Mommie Dearest and Her Devil Daughter

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen King; King is the author, most recently, of Full Dark, No Stars.

Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood burn up the screen in the spectacular HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

As the 1946 Academy Awards approached, there wasn't a lot of suspense about where the best-actor and best-picture trophies would wind up; Ray Milland and The Lost Weekend looked like shoo-ins. The best-actress competition, however, was a horse race. The general consensus was that Joan Crawford probably deserved the Oscar for her portrayal of Mildred Pierce in the film of the same name, but three of the other nominated actresses--Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Jones, and Gene Tierney--seemed more likely to win. The films those three women starred in were sunnier (particularly Bergman's The Bells of St. Mary's), and the actresses themselves were better-liked. Crawford was arrogant, overmannered, and difficult to work with. "I wouldn't sit on her toilet," Bette Davis once famously said.

Arrogant she may have been; stupid she was not. Terrified of losing, she pretended to be sick on the big night. The film's director, Michael Curtiz--originally dismayed to be saddled with such a difficult leading lady--accepted on her behalf. Crawford welcomed reporters into her bedroom only after her win was safely in the bag.

There'll be no such difficulties at this year's Emmy Awards, when Kate Winslet will very likely accept her own award. She isn't disliked in the Hollywood community, has no diva reputation (at least that I've been able to discover), she got to work from a script that closely follows James M. Cain's high-voltage story (the 1945 version veers wildly from the book, adding a ridiculous murder plot), and she acts rings around Crawford.

Does this make HBO's five-part miniseries--directed by Todd Haynes and gorgeously photographed by previous Haynes collaborator Edward Lachman--the television event of the spring? Um -- well -- that sort of depends on your sensibilities, Constant Viewer. If you're into Bright & Sunny, I suggest five evenings of Frasier reruns. Or you could put The Bells of St. Mary's in your Netflix queue. If, however, darkly compelling drama about people who aren't particularly likable (plus one nasty little girl who grows into a truly monstrous young woman) is your cup of bitter tea, you won't want to miss it.

Mildred Pierce opens in Glendale, Calif., in 1931, and closes there about 10 years later. During the years between, Mildred trudges with grim and not particularly admirable fortitude from one disaster to the next, dragging Veda, her harpy of a daughter, behind her like an anchor. Mildred survives--somehow--but the viewer is left with the sense that none of her victories mean much, and is apt to greet the credit roll at the end of part five with a sigh of relief. Don't get me wrong: this is compelling viewing, but when Mildred's tale finally wound up, I felt a little as I did when, as a child, I finally figured out how to get a Chinese finger-puller off my thumbs.

When we meet Mildred, she's putting the finishing touches on one of the cakes she sells and simultaneously tossing her cheating husband out on his ear. She accomplishes both tasks with aplomb, going after poor, bewildered Bert Pierce with the rat-a-tat delivery of a gangster's moll in a Cagney picture: "What do you do with her? Play rummy with her a while, then unbutton that red dress she's always wearing without any brassiere under it, and flop her on the bed? And then have yourself a nice sleep, and then get up and see if there's some cold chicken in the icebox, and then play rummy some more, and then flop her on the bed again? Gee, that must be swell."

Meanwhile, there's the awful Veda to consider. She's a monster, but not one (like Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed) who comes out of nowhere; she is her own mother with all the grace notes removed. Mildred, at least, is capable of love. In Veda, love has been annealed to a hard diamond of ambition. …