On Mildred Pierce and the Increasingly Fine Line Between Cinema and Television

Mildred Pierce
dir: Todd Haynes (USA, 2011)
Rating: 8.4

The best American film of 2011 may well turn out to be one that never played at a theater near you at all. Instead, writer/director Todd Haynes’ ambitious adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce has headed straight to your living room, premiering as a five and a half hour HBO miniseries but packed with enough filmmaking smarts to help further erode the increasingly fine line between cinema and television. Broadcast over the past three consecutive Sunday evenings, Haynes’ movie (and yes I have no problem calling it that) is now available “on demand” and will no doubt be released later in the year in DVD and Blu-ray editions (the way I suspect most people experience movies nowadays anyway). It will also most likely be prominently featured in both of my Best of 2011 lists (“Films” and “Home Video Releases”) at the end of the year. So, while pilgrim-hatted purists have been apoplectic for a while that movies have more and more come to resemble television (even movies shot on film today exist as purely digital data at some point in post-production), my response is to look at the glass as half full: television has also come closer to resembling the movies.

This is Not a Movie Poster:

Mildred Pierce tells the story of a newly divorced single mother in 1930s southern California who waits tables to make ends meet, much to the embarrassment of her class-conscious children. Her increasingly lucrative side business of making pies encourages her to attempt to open her own restaurant, the eventual success of which has the unintended effect of driving a further wedge of resentment between her and her older daughter Veda. Eschewing the murder subplot that was added to Michael Curtiz’s justly celebrated 1945 film version (and that was absent from Cain’s social realist novel, which I haven’t read), Haynes’ movie predictably draws more on classic Hollywood melodrama than film noir. However, this is not the colorful, 1950s Douglas Sirk-style melodrama that Haynes already mined in Far From Heaven. The chief reference point here would appear to be Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, a film that Haynes has repeatedly cited as one of his favorites. Much like Ophuls did with his leading lady Joan Bennett, Haynes envelops Winslet in a chilly mise-en-scene consisting of vertical lines and frames-within-frames to continually reinforce the idea that Mildred, even when professionally triumphant, is a prisoner inside of her own home. Mike Wilmington, in an otherwise perceptive review, has criticized Haynes for not showing more “directorial style and flash” but, since Haynes already made that movie with Heaven, that’s a bit like criticizing Bob Dylan for not making John Wesley Harding sound more like Blonde on Blonde.

The very notion of “television mise-en-scene,” which would have been an oxymoron just a few years ago, is symptomatic of our times. One of the most interesting byproducts of the boom in popularity of widescreen televisions in recent years has been the concurrent rise in popularity – in television shows and miniseries alike – of what might be termed old-school film aesthetics (such as long shots, widescreen compositions and a 360 degree shooting space); and there is thankfully no longer such a relentless focus on the use of alternating close-ups that seemed the de rigueur television style of the 1990s. One case in point is Olivier Assayas’ breakthrough Carlos, a miniseries originally made for French television that became the critical darling of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It may have premiered on television but Assayas’ electrifying political gangster biopic contained an unforgettable and exquisitely cinematic 90 minute scene of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez’s notorious 1975 terrorist raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Masterfully combining ‘Scope framing with nervy handheld camera work and brisk cutting that crucially remained spatially logical, this extended sequence has proven to be the definitive “action movie” set piece of our time. Further muddying the waters is the fact that respected film auteurs such as Assayas and Haynes, as well as actors known primarily for their “big screen” work (such as recent Oscar winner Kate Winslet and the formidable Guy Pearce), are turning to the “small screen” in an age when movie studios are seen as increasingly risk-averse and cable television is perceived as picking up the slack in delivering entertainment deemed “edgy” or even merely aimed at an adult audience. Gone are the days when a movie star of the caliber of Charlie Sheen turning to television automatically signaled the beginning of a career in decline.

A huge benefit for filmmakers in this era of the new and improved T.V. movie is the ability to have a more expansive running time than what can be achieved in a traditional movie. This allows the makers of a miniseries to create a highly elaborate, overarching narrative structure without necessarily falling victim to the aimless, meandering quality that seems to become the sad fate of nearly every long-running television series. (21st century television is a medium that a serial-minded film director like Louis Feuillade, not to mention the young Jacques Rivette, would have loved.) This more novelistic structure means Haynes’ Mildred Pierce can consequently go places that Michael Curtiz could never have dreamed taking his 111 minute version, fully justifying its five and a half hours without ever wearing out its welcome. Our feeling that we have come to truly know characters like Mildred and Veda is much stronger in the miniseries, which makes the growing conflict between them more acutely painful.

