Todd Haynes’s “Mildred Pierce”: A Discussion

Todd Haynes’s HBO miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel is one of the best pieces of TV drama in recent years. (Kate Winslet won a Golden Globe for her performance in the title role.) In the fall 2011 issue of Film Quarterly, we published  “Sundays with Mildred,” Amelie Hastie’s in-depth article about the show. Continuing the discussion, what follows is a web-exclusive dialogue between Birkbeck, University of London Department of Psychosocial Studies lecturer AMBER JACOBS (who previously debated Black Swan with  Mark Fisher, also in the fall 2011 issue) and FQ editor ROB WHITE. Mildred Pierce is available on DVD and Blu-ray from HBO Home Video: the dual-format Collector’s Edition with director commentaries is list-priced $49.99, 4 discs. (Main photo: Andrew Schwartz. Courtesy of Home Box Office.)

SPOILER WARNING: This discussion assumes familiarity with Mildred Pierce and we recommend reading it only after having seen the miniseries.

Mildred Pierce. © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

ROB WHITE: The first screen adaptation of Cain’s 1941 novel was Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film starring Joan Crawford as the entrepreneurial title character. The movie quite gratuitously added a noir frame story. Who killed Mildred’s husband? She confesses but the cop realizes that the true culprit is her daughter, Veda, whom Mildred has been loyally trying to protect. Motherhood is therefore presented as wholesome, self-sacrificing, virtuous. Though Curtiz’s film departs from the novel with its crime-thriller spin, in this respect it replicates Cain’s conclusion that: “The one living thing she had loved had turned on her repeatedly, with tooth and fang, and now had left her without so much as a kiss or a pleasant goodbye. Her only crime, if she had committed one, was that she had loved this girl too well.” It’s true that the echo of Othello (“one that loved not wisely but too well”) points to something darker than selfless devotion—and, earlier on, Cain does at least broach the question of Mildred’s desire for Veda: “It didn’t occur to her that she was acting less like a mother than like a lover who has unexpectedly discovered an act of faithlessness, and avenged it.” But the novel’s verdict, like the 1945 film’s, doesn’t return to this.

The new adaptation (by Haynes and Jon Raymond) is very faithful to the novel but there are additions. Consider this one, in part 4. After their worst-ever argument, Veda screams words at her parent that aren’t to be found in the source: “You witch! You shrew! You hideous cow!” (This not long after Mildred has demanded, as she does in the book: “Haven’t I given you everything you’ve ever wanted?”) In an interview on HBO’s site for the show Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Veda opposite Kate Winslet as Mildred, explains how she approached the character: “In some ways I looked at Veda as a victim because I felt like she was suffocated and smothered and driven to a point of madness where she would just do anything to get away, to breathe.” Thus the miniseries insists that there’s more to love than selflessness. Which could be called a psychoanalytic perspective. Let me ask you, then, paraphrasing an old and contentious question of Freud’s—what do these two women want?

Mildred Pierce. © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

AMBER JACOBS:  Haynes’s (and Winslet’s) representation of Mildred is actually far less pathologizing than Cain’s, which betrays a barely concealed rage and hostility against the mother that cannot be found in Haynes version. The miniseries doesn’t reproduce the classical psychoanalytic construction of the overbearing, suffocating, possessive mother whose deadly desire threatens to swallow up the daughter’s identity, or imprison her in a boundariless folie à deux of psychic merging. Making the best of the more-than-five-hour running time, Haynes gives us a much deeper, many-layered reflection on the vicissitudes of desire. Mildred’s love is rescued from Cain’s spitefulness. Winslet’s extraordinarily empathetic and tender portrayal of Mildred allows for a subtle mediation on the psychic pains and pleasures of maternal subjectivity and love that, in line with Haynes’s other “women’s films” (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Safe, Far from Heaven) moves beyond typical (and typically psychoanalytic) phobias and blame-the-mother simplifications. Therefore I don’t think that desire is necessarily the best starting point because it risks reproducing structures that Haynes dismantles.

