Like Kate Winslet, Brian O’Byrne, Melissa Leo and everyone else in HBO’s Mildred Pierce, parts 4 & 5 last night, my mouth was hanging open for nearly two hours, though probably not for the same reasons. Deep in the bowels of the second act, credulity turned into the ridiculous. The bad seed of Veda Pierce leaves her Glendale home and her hated mother behind at long last. All we really really really want to see as audience members is Mildred breathing a long sigh of relief, and saying to herself, Thank God! But that never happens.
Incredulously, only a few weeks after Veda’s disappearance, Mildred hears on the radio that her daughter has become one of the world’s few and rare coloratura sopranos! Nary a hint of a singing note had ever escaped from Veda’s spoiled, horrid throat since the moment she was born. And yet, miraculously, in a few short weeks, she has not only become an opera singer, but a remarkably gifted one!
Come on. Are you kidding?! You mean to tell me that all during the long arduous road to bringing this multi-million dollar spectacle to HBO’s very expensive screen, I am the only to wince at this innane plot point?! Did no one before me think of killing the writer?
I know that Todd Haynes kept saying that he wanted to be ultra true to James Cain’s book. But being true to a novel with a dubious, if not downright ridiculous turn of events will not be made any more credible by making it into a movie. This is where HBO’s Mildred Pierce, which I had been routing for from the get go, completely lost me. I looked into the eyes of the enchanting Kate Winslet, Melissa Leo, Brian O’Byrne, the captivating Guy Pierce praying to meet at least a single comrade-in-arms at this utterly implausible turn of events. To no avail. Do you mean to tell me that not even HBO’s diva dramaturge Sheila Nevins thought to question this improbable, unconvincing, hard-to-swallow, far-fetched notion?
Sadly, this was the movie’s first giant catastrophe.
The second is really much more inexcusable. This is the complete disregard of the basics of good drama. Every screenplay 101 class teaches that the protagonist must learn from her foibles and completely transforms because of them from the beginning to the end of the story. Mildred needed to be utterly altered by what occurs between her and Veda. But Kate Winslet’s character never changes. She is a doormat at the beginning of the tale and remains a doormat to the end. Even when she catches Veda’s infidelity with her own husband, she goes right back, in practically the next scene, begging for Veda’s love.
At some point, to achieve dramatic catharsis, the protagonist, (and by turns, the audience) must acknowledge a completely new avenue to the character’s destiny. For Kate Winslet’s Mildred, this means to stand proudly in her own shoes of self-respect. It is imperative that we see Mildred inhabit her own strength, her own anger, by making a clear decision to wipe Veda out of her life for good. She needs to arrive at this conclusion herself, and it needs to be at the moment she chokes Veda, never to look back. Sadly, this does not happen.
I am not a fan of comparing remakes. The old Joan Crawford classic was clearly a different time in a completely different universe. But at the end, Crawford’s Mildred washes her hands of Veda. She gives her daughter over to a life in prison and never looks back. That Veda deserves what she gets and we applaud our heroine.
But this Mildred learns nothing from the beginning to the end of the story. At the last, she remains the same wimpy dishrag we met at the start. It doesn’t work to hear Bert tell Mildred at the film’s last moments that she must repeat after him, To hell with her. Dramatically, this statement can and must only emanate from Mildred herself. The fact that Mildred repeats the phrase after her husband tells her to, then washes it down with whiskey, convinces neither herself, and even less, her audience. This is the sad folly that made HBO’s Mildred Pierce one of the most giant dissatisfying nights of drama on HBO of all times.
What a waste of a spectacular cast! What a waste, especially, of the remarkable gifts of Kate Winslet, for whom I felt truly embarrassed.
Almost as a surreal aside to these disappointments was the painfully stilted dialogue. Good for a silent reading of a novel perhaps (though I can’t figure out how), but it really made you wince coming out of the mouths of these fine actors. There are many fine novelists who can write spectacular prose, but prove a tin ear when it comes to dialogue. Sadly, this was the case here. Staying loyal to James Cain’s prose proved a giant Woops! for Todd Haynes. As they learned the hard way with Margaret Mitchell’s classic, if you’re going to tackle Gone With the Wind in technicolor, best to leave the book lying on the bed at home.