Technically, Mildred Pierce is a tour-de-force, featuring 1930s locations and costumes rendered in impeccable period detail, gorgeous but low-key cinematography by Ed Lachmann (doing essentially the opposite of the baroque work he performed on earlier Haynes collaborations like Far From Heaven and I’m Not There) and a gorgeous but mournful score by the Coen brothers’ regular composer Carter Burwell. But for all of its estimable formal qualities, this film finally belongs to the actors, more so than any of Haynes’ previous work – with Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood (as Veda) tearing up the glass screen in the most heavy-duty dramatic parts. There is plenty of acting firepower in the supporting roles too, namely by the perennially underrated and underused Guy Pearce (looking and sounding exactly as if he stepped out of a Hollywood movie from the 1930s) and the suddenly hot Melissa Leo as Mildred’s new boyfriend and best friend respectively. If contemporary Hollywood could serve up even a half-dozen theatrical films each year as intelligent and well-crafted as Mildred Pierce, we’d be entering a new golden age of American cinema. But they can’t and we ain’t, so for the time being let’s all be grateful for television.


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

29 responses to “On Mildred Pierce and the Increasingly Fine Line Between Cinema and Television

  • suzidoll

    I do not have HBO so I can’t watch this till it comes out on DVD, but I think your premise is right on target. As talented filmmakers are shoved out of the film industry by studios who prefer hacks they can control, or take the paycheck and go home, television has welcomed them. Many women filmmakers who came up in the 1980s and found themselves shoved out by the boys’ club of Hollywood by the 1990s ended up in cable television (Martha Coolidge; Mimi Leder), so it has been going on for a while. I don’t know if I like the term “old school” applied to the classic Hollywood style. Those Michael Bays and Zack Snyders out there who don’t follow the rules of spatial logic and clarity are not “new school,” they are just incompetent directors.

  • michaelgloversmith

    For me the phrase “old school” has a positive connotation. Heaven forbid I should imply that the Michael Bays and Zach Snyders of the world are competent directors!

  • Ed Howard

    This may be new here, but Europe has often had a tradition of quality, cinematic TV, which I think Assayas belongs to. Directors like Bergman, Fassbinder, and even (more experimentally) Godard, have turned to TV at various times and been able to produce lengthy series that blur the line between TV and movies.

    Of course, HBO and similar networks, which produce high-quality shows on their own, have made this model even more viable, and I hope more good directors take advantage of the broader canvas and different storytelling opportunities provided by the miniseries format.

  • michaelgloversmith

    Ed, that is an excellent point about European television. It would never occur to me to refer to Berlin Alexanderplatz, which I’ve seen three times in its entirety, as a “television miniseries”. It’s a “movie” plain and simple, one that just happens to run for 13 and a half hours.

    I used to hate American television and consider it “the enemy” because of what I perceived as the detrimental effect it was having on cinema. As I get older I realize that the cinema will never die. It just mutates as technology progresses. This is the kind of thing I’d like to write about more on this blog (see my earlier entry on digital downloading) – when I’m not writing about silent movies, that is!

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  • Lux

    “that’s a bit like criticizing Bob Dylan for not making John Wesley Harding sound more like Blonde on Blonde.” – touché

    A perceptive article! I agree that the reinvention of television can be a rival of or even superior to the cinematic experience. During the early announcements that Todd Haynes was making Mildred Pierce, there was a lot of buzz on the internet that he was just another Hollywood guy remaking and ruining “a classic”. Of course he’s not a Hollywood guy and Mildred Pierce existed before Joan Crawford got her padded shoulders into it. When I was a teenager I had come across a compilation of James M Cain at the library that included Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce. I didn’t know much about him other than his name and had no expectations but I enjoyed them so much that I recall details to this day. So I never really liked any of those films because they were so cleaned up and phony. (Double Indemnity seemed to be the best adaptation). Joan Crawford played Joan Crawford as she always did, and not Mildred at all. So when Haynes had the luxury of following the book with the format that television offered it was exactly what I had hoped it would be – true to the book with details like Mildred never really knowing how to pronounce Ray’s name and the coloratura opera stuff included. Kate Winslet and the whole cast was excellent. Other than the light, (sorry) Queens and Long Island New York stood in for California of the 1930s very well. I highly recommend the book.

