Mildred Pierce December 26, 2017
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
y the mid-1940s, the actress Joan Crawford (1904-1977) had everything to lose. Although she’d been among the top movie stars in the world the previous decade – she was one of MGM’s most dependably profitable talents, even dubbed “Queen of the Movies” by Life magazine in 1937 – her status had begun to wane by the time she turned 35.
Thanks to a string of failures that ironically characterized Crawford’s 1937 (The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, The Bride Wore Red, and Mannequin), she, along with Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and others, was labeled “Box Office Poison” by the Independent Film Journal in 1938. While the piece was generally tabloid fodder which wrongly blamed the existence of bad movies on the actors who starred in them, it was nonetheless professionally and commercially harmful. Studio heads began questioning Crawford’s salability, and this led to parts in more movies that would harm her economic value. (The Ice Follies of 1939, anyone?)
Following this comparison to cyanide, Crawford would fail to star in any sort of major hit for almost a decade. (She did, however, play a memorable supporting part in 1939’s The Women, which was a huge critical and commercial hit.) In 1942, MGM decided not to renew her contract. Her last release with the studio was 1943’s lackluster spy movie Above Suspicion.
In the wake of this, it seemed inevitable that Crawford would face the same long-in-the-making career death so many actresses in her peer group would experience. She’d be unable to attain contractual interest from a different studio. She’d start starring in subpar B-pictures for a handful of years. Then she’d probably die relatively young from something related to alcoholism.
But Crawford, who was born a broke, frizzy-haired Texan named Louise LeSueur, was not one to be victimized by unfortunate circumstances. She had to claw her way up to the top of the Hollywood ladder, after all, and the idea of picking herself back up after this long-winded decline was hardly intimidating. It was something she had to do, not something she simply wanted.
So when it was announced that James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941) was going to be adapted into a feature length by Warner Bros., Crawford saw an opportunity. While many of her counterparts balked at the idea of playing the part of the eponymous heroine (in no way would they be willing to admit that they were old enough to mother a teenage daughter), Crawford was eager. She saw a juicy role here – that of a career woman whose familial relationships are fraught and whose character arc involves sex, divorce, and murder – and jumped at the chance to possibly heal the wounds inflicted by years of bad box office.
The filmmaker hired for the directing gig, Michael Curtiz, wasn’t keen on having Crawford play the title role, though. His first choice was Barbara Stanwyck, fresh off an Oscar-nominated performance in Double Indemnity (1944). His second and third were Joan Fontaine or Olivia de Havilland; Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell were also at one point examined. He only considered Crawford when all either proved to be unavailable or too vain. But even then, he was skeptical. Crawford was too glamorous, too stuffy. She also had a history of being combative on set. Yet when Curtiz saw Crawford’s screen test – as well as her startling resolve – he relented. He had his star. (The collaboration was far from harmonious, though: Curtiz and Crawford battled so much on set that producer Jerry Wald often had to persuade the two to lower their fists and get on with the production.) As filming came to a close, everything came together exactly how it was supposed to. Advertised as a comeback vehicle, audiences were intrigued. What was in store in this adaptation of this popular book? How well would Crawford pull off this redefinition as a femme fatale?
The film itself is a classic rags-to-riches yarn, spanning four years. It watches as its central Mildred goes from diligent hausfrau to divorcee to business owner to social climber, all the while being emotionally drained by her failed marriage, a toxic romance, and, most centrally, a parasitic relationship with her bratty daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Most audiences flocked to this melodramatic product. Released at the tail end of 1945 to ensure post-World War II consumers be sympathetic toward its protagonist’s struggles, it was an unprecedented hit, making its budget back nearly five times and becoming the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year.
Critics weren’t as quickly seduced. They were quick to point out that some of the film’s more emotionally exaggerated attributes were slightly unconvincing. Yet they agreed that Crawford had given the best performance of her career – and that the movie in question was hardly a run-of-the-mill women’s picture. At the 1946 Academy Awards, Mildred Pierce’s status as a cultural staple was cemented. It was nominated in five categories, and won Crawford her first and only Oscar. Oddly enough, she didn’t go to the ceremony: worried she wouldn’t win, she pretended she was in bed with pneumonia.
In the years following, the movie has become many things: the Joan Crawford movie, the women’s picture, the ultimate femme fatale-driven film noir. Many consider it one of the Hollywood Golden Age’s most iconic features. Watching Mildred Pierce in 2017, we’re quick to note the characteristics that generally date it. We know that Crawford’s performance, which is supposed to be down to earth for the most part, is rooted in the glamorous Joan Crawford brand. Here, we've hyperaware of her famed shoulder pads, her false-eyelashed goggle eyes, her assortment of bodycon dresses and gaudy fur coats, and her ability to cry beautifully – characteristics that should not necessarily be here.
