#173. Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce is in my top twenty favorites from the List so far and while I definitely had a faint crush on Joan Crawford when she first appeared in The Unknown, where her performance was so subtle and strong that it almost eclipsed Lon Chaney’s turn as a duplicitous amputee, Mildred Pierce cements Crawford’s presence on the List as not just this powerhouse of talent, on the same page as Barbara Stanwyck and — as the mythos will have it — Bette Davis, but as a possessor of that evasive star quality some people have in front of a camera. As I keep drafting paragraphs that try to pin down the specifics of her appeal I’m realizing Crawford’s is the sort of talent that makes so much movie criticism feel circuitous, like it’s reaching for an idea it can’t quite grasp.

There’s a grandeur about her, is what I’m getting at. Bette Davis has it, too, and Judy Garland. Here she plays the eponymous Mildred, a housewife who suspects (and overlooks) her husband’s affair, who works herself to total depletion in hopes of accommodating her kids’ needs (particularly those of her odious, entitled, shaming daughter Veda, played by Ann Blyth), and who, when her husband finally runs off with his mistress, takes sole responsibility of raising those kids.

mildred pierce baking.jpgShe starts off selling baked goods to pay for her daughter’s extracurriculars but then, needing income, she gets a secret job as a waitress in a bustling diner. And she’s pretty good at it. Not just at gabbing with customers and tending her responsibilities. She’s got an eye for the business end. Her entrepreneurial spirit takes off and by the end of the movie she’s a successful restauranteur with several locations.

It’s a film noir and so, naturally, it starts off with us seeing Mildred (appear to) murder somebody, then frame another person, and are ultimately privy to a 90-minute flashback that leads us back up and through the murder to a final resolution.

I love this movie. Love this movie. I’m so passionate about it I don’t know where to begin, what to leave for you to find on your own. What’s compelling me more than anything, looking back, is the dynamic between Crawford and Blyth (i.e. Mildred and her daughter). The portrait of maternal sacrifice seems to be a tender spot for me.

Mildred’s prepared, at first, to give literally anything to make her children happy but, slowly, as her work ethic starts to generate results (new establishments, respect, courtship) Mildred starts to think of taking a little something for herself. She starts dressing nicer. Returns some of the glances she gets from men.

stella dallas posterMildred Pierce, like Stella Dallas before it (another mother-daughter melodrama), evoked such an overwhelming reaction from me, I’m wondering now if there’s some appeal I’m not noticing. Something uncomfortably personal that I’m maybe trying not to notice. And when I go feeling around in the dark for what that evasive quality might be, I start to think of my own parents, and what they deserve for themselves versus what they give to my brother and me.

My dad, for instance, refers to himself as “the hub of a wheel with many spokes.” He supports his own father financially, supports his mother, and he pays alimony to my mom and regularly helps his kids financially. He’s in a tight spot. And my mom’s the same way. She works six and sometimes seven exhaustive days each week in exchange for a paycheck that doesn’t seem commensurate with her efforts and then she goes ahead and opens her checkbook anytime a relative needs something (and she’s got lots of relatives who need lots of things).

They both help their kids out a lot and, being one of those money-zapping offspirng, I feel rotten and infantile and greedy whenever I need help with my rent, or a car expense (not sure if I mentioned it on the blog but my car recent got broken into three times in a week down here in this neighborhood my landlord told me was totally safe), or cuz I’m taking the dog to the vet. I know that they want to help when they can, and I believe them sometimes when they say that they’re happy to help, but I can see it flash on their faces now and then that, obviously, if they had their druthers they’d be spending their money on more luxuries for themselves than just doling it out day after day toward loved ones in need. Loved ones who are in need of cash, more often than not, because of some hole into which they dug themselves.

mildred pierce shadow
It’s clear from the mood of this shot that it was directed by Michael Curtiz, who’d etched his name into history a couple years earlier directing Casblanca.

But ahdunno. I feel weird to be writing about that stuff. Naked. I also feel stressed and flustered about what I think is an unspoken expectation I’ve always had of myself in regard to Thousand Movie Project: I want my responses to my favorite movies on the List to be like these literary extravaganzas where I write ten drafts and outdo myself with the language and the insights and the humor and pathos and whatever. And now I’m looking over this post like, “Meh. It’s another one.”

Which I guess is kinda like Mildred? Do your best do your best do your best — not good enough. It’s like the nature of parenting.

So maybe I’m my own parent?

Ahdunno. Fuck it.

Mildred Pierce is a masterpiece and you should watch it.


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