Saturday, April 16, 2011
I’m not surprised by the deafening drone of Mildred’s detractors, who were all too happy to give Boardwalk Empire the exact same breaks they withhold here—it dilly-dallies but it looks like it’s headed somewhere interesting, it’s indulgent but who am I to contain Martin Scorsese, it’s all style and no substance but maybe it’ll grow—but I am dismayed by the sheer refusal to engage with a woman’s picture as a woman’s picture. Chalk it up to whatever you want—cultural politics, the decline of the miniseries, the melodrama’s transfer into the men’s lockerroom—but Mildred Pierce is one of television’s only feminist works about feminism, set—where else?—in the Haynesian Hollywood Hills, cultural capital of tawdry scandal and constant performance. And just like its magnificent heroine, it thrives on underestimation.
By the end it’s clear that there are only a few paths for women in this world, while their men, struggling in the exact same dumpster economy, are knowingly or not subject to the whims and wiles of the feminine. Mildred sends Bert packing to Mrs. Biederhofer, who treats him like a stepping stone. Monty’s agency disappears almost as soon as he meets Mildred, his relevance to the story defined by his internalized resentment of her for supporting him; it’s the other side of the patriarchy. Wally needs Veda’s spell to be in full force before he winds up on top of Mildred in anything but a physical sense. Meanwhile Mrs. Biederhofer and Mrs. Forrester Linhart offer one model for women, always seeming to love the richest men in their lives. Ida offers the other way, working as hard as she can within the system, getting by as best she can. But this show ain’t called Mildred Pierce for nothing. She bides her time working inconspicuously until she can use it to her advantage, parlaying her domestic duties into an honest-to-goodness career. She doesn’t rebel against a gender-and-class oppression regime so much as she learns from it. It’s inside-the-box feminism.
Hence all those sumptuous interiors, everything in its place quietly contributing to Mildred’s good housekeeping resume. If I learned one thing from Betty Crocker’s Guide to Entertaining, Dinner Parties, and Female Things, it’s that your house is a reflection of you. Hence Monty’s trailblazing combination of luxurious façade and empty insides, and Mildred’s Visitor’s Center, a museum of the life she affects for onlookers. That’s not to suggest Mildred’s pretensions so much as her tireless work dressing for the life she wants. It’s an act, but one she turns into a reality.
Naturally Todd Haynes, master of Hollywood deconstruction and dollhouse expose, keys into the artifice, the roles and performances, the opera and the melodrama, the poisonous Greek myth curdling the American dream. Most notably is the hospital set, which looks like a three-wall soap opera fixture even though we see the reverse shot of Mildred against the fourth, thanks to a delicate tableau of color-coordinated extras and set decoration. Of course it’s soapy. Mildred’s ashamed of taking one afternoon off from her galactic responsibilities as worker bee and mother goddess, and Ray’s death becomes not just a tragedy but a source of shame, the internal version of societal oppression. Mildred Pierce tends away from the Sirkian color-blocking and furious furrowing of Far From Heaven, preferring subtler fourth-wall-breaking like lens flares and the tasteful restraint of classic Hollywood—the mansions are like In a Lonely Place or Sunset Blvd. but in color, and the costumes and hairstyles Depression-appropriate (i.e. not too flashy)—so when those big, bold moments happen, they announce themselves with a gong that won’t stop clanging.
Haynes isn’t reinventing the melodrama here. He’s operating, like Mildred, within the system, which demands sexual politics, violence, illness, corporate maneuvering, and naked, Electra-level betrayal. Which brings us, at last, to the smiling green gorgon called Veda Pierce. How did people miss the film's feminism when it presents so clearly the case for abortion? While Mildred’s restaurant is the child that claims the heft of the film—and thankfully so, though I packed on some pounds just watching that lurid pastry photography—Veda’s demands on her mother are so great that she is always in the emotional background cracking a whip across her back and screaming for more. How much of Veda’s life is performance is frightening territory I’d rather not confront, but where Mildred’s a shining ideal of capitalist ethic—pulling herself up by her bootstraps and then some—Veda’s the gaudy reality of amoral entitlement. And Mildred’s been trained so well she can’t cut ties entirely even at the end. She's a freed slave who just can't quite leave the plantation.
It’s a rejection of decisive victory. Every frame of Mildred Pierce depicts her struggle in a host of thankless roles with successes inspiring not congratulation but rebellion and resentment. It’s an everyday story that Haynes rightfully follows into excess. Mildred Pierce is nothing less than a fight for independence.