“Get out, Veda. Get your things out of this house right now before I throw them out into the street and you with them. Get out before I kill you!”
A few months ago, I happened to come upon a used bookstore while on vacation in San Francisco. Being that those kinds of stores are catnip for me, I couldn’t help but dive into the many random titles I was sure to find. I left with two books; the first was a tie-in novel of The Partridge Family (don’t ask me why), and the other was a well-worn (but still in good condition) copy of James M. Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce. It had been ages since I’d seen the film, and immediately plunged headfirst into the novel on the plane ride home.
Weeks later when I was assigned to review Criterion’s Blu-Ray release of Mildred Pierce, I knew fate was at play and that the date Mildred and I had was destined to continue. Watching the film, I was astonished at how well it held up. It wasn’t as if I was fearing that a movie I had enjoyed a decade-plus prior might have lost its spark as a result of the growing up I’d done since. Instead, what amazed me was how the movie, which had already been labeled a bona fide classic by the time I first watched it, felt more like one than ever before. This is partly due to director Michael Curtiz’s handling of the material and the way he magically weaves both a moving drama and a tantalizing film noir, bringing out some of the decade’s best moments from both genres.
But the ultimate reason that Mildred Pierce works is because of the character herself. Expertly and compellingly played by Joan Crawford (in a deservedly Oscar-winning performance), Mildred is everything a screen heroine should be: strong, vulnerable, determined, warm, and flawed. From the mind of author James M. Cain and distilled by screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, Curtiz, and especially Crawford, Mildred remains one of the best female characters ever to make her way onto the big screen.
I’ve always felt that Mildred Pierce is looked at as a story about a mother, first and foremost. This is understandable given how much of what happens throughout the film is a result of the relationship Mildred has with her oldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth). But Mildred is a woman above all else and watching her navigate the outside world after being unexpectedly thrust into it remains one of the movie’s most gripping elements. Alone after a divorce, Mildred relies on her resourcefulness and instincts for survival, which allow her to not only thrive but to become the kind of woman she never thought she could be. After climbing the ladder to become a successful restaurateur, Mildred finds herself enjoying the kind of power and privilege most women think isn’t in the realm of possibility for them. Our heroine is soft and feminine, but also driven and pragmatic. The beach scene with Monty (Zachary Scott) is a turning point in the film. It’s here where a swimsuit-wearing Mildred is confident enough to finally allow herself to enjoy the fruits of her labor and indulge in what she wants as a woman. However, as is the case with most women from films of this era, it’s a confidence and indulgence that will come with a price.
It seems appropriate that I’m writing this piece on Mother’s Day since there are few films as fitting for the holiday as Mildred Pierce. As I mentioned earlier, the movie will always be seen as the story of a mother and the great lengths she will go to for her daughter. Maybe this is because the Mildred that exists around Veda is almost the total opposite of the brave and independent woman we otherwise see. Anyone with any sense whatsoever can read Veda for who she is, a dangerous junior femme fatale whose ability to manipulate anyone she comes into contact with borders on the psychotic. Mildred however doesn’t want to see this side of Veda, or rather is so clouded by a mother’s love for her that she actually can’t see it. However, once Veda undergoes a scheme to swindle her wealthy admirer out of some money, Mildred can’t help but see her daughter for who she really is and still have love for her on the other side. But Veda is perhaps also Mildred’s greatest inspiration, fueling her to succeed so that she can give her child the life she wants her to have. It makes sense that the movie’s poetic ending sees Mildred make the ultimate choice and sacrifice she can for Veda, finally giving her what she really needs and leaving both her daughter and the film a broken shell of the woman she was before.
Rather than end this piece with even more praise for Mildred Pierce, I thought I’d instead talk about one of the disc’s extras, a feature-length documentary about Crawford herself. The film, titled Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, was produced in 2002 by TCM and takes a deep look into the actress’s life, from her humble beginnings to one of the silver screen’s most iconic figures. But the documentary isn’t just a look back on some of her most popular roles and how she survived the industry. It’s a look at the complexities Crawford hid and how she battled them privately while remaining very much the movie star. Featuring commentary from past collaborators, lovers, and even her own daughter, Christina, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star is perhaps the most definitive look at one of the most famous actresses of all time and an eerily fitting companion piece to what is perhaps the greatest film the actress ever made.
Mildred Pierce is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.