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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Friday
Apr012011

« In Which Mildred Pierce Bids Goodbye To Sam Mendes »

The Fallen

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Mildred Pierce

dir. Todd Haynes

Guy Pearce plays Monty Beragon in Todd Haynes’ HBO remake of Mildred Pierce, the first bit of extant culture that would have never existed if not for Matthew Weiner besides Elisabeth Moss’ first marriage. Pearce almost makes up for ruining The Time Machine; during his love-making with Kate Winslet’s titular character he displays a maddening smile, as if desperate to remind us of how enthused he is by the intercourse. During one intimate moment he flashes a thumbs up.

The 1930s were rife with people — mostly women — pretending to enjoy intercourse. Gloria Steinem once admitted to Katie Couric that she had faked over 10,000 orgasms, which seems low. Remember when Daniel Mendelsohn was insulted because Weiner’s show was too preachy about how racist and sexist America was in the past? (Chuck Lorre has that review taped to the back of his bathroom door.) If you thought the 1960s didn’t have black people in them, wait until you see Todd Haynes’ version of Los Angeles in the 1930s.

Haynes has always been one of the most distinctive American filmmakers — 1998's Velvet Goldmine remains a work of unadultered genius — and now Todd is even willing to appeal to an older generation desperate to relive the genre conventions of early Hollywood. Mildred Pierce is a Horatio Alger novel, rolled into a romance novel, with the rest copied from Theodore Dreiser. Haynes’ version of it is so much better than the original it is hard to believe the two are even related. The director's Mildred is sort of an olden day Elaine Benes; she means well but she ends up sleeping with the weirdest guys. I believe Elaine even did Newman in an episode that doesn't run in syndication anymore.

After Mildred tosses her husband for working over some other lucky lady, she starts waitressing. Winslet holds every scene together by basically doing the acting Olympics: sometimes other members of the cast find themselves watching her. Once, in a hospital, she pretended to wake up so marvelously I thought they should have just faded to black. You can try to understand the reason that Sam Mendes was more interested in Rebecca Hall, but it definitely was not because Kate was not as good at acting.

Haynes' twist on the dated story is to invest it with a quivering tendentiousness that implies other possibilities. Every pseudo-heterosexual move of Monty Beragon shivers the timbers of women and men, and even Mildred's simple making of French toast engenders an otherworldly satisfaction. As in his Douglas Sirk-tribute Far From Heaven, Mildred learns how to experience the world in a more satisfying way, and whatever is not useful to her lies faded and wilting, sure to die. Shame and humiliation can be dispensed with if properly forgotten.

When Pearce's Monty Beragon picks her up on her last day working as a server, he takes her to his beach house, where there is not a single bookshelf. When she asks him if he's just a loafer, he produces his penis. They dazzle one another with the spontaneity of their love-making; he applauds her for her unpredictability. She says, by explicit request of an HBO executive, "I guess I've sort of fallen for you, Monty." 

When MP asks for a ride back to her house, Monty wags his engorged phallus back and forth while humming the music that played while that retarded plastic bag floated around. Do you think Roger Ebert looks back on his absurd **** review of American Beauty and thinks about how he can blame it on Bill Kristol? He probably should have packed up his shit the minute he wrote its last sentence: "He may have lost everything by the end of the film, but he's no longer a loser." Oops.

It must be frustrating to be way more talented than your partner but not able to say it, except when you whisper it between takes to Leonardo DiCaprio. Can you even imagine how many times Mendes made Kate sit through Road to Perdition, a film with a working title of Journey to Boredom? Collaborating with Mr. Haynes, by any measure the man to Mendes' childish grasp of cinema, is a direct hit for the former Mrs. Douchebag, although this particular new man in her life can't offer a romantic entanglement. If anything can turn Todd Haynes straight, it's probably not the outfits Guy Pearce wears in Mildred Pierce. (He looks like he was chopped off a slab of granite.)

men were often never nudes in the 30s

The Daily Mail covered Winslet's divorce like London was being bombed again: She was seen weeping at Mexico City airport on Sunday, but tried to cover up her distress by putting on over-sized black sunglasses. Kate is now receiving regular sex from a model, while Sam Mendes still has to look at Away We Go when he re-checks his own IMDB entry just in case. For both Mildred Pierce and Ms. Winslet, feeling bad for her is about the silliest thing you can do.

The parallels between Mildred Pierce and Kate Winslet’s own personal story percolate the drama. She is forever undressing or being undressed, and she is never alone, never without someone to witness some instance of her ignominy. Forcing herself to consider a job as a housekeeper, she finds she cannot possibly accept a lot in life as a servant, which seems more about her vision of herself than sheer repugnance for what appears to be a difficult job.

something old, something newThere are rumors - only rumors - that after Winslet saw Away We Go, things were never the same. She kept asking her friends in private moments whether their husbands smiled during sex, and if they thought Vendela Vida's novels were any good. The Believer started to seem a little cloying and the ubiquitous presence of rose petals in the Mendes home began to trouble rather than comfort her. She found she had come to loathe the very sight of Rainn Wilson.

For some reason they did not have cell phones in the 1930s, probably because Japan was just a twinkle in the eye of Michael Crichton back then. After Mildred moves on to her new life, her youngest daughter falls ill and no one can reach her. The story of the woman whose personal life evaporates as her business interests soar usually ends in Christina Hendricks being forcibly raped by her husband in Don Draper's office. Mildred's punishment is less clear.

Whenever men imagine the emotional lives of women, it usually says more about the men themselves. The males in Mildred Pierce aren't puppets and they aren't decision-makers. It's like they're all taking lexapro or listening to the Barnhouse Effect. Mildred has just as much agency as Alger's Ragged Dick, but she's also more beneficent than Mother Teresa when it comes right down to it. She even spanks her older daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, starting this Sunday) adorably.

The men are just as harmless, even impotent, like a story incapable of frightening you because you know the ending. We already know what will happen to Mildred Pierce, but we must refresh websites continuously to find out what will become of Kate Winslet.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about the love life of Warren Beatty. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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Reader Comments (4)

This is great! Really funny. But I don't believe Elaine ever slept with Newman.

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteremma

"It must be frustrating to be way more talented than your partner but not able to say it, except when you whisper it between takes to Leonardo DiCaprio."

Haha

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKara

brilliant

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

I kept finding it hard to believe that a man wrote this book in the 30s but I guess if there was anyone who could, it was Cain.

April 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHC Carr

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