Movies We Like
Joan Crawford grabbed at life the only way she knew how—by the balls, baby. She fled a hard scrabble childhood full of the horrors to become the reigning queen of Hollywood. She defied so many odds put in front of her and she almost always came out on top. Joan was many different versions of herself throughout her life: gold digger, jazz baby, Pepsi hawker, perennial MGM shop girl, terrible, terrible mother, the greatest star the world has ever known, poster woman for mental illnesses, bizarre recipe creator, transgender identity pioneer, role model to the uneducated, black market baby taker, dubious advice giver, enemy of slovenly hippies, the world’s most famous neat freak, world class fashion don’t… she did it all. Her crazy life was her greatest work of art.
When people talk about Joan’s essential artifice (and likewise the supposedly superior talents of her chief star rival, Bette Davis) I don’t understand why they mean it in a bad way. Her artifice was the whole picture and it was riveting. It gave her a unique kind of depth. It set her apart. She didn’t want to be liked; she demanded to be worshiped. Whether in a black market stag film early in her career (as was rumored) or any number of MGM prestige pictures or in her obsessive assembling of her bizarre family set up, Joan’s way of life was to attack. Her ambition was her identity. This can be either repulsive or, if she was in the right film, it can be put to very compelling use.
Mildred Pierce was the role Joan was born to play. She was no shop girl ingÃ©nue by the time she landed the role. She was pushing 40 and had just been handed a pink slip by Louis B. Mayer at MGM. Forced to start over after having become a huge star in the years prior, Joan wound up at Warner Brothers with her tail between her legs, forced to compete with Warner’s other reigning movie queen, the legendary Bette Davis. Joan knew playing Mildred would be her chance to get back on top—to show all the Hollywood creeps who had written her off as last year’s box office poison that no one messes with a true star. Mildred Pierce is Joan in all her ferocious brilliance. She’s the unloved hash slinger with a chip on her giant shoulder that manipulates all the conniving men in her life to get ahead and make something of herself. The sordid tragedy of it and what makes it a true Joan story is that she sweats and slaves all for the love of the single biggest bitch of a daughter who ever slithered onto the silver screen.
Veda Pierce, that nasty piece of work, is so utterly irredeemable that you almost end up liking her for being so constantly awful. It’s some kind of achievement. She’s the answer to the mystery of Mildred’s life. Mildred puts up with a philandering dud of a husband and ignores the easy affections of her younger, more likable daughter, Kay, all in the hope that cruel Veda will accept her and think of her as something more than a pie baking loser in a bad house dress. Mildred is unhealthily obsessed with Veda. She wants Veda to be cultivated and refined and important so that Veda can justify Mildred’s own abject misery. When her drip of a husband Bert finally leaves for good to shack up with his neighborhood mistress, Mildred must finally take on the world the way she has always yearned to. She will give her snob daughter everything she demands and, in Mildred’s eyes, this will be the answer to all of her problems.
As soon as Bert is out of the picture his former real estate business partner Wally comes around to Mildred’s Glendale bungalow like a wolf on the prowl. Wally, played by Jack Carson, has a wonderfully sleazy charm that he lays on thick. He wants a drink and he wants Mildred and he’s a man given to acting on his impulses. Mildred gives him the brush off but their lives remain intertwined because both desire something from each other. Mildred wants Wally’s business smarts in helping her open her own restaurant and Wally wants Mildred in the sack even if he has to wait for it. He’ll bide his time with another martini.
Before Mildred’s future business success we get to watch her full transformation from desperate housewife forced to wait tables to make ends meet after her husband has left her high-and-dry to full-on force to be reckoned with, the fried chicken queen of Southern California. The montage scene of waitresses in the diner where she works carting dishes from table to table, yelling orders at the line cook, and all the kitchen steam and chaos that a bustling restaurant runs on is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It’s rare to see the nitty gritty of “women’s work” in a film from any era. It’s the kind of work that isn’t respected so it’s ignored but Joan’s audience was primarily women at this point and it’s obvious that part of her appeal to her fans was the sense that she knew what it was to have an ordinary, hard life and she gave them her all.
