Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Hollywood noir writer James M. Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce (1941), premiered on HBO recently. Kate Winslet stars in the title role, originally played by Joan Crawford in the 1945 film adaptation. Crawford won the Oscar for portraying a Depression-era single mom, a ‘grass’ widow, driven to feed and nurture her enormously ungrateful daughter, Veda by whatever means possible. I never identified with Crawford’s slightly melodramatic depiction, but Winslet’s performance of the sacrificial mom struck a nerve with me.
My children visited me in Chicago this past weekend from Tampa (where they live with their father) for the Passover/Easter holidays. I was tempted to play Mildred Pierce for them. My fifteen-year old daughter, Katie, and I have been working through our long distance issues—she feels ‘abandoned’ by her mother, uneducated about ‘feminine’ culture, and raised in a 'boy's world' (with her brother and her dad). Even during our short weekend together, Katie and I had a falling out that landed us in the garage, yelling at each other, in tears. Her brother admits that he does not understand why Katie and I push each other’s ‘buttons.’ It's a mystery to all of us.
I cannot think of another film (or television series) that so acutely portrays the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship as Mildred Pierce. Winslet is a far more likable single mother—one I can identity with—who works and works throughout the week and occasionally acknowledges her own desires for nice clothes and companionship. She is a vulnerable workaholic. But her vulnerabilities are reserved for her children and seem connected to her own ambivalence about her work. Mildred keeps up the endless pace of collecting the family's income, blind to the financial discrepancies and personal deceits that will bring her family down.
Haynes--one of my favorite film directors--has made a career out of investigating “domestic pathology”—as he describes it—particularly with issues surrounding class, race and sexuality. (I'm Not There is an interesting exception, but one that still addresses identity issues.) Haynes's knowledge of film history as well as his ability to creatively reference and update it, testifies to his Brown University education. I met Haynes in 1996 at a Console-ing Passions conference at UW, Milwaukee, just after the release of Safe, starring Julianne Moore. Safe tells the story of a woman who is increasingly forced to stay inside her house due to unexplained illnesses that eventually land her in the hospital. Haynes, who is gay, was interested in pursuing feelings about disease and contagion that were very much in the cultural eye due to HIV in the 1980s and 90s.
Haynes admits that with Mildred Pierce he wanted to explore stories connected to our bad economy by investigating Depression-era stories—a time when women were starting to enter the work force. But in bad economies, second-class citizens are often the first in line to get jobs because they are paid less. Similar to the labor situation of illegal immigrants today, hard work and low wages helps to keep a bad economy ticking. Employment numbers (as well as college degrees) for women are starting to outnumber men. But does working hard make us happier?
After our garage fight, my daughter and I calmed down. She made cookies and I made kugel. We stayed up late watching Salt on Netflix. One of the last things Katie asked me before going to bed was, “When are you coming to Tampa again?”
The next morning I dropped Katie and her brother at the airport and waited with them until they got on their plane. In the car on way home I saw a text from Katie,
“What does that mean?” I responded.
“Time to go home.”