  • david

    Terrific post,I agree with you that the performances from the casts are all brilliant,but I think the later episodes dragged a little bit until the final climax of Veda betraying her mother.I also wondered why they did not shoot the ending of the original film.

    I did not watch mini film series often,but I do think some stories are better presented in this version,because they need the time to develop both the plot and the characters.I find this version works extremely well with family melodramas,but I’m concerned about the ROI and the award-winning thing,will this version be as successful as films in both terms??

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  • Brianna Clark

    I thoroughly enjoyed how realistic Mildred Pierce was. I believe it was the most successful period piece I have seen because of the subtle references to the 1930’s depression and WW2 era. Haynes did a fantastic job including references to 1930’s slang and culture. The costume and set designs were immaculately done, especially the use of 1920 and 30’s cars. It was phenomenal to watch all of these details come together and make a fantastic visual pieces. When I was watching this, I had to remind myself that this is not a full length feature film, but a TV show. The details were so superb that I do not believe Haynes would be able do what he accomplished in the miniseries in a two hour film.
    I think Kate Winslet did a great job in portraying Mildred. She was able to show the inner conflict and struggles she had with Vida naturally. Although this miniseries was very melodramatic, Winslet acted very naturally so it did not seem overdone and overly dramatic.

  • Nishat C

    There is definitely something special about TV series/television, rather than cinema itself. Mildred Pierce was a phenomenal melodrama Mini Series. It honestly felt as if you were watching a film but even better. Being set in the 1930s made it even more special with the vintage outfits and sceneries and the way the actors spoke. Kate Winslet who plays the main character as Mildred did such an amazing job at playing her character. This film was made to be a “melodrama” but I think because of Mildred’s natural acting it toned down the scenes that actually were very dramatic. She was a very patient calm women and just so caring in her character of the film. Haynes did a perfect job in re creating Mildred Pierce into a five part mini Series. Each part has equal amount of detail and perfection that makes you wonder what the next part would consist of. I think the music and veta’ acting heightened the tone of the film making it a melodrama. What is quite interesting from a television series and a movie, I think you have more of a connection with the characters as the show goes on. It has more meaning to it than cinema. What I also loved so much about Mildred’s character was that she was just a loving and forgiving mother who just kept trying to see the good in everyone. She tried multiple times to come in good standing with her daughter but it never worked and veta constantly stepped over her own mother. You had to give props to Mildred for trying to be a good mother but sometimes even your own child can be your enemy. Just like the caption or theme of the film “having it all would cost her everything” and that was her daughter. Mildred did everything she possibly could and her daughter still betrays her and is ungrateful. I honestly believe if this was made into a two-three hour movie it would never have came out as strong and detailed. What’s important is that Haynes was so talented that this TV show was made to feel like an actual movie. Reality of a single mother who is trying to make ends for herself and her daughter. In the process she is able to become successful but even that was not enough to please her greedy brat daughter. Mildred tries to please and make everyone else happy throughout the film but herself. The ending in my opinion was beautiful. She was able to live life with her ex husband and forget about their worries for one second to actually celebrate themselves rather then anyone or anything else. this film also showed a bigger idea or the start Atleast of women’s rights and how they can also go in the outside world to work and Do as they please. Pretty much to prove women can also do it all. Overall an amazing mini series that leaves you with more emotion and connection rather than a regular cinema film.