Instead, what about creativity? Mildred’s obsession with Veda is focused  on her passionate belief that Veda has something special inside her, a “gift” or “talent” that sets her apart. Curtiz abandoned the subplot of Veda becoming a successful coloratura soprano; Haynes restores it, exploring the ways in which Veda’s music intriguingly mediates between mother and daughter, setting up a dialogue between them (however fraught). What’s put in place is a relation between Mildred’s material, pragmatic, embodied creativity (her cooking and business acumen) and Veda’s abstract, disembodied, ethereal creativity as a performer. There’s scene after admiring, careful scene where we (and often Veda too) watch Mildred baking, waitressing, running her successful restaurant business. These scenes are put into dialogue with ones of Veda playing piano or singing. It’s like a philosophical opposition between different kinds of creativity that’s transferred onto the mother–daughter relation. It’s more than psychology, more than psychopathology. I contend that Haynes forces the question away from a mother-who-loves-too-much construction to the far more interesting question (explored also in the work of feminist theorist Luce Irigaray) of the possibility of representing mother and daughter outside Oedipal psychologizing—instead as a structure that can produce new (and liberating) thoughts. So rather than the question of what these women want, I would prefer to ask: what are they creating (both inside the fiction and outside, for the viewer)?

Mildred Pierce. © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

ROB WHITE: I think that introducing the idea of creativity—or rather a contrast between two kinds of creativity—is fascinating as an alternative to desire. But what’s the further relation between creativity and labor? As you point out, Mildred’s an indefatigable worker (and manager, investor, proprietor). At the employment agency in part 1, she says: “I just can’t go home and face my children knowing their mother works all day taking tips and wearing a uniform and mopping up crumbs”—yet when we see her in part 3 in charge of opening night at the first Mildred’s restaurant we can’t be in any doubt that she’s in her element working all day (and night). And for a long time it pays off handsomely. With Veda it’s different: no matter how hard she works at piano-playing, she’s “no damned good” (as she puts it in part 4). She goes further still, calling herself a “goddam punk.” Her transformation shortly afterwards into a fully-fledged concert coloratura is nothing short of magical. No training, no work is needed. She doesn’t even have to audition: her talent is recognized by chance (as she explains at Mildred and Monty’s wedding party in part 5) when Treviso (who had previously scorned her as a pianist) hears her singing to herself in a car park. Later, Veda continues, the impresario inspected her more closely: “If the wop hit gold in Death Valley he couldn’t have acted more like a goof. He started going over me with these little wooden hammers, gadgets with lights that went down my throat … turns out it wasn’t love he was looking for, just meat.”

Gold and meat. “Punk” actually resonates more once Veda’s singing career begins. The word’s different meanings—catamite, circus animal, kindling—suggest above all a dimension of exploitation, which significantly complicates the question of creativity. When the new hot singing property is approached  to make $1000 a week promoting Sunbake Bread (a deal whose broker is Monty), her agent rules it out: “she’s sold—she sings for Pleasant, the mentholated cigarettes, so it’s out of the question … a contract’s a contract.” What price creativity? Veda’s singing may be ethereal but it’s a commodity too. And it’s surely also more aggressive than “abstract” and “creative” might make it sound. In that same “punk” speech, she taunts her mother by alluding to Mildred’s favorite song: “Oh you damned ridiculous—are you trying to drive me insane? … You, lying there every day, dreaming about rainbows.” So when she entrances Mildred from the stage of the Philharmonic by singing “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” that earlier dismissive rebuke is part of the charade of devotion. Doesn’t emphasizing creativity risk downplaying both economic exploitation (and Veda’s connivance with it) and the destructiveness of the Mildred–Veda relationship epitomized by the dishonest serenade? If we don’t keep questions of desire, hostility, complicity, dependency in the frame won’t we end up sentimentalizing or idealizing Mildred Pierce?