And we’re perpetually irritated that the self-employing, independent woman that is Mildred Pierce so frequently undervalues herself and cannot stop herself from getting distracted by the prospects of a torrid love life or the incessant need to please her ungrateful eldest daughter. We’re put off by the inherent sleaziness of the men, and how easily Pierce excuses their behaviors, too. (Though she ultimately does pick a nice guy who’s right for her.)
But in lieu of its very 1945 qualities, Mildred Pierce is a noir masterpiece arguably made better because of the way it so compellingly evokes its era. In spite of the murder subplot and the slick pulp atmosphere, undoubtedly this was a story of a woman that was universal to many. In the film, Crawford embodies myriad struggles applicable to a wide variety of classes and ages.
She does so many things that might have seemed contradictory to consumers of 1945. Pierce wants to be a career woman, but she also wants to be a successful wife and mother. She wants to be self-sufficient, but she also craves the true love that’s eluded her for so much of her life. She’s financially stable and professional fulfilled, but she can’t help but focus on the things she isn’t receiving: her daughter’s approval, a boyfriend, a happy home life. She’s also pushing 40, an age most women of 70 years ago – and even now – had internalized as being undesirable.
Yet in Mildred Pierce, Crawford obliquely informs us that you can still be in command of your destiny and your sexuality even in supposed middle age, which still manages to feel revolutionary. Because the movie was such a massive hit, Crawford saw a career boost that for the next decade enabled her to essentially be the first lady of melodrama (1947’s Daisy Kenyon, 1952’s Sudden Fear, and 1959’s The Best of Everything are among the highlights). And this helped establish the norm that you could be a 40-something woman and still be a major, desirable box office star, capitalizing on what had been done on a smaller scale by actresses like Jean Arthur, Greer Garson, Irene Dunne, and others.
Mildred Pierce additionally touched upon taboo topics sensitively and sympathetically, painting divorce relatively realistically and never undermining the sexual desires of a woman well past her years as an ingenue. Its pushback against the cultural and cinematic norms of its decade enhance the thrilling atmosphere; it feels like a modern work despite so much of its standing as a cultural artifact. And Crawford is great in it. In the decades preceding Mildred Pierce, she was an actress her studio didn’t know how to really use. She’d been cast in roles that required to be a vamp, a flapper, a song-and-dance woman, a home-wrecker, an adventuress – even an ice skater. In this movie, we see the emergence of what we now recognize as the Joan Crawford persona, which would remain intact for the rest of her career.
What’s so interesting about Crawford in Mildred Pierce, though, is that she at once embodies and acts. Unlike rival Bette Davis, she is able to be as emotionally naked as Gena Rowlands ever could and still sell herself as a glittery movie star. Notice how she’s able to cry attractively. How she can wear the most expensive of clothes and jewelry and be believable as an everywoman. How she can act through soap opera – she has monologues here and well as opportunities to bitch slap – but somehow never emulate the genre’s cheapness. Davis was a great actress, but Crawford was a better performer: she embodied so many issues women faced at the time all the while maintaining a movie star gleam that makes the feature’s more naturalistic elements still appear cinematic.
The actors supporting her are well cast, too. Zachary Scott, with his hair too slick and his mustache too well-groomed, is note-perfect as the slimeball who can effectively pretend that he’s a class act. Bruce Bennett, as the husband Pierce divorces early on in the film, is a fitting sort of bland. Eve Arden’s a hoot as Pierce’s wisecracking best friend and professional partner; Jack Carson might as well be chomping a cigar in every scene, with his stiff upper lip and his try-hard machismo. It’s Blyth, however, who is the most momentous. Sixteen during filming, she gives a performance so intelligent that it manages to age her. Here, she’s required at some level to be a little girl who thinks she’s more mature than she actually is, and Blyth persuasively exemplifies that middle ground between appearing much older than you are but still being at an impressionable age.
Veda’s pretty one-note for the most part – she’s the villain of the movie, basically acting as a manifestation of all of Pierce’s self-doubts – but Blyth grabs the character’s snottiness by the lapels and makes for an indelible antagonist. That she’d never again get a role as meaty as this one is a shame; who knows how much more of a mark Blyth might have made if she were placed in challenging products rather than by-the-book ones?
But then we must consider that starring in a movie as unusually (and perhaps accidentally) inspired as Mildred Pierce is something that sometimes can only happen once in an actor’s lifetime. It’s the rare potboiler helmed with artistic innovation (Curtiz’s direction finds the cynicism, the psychological shadows, and the evil lurking in this picturesque California) and acted with urgency. That it is so of its time is both a blessing and a curse, a blessing in that it signifies changing times by way of the ending of WWII and increased female autonomy, a curse in that so much of what made it so modern has aged. But its entertainment value is ageless, and so is Crawford’s movie-star allure. A