  • Flavio Torres

    This honestly make me feel that I’ve been seeing some garbage american T.V shows in comparison to Mildred Pierce. HBO tends have a very good track record with their T.V specials. One of the things that struck me the most aside from the musical score was just how well portrayed the 1930’s from the cars, the clothing, and even the subtle references to the decline in the economy as we see many people standing on the side walk holding signs so they can find a place to work. It didn’t feel like a movie, I sat there thinking I was watching a reenactment of someones life during that time period as Mildred went from being stay at home mom to owning a restaurant. I was cheering for her as things started going her way, but then all those feelings were smacked down to the ground with when the younger daughter dies from some unknown illness so thanks for that. I don’t think anyone else could have done a better job in this miniseries than the current cast. Todd Haynes is doing a fantastic job directing and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

  • mike speck

    I’ve noticed that all of Television had really stepped up its game is recent years. Its not that films have gotten worse. It’s just going to the movie in todays world is an expensive event to experience. This has allow Tv channels like HBO to showcase its cinematography skills. Miniseries like Mildred Piecre just validates that T.V. and films are getting more alike. This was the first film that we viewed in class without an abundant amount a realism. Yes, Mildred Pierce did have a very authentic 1930’s feel to it. The set and props was absolutely phenomenal. The plot was just a little over dramatized for my liking. The scene with Mildred finding out that Veda was sleeping with her husband was an amazing “OMG” moment but didn’t seem very real to me. I also found it hard to believed that Mildred a women, in the 1930’s made it look very simple for how much success she had experienced. Scene transition throughout the movie was wonderful. At times the transition were drawn out, almost felt like a still photo. That technique made the viewers eyes cling on to those shots because of how beautiful they were. Another technique worth mentioning was the use of sound throughout Mildred Piecre. The sound was used to create a heighten sense of emoting, which made viewers more attentive to what was happening on screen. I think T.V. will continue to get better and better. My one worry is what will happen to film if this continues…

  • alisa

    ‘Mildred Pierce’ is undeniably an exceptional masterwork. The film’s craftsmanship, performance, and presentation is profoundly well researched and detail oriented. In fact, the film seemed so natural and well scripted, that it seemed that the only thing missing from the authentic 1930’s feel was the image quality; the lighting was absolutely superb. Overall, the composition of the film was stunning, each scene was professionally crafted, and there were no compromises nor cut corners.

    The great reveal of the film, in which Veda is caught with Monty, shows a dramatic switch into the horror genre. The lighting changes, the room becomes shadowy and dark. There is a distorted and cool quality about Veda’s traipse about the room, truly showing her in a serpentine light. As she sits in front of the mirror, even her red hair and lips, seem metallic. The camera cuts to a shot of Mildred sitting in the chair, with her eyes downcast, too hurt to look at her own child. This was so dramatically and beautifully filmed, I almost did expect Mildred to go ahead and murder her own child; she refrains and the film continues on a perverse note that it began. Ragtime music plays in the next scene, all characters are featured in a sunny and warm light, and Mildred is getting remarried. The dissonance is jarring after the previous scene and it leaves the audience searching for the dark psychological aspect of the film; the artificiality of Mildred’s acquaintances and family is highlighted by the ending scene, especially when her daughter leaves.

    However, as much as I would love to sing praise of this film, there are some historic inconsistencies that left the audience with some questions. The exploration of the psychological aspects in a mother/daughter relationship occasionally compromises the historical events of the film. Perhaps, this is also why choosing a middle/upper class storyline allows the audience to explore intimate details of the 30’s bourgeious’ personal lives; simply, they had the luxuries of being seemingly unaffected by the depression and world wars.

    A personal criticism I have about films portraying classical musicians is that they seldom consider hiring real classical musicans to act the part. It is such a shame to watch a film that is so accurate in its musical portrayal, to see an actress lip sync arias – three of which are for completely different voice types. (Although, cheers to Evan Rachel Wood, she does a damn good job.) While there are numerous arguments about the expertise of musicians in the acting world, specifically opera singers, it is my personal opinion that two art worlds, that is, music and film, that heavily rely on each other should be able to help one another to scout out talent to complete an already exceptional film. But that’s just like my opinion, man.

  • Tazrin Choudhury

    This t.v series got me hooked. There was many plot twists and conflict that stirred up different emotions. The detail in this series was also very amazing. From how the characters were dressed, the makeup, and music really embodied the 1930’s era. There was also a depression going on where the character lived through. We got to really see how life was like during this time in history and what it was like as a woman. I was able to really get to know each character which made it more the series meaningful. Although it didn’t feel like a t.v series because there was a plot. Mildred was a very strong woman going through a divorce. She worked her way up in the restaurant business and eventually built an empire. Even Though she was hardworking and strong, Mildred was not able to control her daughter and had been trying to please her daughter from the beginning. It seemed like her life was to prove to her daughter that she is good enough. Even after her daughter betrayed her in the worst way by sleeping with her new husband Mildred still wanted her daughter to come over and be there. She always forgives her daughter which makes me want to see more from this series because i want to know if she can ever move on from being there for her daughter after being treated so terrible by her.

