Mildred and Joan

The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 movie Mildred Pierce was released in the UK last month.  Fiona Pleasance contemplates Joan Crawford’s signature role

What makes a “woman’s film”?  In my copy of Susan Hayward’s “Cinema Studies: The Key Terms” you will find it under “Melodrama And…”, which seems like something of a tautology.  Though Hayward mentions the “male weepie” (often centred on fathers and sons), in general the melodrama has always mainly been associated with the female of the species.  Its setting, usually largely domestic, and its concern with relationships and emotional states aligned it with interests and traits long primarily considered feminine.

As applied to movies produced in classical Hollywood, the term “woman’s film” not only referred to plot and tone, but also to the primary intended audience and main characters, and Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce is one of the leading examples of the genre.  The film won Oscar nominations not only for the title character – played by Joan Crawford, who went on to win – but also two Supporting Actresses, Ann Blyth and Eve Arden, playing her daughter and her colleague respectively.  The power of all three women’s personalities is such that the male characters struggle to make much of an impression; all are unreliable in one way or another.  Though the women are far from perfect, they are competent, canny, and the natural centre of attention.

And no-one garners attention better than Joan Crawford.  Mildred Pierce is now considered one of, if not the, signature role of her career, and as is the way of these things, the movie thows up intriguing parallels and echoes between life and art.  Where does the role end and the actress begin?  Mildred is constantly let down by the men in her life, as was Joan.  Mildred learns to rely on herself, and manages to turn things around with application, hard work and a head for business, as did Joan.  Mildred has a rocky relationship with her oldest daughter, and so, famously, did Joan (though the world only really found out about it years later).  Female audiences could look at the character and the movie star who played her, impossibly wealthy and glamorous though she was, and still see echoes of their own lives: problems with self-esteem, with family, with men, but also possible solutions: nose to the grindstone, do the best you can.  The fact that Crawford, written off as “box-office poison” just a couple of years earlier, managed to reinvent herself at the ripe old age of forty-ish (hah!) and usher in the next successful phase of her career could perhaps give hope to postwar moviegoing housewives who felt underappreciated and over the hill.

In the context of the woman’s film, it is interesting that Mildred Pierce was actually adapted from a novel by an author not necessarily known for writing for that audience.  On the contrary, James M. Cain was one of the key proponents of the so-called “hardboiled” style, books which frequently formed the basis for Films Noirs of the 1940s and ’50s.  Two other of Cain’s novels were also made into movies around the time of Mildred Pierce: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, and all three books and films have strong (albeit sometimes evil) women at their centres, though it’s also worth noting that the murder which takes places in the movie of Mildred Pierce is not found in the book.

Whether Mildred Pierce itself counts as Noir is a matter of debate (I myself don’t think it does); but the movie undeniably shares some of the stylistic characteristics of those particular films, especially in the staging and lighting.  Director Curtiz makes exceptional use of shadow, and not just under Joan’s famous cheekbones.  And it is in the appearance of the film that this new Criterion Blu-Ray really comes into its own, being based on a gorgeous digital restoration which largely used the original nitrate camera negative.  (A short video about the process can be found here).  The film looks brand new, but in a way that an actual brand new movie never could.  The picture has a luminous, silvery sheen, unblemished by marks or scratches, and it’s worth watching the disc for this alone.

In one of those coincidences which I’m sure marketing folk would love to take credit for but almost certainly can’t, this new edition of Mildred Pierce has been released just as a strange approximation of Joan Crawford’s face is all over the media.  The first series of Ryan Murphy’s Feud has Jessica Lange playing Crawford against Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis.  I haven’t seen the series, but then I don’t really want to.  Much as I like Lange and Sarandon, when it comes to the actresses they are playing, I prefer to go to the source.  And for Joan Crawford, the ur-text has to be Mildred Pierce.

The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Mildred Pierce was released in the UK on 27th February 2017.  It includes the 4K digital restoration of the film, a conversation with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito, and several interviews and documentaries.

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