Ray, Mildred carries on and opens up her restaurant.  Even though her opening night has a bit of a slow start, by the end of the night, business is booming.  Even though she’s still got some debts to pay off, she begins to have money for the first time and gladly lavishes gifts upon Veda and Monty.  Mildred wants to send Veda to a top-notch piano instructor and get her a proper piano to practice on.  But when Mildred unexpectedly has to add a bar to the restaurant after prohibition is repealed, she can no longer afford the piano, much to Veda’s disappointment.  She also ends her relationship with Monty on a very stormy New Years Eve.  Overall, it’s about on par with episode 2.

Part 4:  After the death of the now teenaged Veda’s piano instructor and mentor, she is forced to find another instructor.  When the only instructor matching his caliber rejects her, Veda begins acting out.  She goes out partying all the time, getting drunk, and cavorting with boys.  But when Mildred finds out that Veda is blackmailing a prominent family’s son, she throws her out of the house.  Mildred is absolutely devastated and tries to keep tabs on Veda any way she can.  She eventually finds out that Veda has found her true calling: singing.  An excellent episode, better than episodes 2 and 3.

Part 5:  While looking for a new place to call home, Mildred suddenly finds herself back in the arms of — and engaged to — Monty, who has fallen on hard times.  She finally moves out of her home in Glendale and into a much more luxurious place in Pasadena and they marry.  However, there’s still one thing she doesn’t have in her life: Veda.  But Monty manages to persuade Veda to reconcile with her mother and the two of them begin to rebuild their relationship.  Mildred is only too glad to spare no expense to keep them happy, even if her business affairs suffer because of it.  However, Mildred’s happiness is short-lived when she not only faces losing everything she worked for but comes home to discover Monty has been having an affair with Veda.  Monty goes off on Mildred about how he loathed being used as bait to get Veda back and that he and Veda are in love.  In a rage, Mildred lunges for Veda’s neck and damages her famous voice in the process.  Or does she?  Loved this episode!  Glad I stuck with it to get to this part.

How do they compare?

Obviously, one was made under a very strict production code and the other was aired on a network that doesn’t even have to comply with television decency rules, so the mini-series has a ton of things that the Joan Crawford movie simply couldn’t get away with.  The movie gives the impression that the relationship between Mildred and Wally was basically an unrequited attraction on Wally’s part, but in the mini-series, we see there’s more to it than that.  Also worth noting is the fact that Mildred’s children age over the course of the mini-series so Veda is played by two different actresses: Morgan Turner as a child and Evan Rachel Wood as an adult.  Given that Veda starts out as a child, it makes the relationship between her and Monte a lot creepier.  Especially considering how when Veda was young, she would talk to Mildred like, “You seriously think he’s interested in you?”  She doesn’t actually say, “He’s clearly more interested in me,” but she was thinking it.  Very Woody Allen and Soon Yi.  The whole part in the movie about Monty being killed was completely absent from the mini-series.

I think the most surprising difference to me was how the character of Veda was given more depth in the mini-series.  In the movie, Veda is extremely one-dimensional: cold, calculating, materialistic, and her hatred of Mildred is totally inexplicable.  The mini-series gives her more depth and, dare I say, actually makes some of her behavior a little more understandable.  We see that Veda never stops resenting Mildred for being away while her sister was sick.  In the movie, Veda doesn’t face the disappointment of being told she’s terrible at the thing she loves most.  But Evan Rachel Wood’s Veda does and I think she dealt with it the way a lot of teenagers would in that situation, especially if they had access to money.

Some of the differences between the movie and the mini-series are more subtle.  In the movie, the main cause for Mildred and Bert’s divorce is the fact that Mildred puts so much effort into giving Veda the best of everything, the fact that he’d been stepping out with Maggie Biederhof was really only a footnote to that.  The mini-series, on the other hand, makes the Biederhof factor more clear.  Surprisingly, the mini-series doesn’t make it seem like Mildred is as self-sacrificing as the movie made her out to be.  In the book and the mini-series, the only indulgence Mildred allowed Veda while they were poor was her piano lessons.  Mildred baked pies because it was the only income her family had at the time, not so she could earn extra money to buy her expensive dresses like in the Joan Crawford version.

I also found it curious that in the book and the mini-series, Mildred’s youngest daughter was named Ray but it was changed to Kay in the movie.  She is a tomboy in both versions, but it feels like they changed her name for the movie and had Mildred put her in a ballet class to make her more feminine.  There were no ballet lessons for Ray in the mini-series or the novel.

The mini-series is remarkably faithful to the original novel.  There’s the occasional omitted scene and a few things were sped up in the mini-series, but on the whole, it sticks to the source material a whole lot more so than a lot of other screen adaptations.  But there’s one thing the book does better than both the movie or the mini-series, it explains a lot about Mildred and Bert’s history.  The book gives a much clearer look at what their lives were like before the Great Depression and just how affluent they were back then.  It helped me understand why Mildred was so reluctant to take menial jobs and where Veda’s expensive taste really came from.  The mini-series made a few half-hearted attempts to delve into that aspect, but they didn’t come until late in the series, not in the beginning when it would have been nice to know where those attitudes came from.

Final Verdict:

The mini-series really ought to be judged independently from the Joan Crawford movie.  It wasn’t intended to be a remake of the movie and really needs to be viewed as what it is, an adaptation of the novel.  Comparing the two of them is like comparing a novel to its Cliffs Notes.  In the end, I wound up liking both versions.  Of course, I still very much love Joan Crawford’s and Ann Blyth’s performances in the movie version and I like that their version is much more to-the-point.  But Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, and even Evan Rachel Wood were good in the mini-series.  I figured Kate would be good, but didn’t have particularly high hopes for Evan Rachel Wood.  However, I thought she brought a nice icy, cold, viciousness to her character.  Not as extreme as Ann Blyth, but it’s definitely there.  The Joan Crawford movie remains my favorite adaptation, but the mini-series is worth checking out as well.

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5 comments

  1. Thank you so much for this insightful breakdown and comparison. I like what you say about the tv series and movie being seen as two different entities. I don’t mind remakes, heck early film history is chockfull of remakes, but I do think they need to be an improvement on the original if at all possible. I’m glad they went in a different direction and fleshed out the Veda character a bit more.

    I took issue with Patti Stanger declaring the show better than the original movie. I for one doubt she even saw the original movie and is only reacting to hearsay of how great the Joan Crawford version was.

    Now if I only had cable so I could watch this!

    1. I’m so thrilled you liked it! I think remakes work best when they offer something new, but keep the spirit of the original, and that’s exactly what they did here. I really hope they release the series on DVD so more people will be able to see it.

  2. I just started trying to DVR these episodes, although I’m starting late having just gotten HBO. I had mixed feelings about it when I first learned it would be coming up. I’m generally hurt any time remakes of REALLY GOOD classics are considered (A Star is Born with Beyonce anyone?) but Kate Winslet is a pretty awesome actress, so I had some faith in this going well. I think whenever a book is involved, that has to be considered as well. Just as the latest True Grit worked off the book, it sounds like this mini series does the same, which means although it can be compared to the original movie, it needs to be given its own due.
    Great analysis. THANKS

    1. Part of the reason I was willing to give the mini-series a chance is because I figured at least they got a good actress for the lead role, it’s not like they picked Jennifer Aniston or anything like that. It’s a pretty bold move to take on what was a career defining role for another iconic actress, but Kate never once tried to mimic Joan Crawford and I liked that a lot. Instead, she just did it her own way and it stands on its own.

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