  • Maria Reji

    Mildred Pierce is a brilliant television miniseries that tells the story of MIldred, a middle class woman who rose to success in business after she started her new restaurant in Glendale, California. Despite the Great Depression and no one in her family to help her out, she was able to stand in her own legs and do the business. This film does a good job in portraying the era of 1930s. The mise-en-scene in this film is effectively used in giving a visual treat to the audience in showing the lifestyle of people in 1930s. This series also explores parent-childhood relationship. After her husband divorced, Mildred started her business only for the good of her daughters. But her eldest daughter Veda ill treated Mildred throughout the film. I think this film gives the audience a message that it is ok to keep some control over children. From the beginning of the film, Veda treated people badly. For example, in the scene where Veda forced the maid to wear Mildred’s restaurant uniform shows how arrogant Veda is. We were able to see how greedy she was, when she was trying to blackmail a wealthy family for money claiming she was pregnant, when she was not. If Mildred had shown some control over her at these moments, her daughter would not have been this arrogant. We saw her extreme behaviour, when Mildred found Veda in her husband’s scene. This scene was really heartbreaking because no mother want to witness what Mildred witnessed. I believe Mildred had at least some fault in raising Veda, or she would never do these extreme behaviours. Mildred was basically buying love when she bought all of the stuff(house, dress etc) for Veda’s concert. At the end, this film show that relationships cannot be bought with money.
    Overall I really liked this TV series. I was able to learn a lot more about characters than if I watched an actual film.

  • Seni Membreno

    This Film/Tv show was a very unique creation by director Todd Hyenas for creating a film in which the audience can truly completely understand each and every character at a personal note from the 5 hour long series showing the lives of each character and there distinct reason of creation in the film. This has made a series feel like a long film by being able to capture the perks of both worlds. What I refer to is the ability to learn so much about each character as if its a very long Tv series but at the same time was able to blend each episode so nicely as to not disrupt the rate of conflict nor time period setting that the episodes take place in. This was made to overall create a movie series that feels as if you are watching a long movie because of the perfect transitions between episodes that make up a lifetime of events within a short amount of time and great transitions to piece each episode together as if it was simply a long movie all along.

    What this film does is create a highly realistic world with conflictable outcomes in which the audience can sit back and decide on a personal note, why the story was developed in the specific way shown through the many episodes. This leads to some viewers believing the film was truly about the depression or about our critical divorce rate in America and its effect on family, or simply showing a broken relationship between a mother and two lost daughters. This is unique in its own way as to let the audience decide what the films message is along with deciding why such conflicts within the film took place as they did and over all gives the viewer a very imaginative outlook on the entire story of the film.

    I personal Believe that this film was about a mother who went through physicological damage after the lost of her youngest daughter which scared her for the rest of her life which in return caused a chain reaction of events that created the highly damaged relationship with her other daugher Veda. In the beginning of the film, when Veda was acting very disrespectful, her mother Mildred was not afraid to step in and give her a beating in order to cancel out disapproving behavior. This is what is found to be normal between parents and what many believe is part of parenting in order to keep your child in check. However, after the random lost of her youngest daughter, Mildred was traumatized so badly that she switched over her intentions to having her focus be rather she was a good enough mother to her oldest child and doing anything possible for the feeling of approvement by her daughter. At this point she lost focus on true parenting and instead focused on her new desperate need to be a good enough mother to Veda no matter what it takes. This was shown as the mother was incredibly mentally and physiologically attached to her daughter Veda that she truly was never able to let go off which was developed after the death of her youngest daughter. Overall, the film showed me the outcome to a specific way of parenting that was caused by a traumatized mother that was never able to mentally recover, which created a chain of events of conflict that overall led to the very broken relationship that was never able to recover from a heart broken mother who was unstable after the lost of her first child which eventually led to the lost of her second daughter too.

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