Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pie Filling

When I first heard that the classic James M. Cain story Mildred Pierce was being remade as a five-part HBO mini-series, my first thought, like a lot of people's, was why bother. The original film version's plucky heroine was so firmly associated with Joan Crawford's stalwart interpretation of the titular character it seemed nothing could compare with its noirish perfection.

But having just read the source material, I understand why another pass was called for. Unlike the film, which was released in 1945, Cain's novella takes place in the early years of the Depression, when the hopelessness of a woman abandoned with two young daughters, and the narrow field of options open to her, are far more palpable. So instead of being the story of a stoic entrepreneur riding the surge of war-era prosperity, it's one of a desperate woman rising above a landscape of global impovershment.

There's a deeply carnal element to the story that couldn't be depicted in the Crawford film, and that too adds texture to Mildred's feverish hunger for success, especially as depicted by Kate Winslet in the new series. But there's an added subtext of sexual obsession between Mildred and her now adult daughter, the cruel and calculating Veda, that comes through in the book as well. It's not at all the story of a mother sacrificing everything for her daughter's chances, it's one of a mother who idolizes and, yes, sexualizes her wicked daughter to the exclusion of all else -- even her younger child.

If you go back to director Todd Haynes' past films, from his first effort in 1987, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (enacted with disfigured Barbie dolls), to the popular Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven, which hinged on a chaste friendship between a white suburban housewife and a black gardener, you'll quickly see that he's not a subtle technician. His choices are very deliberate and they get your attention. In the new series, when one of the thirties-era roadsters bustles down a street and emits a huge plume of exhaust, you know that was an intentional effect; he's reminding us that the few vintage cars we see now from that period are maintained to current environmental standards, not those of eight decades ago.

More importantly, when the Pierces' fortunes begin to improve and Milded is able to hire the maid Letty, I was surprised to see that the actress cast in the role was white and was perhaps instructed to be something of an Okie.

That makes some historical sense, I suppose, because the Los Angeles area of the day was infused with Dust-Bowl evacuees eager for any kind of work. But the wonderful black actress Butterfly McQueen, who had the role (named Lottie) in the film was so entrenched in my mind in that part that I went back to the novel to see how she was depicted there and, yes, it only says that Mildred engaged "a girl named Letty" for various household tasks. I still think Cain intended her to be black, and have to feel that Haynes made a politically-correct decision that revises a history we find unsavory today. But if we can revisit the national tragedy that was the Great Depression, shouldn't we also accurately reference the status of blacks within society during that period? Having next read the novella that Double Indemnity was based on, my suspicion that Cain equated a hired-help "girl" with an African-American maid is confirmed; there's extensive reference to protagonist Walter Huff's Filipino houseboy but the young man is never once mentioned by name.

Regardless of your thoughts on the new series, I strongly endorse reading the original novel. The prose is rich and muscular, providing us with a masterfully direct depiction of an era in American history that's both alien to us and, due to recent economic events, strangely familiar, peopled with vivid characters and settings that leap off the page.

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