Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Oh Mildred!


It took some time, finally knocked off watching the 5 part HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. The first three parts were pretty good, the series started strong by kicking straight into the title character giving her cheatin' husband the heave ho. Kate Winslet, always outstanding, puts her American accent to work again portraying Mildred as a strong willed and grounded pre feminist with a major blind spot when it comes to her children. Winslet's Mildred Pierce is as earnest as the day is long. Director Todd Haynes pushes the Depression era setting hard to ensure we feel the uncomfortable fear and strife giving the piece modern day relevance.

Despite being a book first, Mildred Pierce is best known as first rate melodramatic cinema and one of Joan Crawford's best flicks. I remember watching it on video about 20 years ago, mainly what I remember from that experience was thinking the daugther (Veda) was evil as hell. To differ from that legendary version Haynes and Winslet strive to punch up the realism and get room to do it by spreading out over a miniseries.

It's just too bad the rest of the cast didn't get the same memo. The supporting cast (including Oscar winner Melissa Leo, Mare Winningham, Guy Pierce and two different actresses playing daughter Veda) amp up the drama with snappy performances. The zip of the support actors make Winslet / Haynes seem like a major drag. Watching this show you'd think everyone had fun during the Great Depression except Mildred Pierce.

Nowhere is this disconnect more evident than the key relationship between Mildred Pierce and the daughter Veda (played the first 3 eps by an actress I don't know whose acting has been very controversial online and the last 2 eps by Evan Rachel Wood). The Veda character is always haughty, conniving and stuck up regardless of who is playing her. In the HBO version she is so much so that Kate Winslet's Mildred doesn't even seem related to her. Even though both characters ramble on in heated arguments at the end of most episodes about how much alike they are, it never feels like it's true. Veda's character comes off like someone Mildred got stuck babysitting instead of mothering. Since much of the 2nd half of the series focuses on Mildred's smothering and Veda's viper like qualities, the lack of connection kills off the drama.

And that's why I took a break watching between parts 3 and 4. The story was getting predictable and the mother / daughter relationship that held most the drama wasn't clicking. As the series progresses and you see Mildred, who you're rooting for at this point, repeatedly get put down and faked out by her demon seed daughter you just get wore out. Or at least I did. By parts 4 and 5 even the surrounding characters are sick of watching this trainwreck relationship and exclaim "Oh Mildred!" constantly when she turns a blind eye to Veda's shenanigans.

Because the supporting actors are so appealing no matter how sketched out they are, I came away wishing Haynes had gone the full remake route of complete melodrama. Instead we're left with Kate Winslet proving an unusual thesis: Is it possible to give a terrific lead acting performance that sabotages the piece as a whole? With her humorless nose pressed against the grindstone, the answer is as easy as Mildred Pierce's pies.

No comments: