From Bogdanovich to Heckerling, it’s been a week of promise in the trades. Well, that week seems to have gotten one day better. Just yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter announced director Todd Haynes and Kate Winslet will be reviving Mildred Piece for HBO.
Ordinarily, the thought of excavating a half-century old high-camp melodrama – a Joan Crawford melodrama no less – would hit me the wrong way. Do we need yet another nouveau-kitsch, self-congratulatory design-fest? (Okay, laugh, but you must admit the genre’s got to be twenty years old already.) But this time around there’s no denying the many layers of cleverness at work here.
First of all, Winslet’s up to it. She’s long since proven she has what it takes – what Crawford had in spades – to play the kind of voracious, almost unhinged personality that, despite her nervous edge, we always seem to understand. As far back as Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson’s best film, and certainly one of her strongest, Winslet was showing signs of becoming the kind of actress she officially became in Little Children and then again two years later, with new shades of pain, in The Reader. Flip the coin and you have Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Mildred Pierce should place her in between.
And then there is Todd Haynes, who I like to think of as the evil Cukor. After films like Safe, Velvet Goldmine, and (gulp) Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, you could easily see him at the helm of darker versions of A Star is Born, A Woman’s Face, and Gaslight, pictures that lend themselves to the kind of boozed-up, broken-down, showbizzy ladies in peril he – and Cukor – so flagrantly adores. And then there is his 2002 film Far From Heaven which deserves a mention in a sentence all its own. Of all the revisionist films of the 90s, none was more conscious of its source (Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life among others), and less smug than Far From Heaven. Thankfully, Haynes overcame the temptation to put down on melodrama, to make a joke of its excesses, and instead, approached the tricky 1950s with the kind high-seriousness James Ivory once invested in the Edwardians. More than that, Haynes surrounded himself with a team of technicians, from Elmer Bernstein to cinematographer Edward Lachman, who so completely understood their era, and were so thorough in reviving it, that the film actually seemed less a retrospective consideration than an artifact of the past – but with decidedly contemporary emotions. No shrieking women and smashing plates. Just Julianne Moore at her pale-faced best.
With Far From Heaven, Haynes introduced a whole generation to a genre that had long since been ignored. He was in part politically motivated; gay themes were well served by the style and ideology of Douglas Sirk (Almodovar had his own riff with 2006’s Volver). Similarly, Mildred Piece, with its basic depression-era anxieties, will surely address today’s circumstances – and not without a little fun too. Remember, this is James M. Cain we’re talking about: “With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.”