The triumph of 'Mildred'

TELEVISION CRITIC

Todd Haynes' five-part HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce" is not just great television, it's a revelation.

Wresting James M. Cain's original story of ambition and maternal morality from the camp-classic embrace of the 1945 Joan Crawford film, Haynes has created not only a rich and nuanced vehicle for his A-list cast -- among them Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce -- he has given us a rare and valuable gift: an American melodrama about class.

In the last half-century, Americans have become increasingly uncomfortable with conversations about class. We prefer race, sexuality and celebrity; stratifying the world by fame is our new take on egalitarianism. How different can Snooki be from Donald Trump when they both star in reality shows? Class we leave to the British; American television may dabble in lives not lived under vaulted ceilings and easily met mortgages -- "All in the Family," for instance, and more recently "Raising Hope" and "The Middle" -- but the message is almost always one of affirmation rather than frustration: "We may be poor but we are happier than most."

Mildred Pierce (as played by a frumpified Winslet) is most decidedly not happier than most.

And why should she be? It's the middle of the Depression and her husband, who once ran a successful Glendale real estate development firm, isn't just nonchalant about being out of work, he's taken up with some local dame so lacking in moral structure she doesn't wear a bra.

Mildred, on the other hand, is lashed to the mast of social convention by bra, slip, print dress, apron and a desire to rise despite national economic conditions. While her husband dallies, she makes cakes and pies so her older daughter Veda (Morgan Turner) can keep taking piano lessons and talking like an Astor.

After a scene of domestic acrimony over who's doing the work around here (which resonates far beyond place and time), Bert Pierce (Brian F. O'Byrne) packs his bags and moves in with the braless Mrs. Biederhof. Mildred is left to the kind but canny ministrations of her neighbor Lucy, played with breathtaking aplomb by Melissa Leo, who brings the on-screen Oscar count up to two and the conversation down to brass tacks -- there are only two ways a woman can make money in this world and the first doesn't require her leaving the house.

Where Crawford's Mildred was clearly a victim, a lady hiding her klieg light under a bushel basket, Winslet's is a subtle, sweaty and compelling mess. Of pride and grit, self-indulgence and self-neglect, common sense and delusion. Not since Edith Wharton's Lily Bart has there been a woman so fatally caught in the treacherous gap between eras, who so embodies the American hypocrisy regarding hard work and prestige.

Although Mildred is not above following Lucy's advice to accept the sexual attentions of Bert's partner Wally (James LeGros) in the hopes he will provide financial support, Mildred is too modern to simply seek a higher-status husband. But she still clings to the belief that a woman who works automatically surrenders her status -- she keeps her job a secret, even from her children.

It doesn't help that daughter Veda has internalized all of Mildred's, and society's, longing for upper-class security, happily disgorging preternaturally snotty remarks about proper behavior. To Veda, "middle class" is a pejorative, and one she bestows upon her father's paramour with a visible shudder. Veda wants fine things and fine friends, to live in Pasadena, where all the quality folk dwell. (On top of everything else, this "Mildred Pierce" is a gorgeously rendered portrait of Los Angeles when the downtown theaters still glittered and the social elite wouldn't dream of living among the immigrant artists at the beach.)

Mildred finally swallows her pride (an act that makes her vomit) and takes a job as a waitress, which she augments by selling the restaurant her own pies. Soon she has a thriving bakery on the side and before she can say "Veda, that uniform is mine and you knew it," Mildred is opening up her own restaurant, which quickly becomes a chain and teaches her the perils of wealth.

But Mildred Pierce is neither Horatio Alger nor Silas Lapham; Cain's story is not about personal ambition but the more terrifying maternal version. Early on, Mildred learns the cost of pursuing her own pleasure -- when she uncharacteristically takes off for a weekend fling with a handsome customer, Monty Beragon (Pearce, dashing and debauched down to the pencil moustache) just for the fun of it.

After that, Mildred's dedication to Veda doubles and her desperate need for Veda to be extraordinary to justify her own life choices should give many a modern parent pause. There are no angels in this "Mildred Pierce, " and the only sweet satisfactions on offer are Mildred's pies.

Winslet, grim and unsmiling for almost the entire 5 1/2 hours, is determined to create a woman driven by judgmental internal voices so loud you can almost hear them; her only sources of pleasure are the emotionally sadomasochistic relationship with her daughter and occasional bursts of hot but manic sex with men she doesn't much respect. Leo's Lucy serves as Cain's stand-in, the tough-talking voice of reason; Pearce, last seen in "The King's Speech," further polishes the spineless, sexy cad; O'Byrne is steady and believable; and Mare Winningham does a brilliant, though all too short, turn as Ida, Mildred's first supervisor turned employee.

The only false notes are hit by Veda. As both a child (played by Turner) and an adult (Wood), she is untouched by the subtle complexity Haynes and co-writer Jon Raymond bring to the other characters. In the early years, she minces through scenes like "The Bad Seed's" Rhoda Penmark. As an adult, she is a bit more shaded -- the scene in which Veda realizes she will never be a great pianist is astonishingly powerful -- but for the most part she remains one-note, a sociopath among flawed but struggling humans. Her emergence as a splendid classical singer after mere months of training may be true to Cain's narrative, but here it only serves to make Veda even less human. Surely it's no coincidence that by the end of the tale, Veda too has abandoned her Pasadena-based definition of high society for, what else? Celebrity.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Mildred Pierce'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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