Mildred makes fast friends with a gal named Ida played by the incomparable Eve Arden. Ida is the lone comic relief in an otherwise dark and stormy film that always has a witty put down for any occasion. Meanwhile Veda is enjoying the fruits of Mildred’s labor. The family now has a maid which is satisfactory to such a wannabe aristobrat as Veda until she discovers the shameful truth of what her mother does for a living. Why she’s a waitress! Veda is just not happy about this and lets Mildred know that she is deeply ashamed. Veda gets a sick thrill from making her mother fall apart. As Ida later says, “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”
Mildred gets Wally to help her land a rundown old building owned by the scion of a wealthy Pasadena family, the entirely weasel-like Monte Beragon played by Zachary Scott. Mildred and Monte hit it off and just as things heat up between them Mildred’s younger daughter Kay dies of pneumonia. At least she still has Veda, Mildred tells herself, as if she really ever wanted more than Veda, the worst daughter in the whole world.
Pretty soon Mildred’s restaurant (called Mildred’s) is thriving. Ida helps her run the kitchen and life with Monte and Veda is happy for all three. Even Wally turns up to celebrate how swell everything is going for them. But something’s rotten beneath the surface. Monte and Veda spend all their time together with Veda voraciously soaking up the old money grandeur that Monte exudes for her. She doesn’t want piano and French lessons now, she wants polo matches with Monte at her side. Both Monte and Veda depend on Mildred to keep raking in the dough to support their exclusive activities. It seems that Monte has an old money name but not a lot of actual money. It’s all gone and he’s now leeching off of Mildred to keep the champagne and good times flowing. Mildred, so ecstatic to finally have her daughter’s approval, eagerly complies, stuffing Monte’s tuxedo pocket with cash whenever he needs it.
Things get out of control though. Mildred’s has franchised and it’s here in the film that we witness Joan’s second transformation. Where she started the film as a plain Jane housewife she now goes from leggy entrepreneur to fiercely hair styled force of nature in a butch suit. It’s as if her newfound power has come spiked with testosterone. She is still a beautiful woman with a face that the camera adores but she’s now severe in a way that Joan would come to be increasingly identified with in her later films. It’s a fascinating and brave choice to go with as it’s so unusual. It’s not playful and sexy exactly in the way that Marlene Dietrich is when she took on a masculine identity in films like Morocco when she had her famous same-sex kiss in a tuxedo. There’s a middle-aged kind of hardness, a steely exterior to her now and yet it’s still glamorous. She has been the shop girl. She has had the failed marriages and her dancing days are long since gone. She’s got power and experience now and it shows, adding to the iconic quality of the performance.
As I said things are now a little out-of-control in our story. After having briefly been on the outs Monte and Mildred get married to satisfy Veda’s greedy demands. They move into the Pasadena mansion of the Beragon family that Monte needs Mildred to buy. Everyone loves going to Mildred’s for the excellent chicken and business is booming, but Mildred is going broke trying to pay for the lavish lifestyle that Veda and Monte require. Wally, a business partner in the endeavor, tells her that the business will be taken away from her; she has blown through too much cash. Worse, Mildred discovers the dirty secret that Veda and Monte have been hiding from her—they are having an affair behind her back. Joan suffers tremendously in her fur coat having been given the bad news at her beach house when she walked in on them, her life now destroyed. Veda is unrepentant and lashes out at her mother yet again. Mildred leaves in tears but there are other violent and revenge-filled surprises in store. Veda gets into her worst trouble yet and Mildred still is there ready to bail her out, ready to take her back, ready to believe the lie that this time things will be different. But this time it might not work.
Mildred Pierce is, as far as I’m concerned, a noir. It was written by the great James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, one of the titans of the crime thriller. His specialty was the murky flood of desire that drove people to commit crimes of passion. His protagonists are entirely ordinary people caught up in obsessive lustful relationships that knock them off whatever moral equilibrium they normally possess. Mildred Pierce is different in that the poisonous relationship is between a mother and a daughter. Mildred’s need for Veda isn’t sexual but it is pathological and abnormal and leads to violent ends. Mildred’s not a saintly mother; she’s a mess, an enabler. She isn’t helping her daughter by begging for her love, she’s rewarding Veda for her most rotten of qualities. It was a great role and it was Joan’s swan song. Mildred Pierce cemented Joan’s legend much like her surprisingly tiny footprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It was never so good for her in Hollywood ever again. She had come roaring back from exile and on her own terms. She got her one and only Oscar for the role of Mildred and had finally proved wrong all the men in her life that she had been forced to rely on to help her kick to the top of the Hollywood food chain (for a price). Mildred is closer to the truth of Joan than anything we’ve gotten of her story since. There was never another like her. I’d like to think that she is now at peace with all that was wonderful and horrible about her life and all that she accomplished and is right now having a shrimp cocktail and Tom Collins at that great big supper club in the sky.
Mildred Pierce won an Academy Award for Best Actress (Bette Davis) and was nominated for 5 other Oscars.