Mildred Pierce. © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

AMBER JACOBS: Yes, the harsh economic climate of the great depression is the context for Haynes’s interrogation of creativity in Mildred Pierce. The question of the relation between labor and creativity is precisely what’s being explored (and fought out) in the relation between mother and daughter. The psychic economy is inextricably linked to the material economy. In Mildred Pierce everything is a question of economics, exchange, value, cost—whether it be the cost of chickens and piano lessons or the emotional cost of betrayal, separation, loss.

Mildred’s creativity is explicitly associated with production: the actual making of things, the grubby work that Veda so despises. Haynes’s long, sensual takes of Mildred baking, cake-decorating, cooking, cutting up poultry, and his frequent use of close-up shots of her deft hands at work fix her firmly in the realm of honest and wholesome work (the apparently ethically sound face of capitalism). Veda, however, doesn’t produce anything so material and tangible. Her voice, as you say, appears almost like magic, a supernatural enigmatic entity cascading through her from nowhere; Veda’s voice is the surplus par excellence—that rare prize whose value far exceeds the usual psychic or material economy. This voice lures not only the money grabbers who want to sell cigarettes and bread but also her mother, time and again. Mildred experiences a sense of intense communication with her daughter when she sings, a passionate desire, an addiction even; she wants to possess that thing inside her daughter that she always knew was there, that talent which gives Veda her inflated value.


Mildred isn’t duped by the cynical faked devotion of the concert encore: she has already put down her opera glasses, refusing the close-up view of her singing daughter after a brief glimpse of the hateful, aggressive, gorgon-like expression (shown in close-up through the glasses) that accompanies the sublime but deceitful performance. Doesn’t Mildred realize at this moment what she has created— a most unwholesome object, a monster more frightening than the “snake” Treviso calls Veda! She has invested so much, financially and emotionally, in her daughter’s belatedly realized internal magic, gift, surplus value, but in the final part she tries to destroy the source of the singing by strangling Veda with her bare hands (those wholesome, deft, hard-working hands). If Veda is commodified by those who try to profit from her voice, she certainly isn’t simply a victim: in a final act of extreme capitalist and emotional cunning she fakes the destruction of her voice after the attack by her mother in order to advance her career. Mildred’s creativity turns into destruction but Veda finds a way to benefit from this transformation; she in effect uses her mother’s hands to make her voice even more valuable. Veda double-crosses on a phenomenal level and it’s through manipulation of the tools of production (hands and voice) which represent mother and daughter’s opposing modes of creativity that she turns it all to profit.

Mildred Pierce. © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

ROB WHITE: Foul Treviso calls Veda a snake but it’s a wonder he can get the words out since his own fangs are so deep in the coloratura. I love your idea of the gorgon; called a serpent she reveals a whole headful of them. It’s very Veda. The more I think about the character the more I like her power and even her treacherous magic, though I’m sorry that she ends up chasing not rainbows but Sunbake once her feigned throat injury gives her the opportunity. But you’re right: Mildred flinches from the magnified sight of her daughter during the concert (though she goes on to applaud lustily before the interval). So, here and elsewhere, Mildred sees and she doesn’t see. At the beginning of part 4, she gets home from work and lies on the bed to listen to Veda’s piano practice. She closes her eyes as she listens. (This must be the habit that Veda’s referring to when she mocks her mother “lying there every day, dreaming of rainbows.”) For a moment she’s in a trance. Veda’s voice in the domestic setting is like a pain-managing shot, a kind of “mother’s ruin” (as gin was once called). And at the end of both novel and miniseries Mildred and Bert, now remarried, decide to blot out the suffering again: “Let’s get stinko,” they say, one after the other—as if it were an extension of the wedding vows. (And, after all, what else is it but that?)

“I’m going where there’s no depression,” sang the Carter Family in 1936 (revived by Uncle Tupelo in 1990), referring to heaven: “In this bright land, there’ll be no hunger, / No orphan children crying for bread, / No weeping widows, toil or struggle, / No shrouds, no coffins, and no death.” Mildred Pierce’s study of twisted desire could be said to be inseparable from the problem of depression, understood as both a socioeconomic predicament and a generic name for its psychic cost. I agree with you that the performances in the film, especially Winslet’s and Evan Rachel Wood’s, are intensely moving, but equally important to the miniseries’ impact is (with some important exceptions such as the opera-glasses shot) its under-surveillance cinematography by Ed Lachman, which Haynes explained in an interview in the August 2011 Sight and Sound is based on such New Hollywood films as Klute and The Parallax View—“paranoid” Watergate-era films with a pronounced sense of immense machinations entrapping their protagonists. This stylistic debt isn’t obvious but even if we don’t recognize it at first, wouldn’t we feel it all the same because the experience of watching Mildred Pierce involves having ourselves to discern an inexorable, as-if-conspiratorial tendency toward depression—a recognition made harder to tolerate because the characters are at once so magnetic and explosive (as if immune to dejection)? Why not get stinko, then? For there is also, as the dying doctor says in Haynes’s earlier Poison, “the kind of misery the whole stinking world is made of!”

Mildred Pierce. © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

AMBER JACOBS: Cain’s novel is utterly bleak, starkly depicting wretched human relations caught up in (having been produced by) grim social and economic conditions. As you crucially point out, the miniseries’ many-layered visual framing devices work strikingly to convey entrapment. And the ending of Mildred Pierce, with its double-crossing deceit and emotional cruelty and terrible loss, certainly undermines any hopeful sense of agency, pleasure, or progress; the trap snaps shut again. But Haynes also lets us see how Mildred’s struggles involve significant successful resistance to this immiserating condition. There’s Mildred’s triumphant business success and the enjoyment she takes in her skillful creative labor; there’s the intense sexual pleasure she finds in the otherwise emotionally dysfunctional relationship with Monty; there are the strong, supportive, noncompetitive friendships with Lucy and Ida that translate too into good working relations.  (The three women are all there together at the wedding party.) I would claim that the genuine pride and joy she takes—however briefly, before this too turns sour—in Veda’s musical genius is part of the other side of this dark story. There’s no denying the dark side: Mildred loses both her daughters, Monty, her business, and ends up right back where she started, married to Bert in the same little house in Glendale, committing herself as you say to a “let’s get stinko” resignation and oblivion.

The cinematic genre of the women’s melodrama, to which Haynes has so significantly contributed, is known precisely for a double-edged politics. It allows female characters to briefly experience alternatives to dominant, oppressive, gendered psychosocial norms—and then tightens the grip of these same norms with endings that return to the status quo. Much more than Cain’s novel, Haynes’s Mildred Pierce seems on the side of the alternative rather than the norm, and I think the scene you mention in which Mildred listens to Veda’s piano practice is actually indicative of this. I don’t read it as a foreshadowing of “let’s get stinko” denial, but rather as depicting a complex moment where something other than hate is transmitted between mother and daughter. Haynes’s representation of sound and space are very subtle here. Veda plays in the other room but Haynes focuses on her mother listening: the sound creates intimacy and proximity but there’s also (for once) a healthy distance.

There’s a similar but even more interesting use of sound and space in the scene at the end of part 4 when Bert and Mildred first hear Veda performing opera. Mildred moves away from the radio and turns to the raging sea but, paradoxically, Veda’s voice gets louder as this happens. The sound design is non-naturalistic; it no longer belongs to the modes and confines of the normal environment and suggests instead some other space of transmission between the two women. I connect this strange other dimension to the long sex scenes between Mildred and Monty as well as those tremendously strong female friendships: these are relations that can leak through the grids and machinations of social–psychic–economic entrapment. Haynes’s Mildred Pierce doesn’t flinch from exposing the harshness of exploitative, oppressive socioeconomic conditions, but it also presents—and is committed to—these other moments and spaces of resistance.


  1. Rosie says

    After reading this article, I get the feeling that many are deliberately blinding themselves from the heart of this story.

  2. Penny says

    I agree. There are many layers to this story. But please. Let’s not miss that at the heart of it is a mother who spoiled her child. All good intentions. But good intentions mean so little.

Comments are closed.