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'Mildred Pierce' recap, Parts 1 and 2: No good sex goes unpunished

March 28, 2011 |  6:30 am

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The marriage that opens "Mildred Pierce" is one that nobody wants to be part of: It's nothing but barely-lidded hatred. It’s probably for the best that her husband takes off, but this leaves Mildred (Kate Winslet) in a terrible place. She has two daughters -- Veda, a slightly affected adolescent, and Ray, a lovable little girl -- and it’s 1931, a time of terrible unemployment. At the grocery store, she counts her small handful of coins and removes the meat from her basket.

It makes sense for Todd Haynes to revisit this story now, after the 2008 recession, with so many Americans facing the same kinds of hardships Mildred does. It was written in 1941 by James M. Cain, and made into the 1945 film starring Joan Crawford. With five episodes, Haynes has time to be faithful to the original novel.

Her husband is no help, and Mildred is in increasingly desperate circumstances. She is told, bluntly, to choose her belly over her pride. But Mildred -- Mrs. Pierce, she insists -- just can’t swallow it. Facing humiliation after humiliation, she rebels.

She has a chance to be a domestic in a rich house, but she balks. She tries to play the gay divorcee -- which her friend Mrs. Gessler (Melissa Leo) calls a “grass widow” -- but instead of making nice after making love, she shouts at Wally, her would-be paramour, ruining her chances for taking the kept woman route. Left desperate and with no prospects, Mrs. Pierce finally offers herself up as a waitress.

As easy as it is to see her misery -- and Haynes gives us plenty of time watching the down-spirited yet undeniably beautiful Winslet suffering -- it’s harder to understand why being a waitress is the worst job imaginable. Yet it’s so bad for Mrs. Pierce that when she admits to Leo that that is the job she’s taken, she runs for the bathroom to get sick.

It is, by the way, a lovely bathroom, perfect vintage green tile, brilliant red toilet and rich pink tub.

This is one of the pleasures of watching Mildred Pierce; the novel was set in Glendale and Los Angeles. The credits reveal that New York often served as a stand-in for 1930s L.A., but Haynes does an admirable job of bringing our Depression-era city to life (except for those city stoops -- those are only found on studio back lots).

But it’s not the external spaces that are the focus: it’s Mildred’s misery. We see her again and again in reflections and behind windows, trapped behind glass. As Part I ends, she has reconciled herself, out of vicious necessity, to the idea of working as a waitress -- but she swears Mrs. Gessler to secrecy. She doesn’t want her daughters to know, particularly Veda, who she believes has a pride that she herself has had to sacrifice. In the final shot, Haynes’ camera moves slowly to reveal, on the other side of a window, the back of Veda’s head. She doesn’t turn, but we believe she must have heard.

There’s one lesson I forgot to mention from Part I. That’s this: Waitressing is hard.

We are reminded as Part II starts. Late at night, in her room, Mildred is practicing carrying plates, stacked up in rows along her arm.

Another lesson: If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might just become your restaurant’s pie supplier. If you make killer pies, like Mildred does.

Things are looking up for Mildred -- she gets her car back from her husband, who reappears to visit with their girls and the two manage to be civil. When she goes to the grocery now, her basket is full.

But little Veda is becoming troublesome, in a particularly haughty, class-conscious way. She gets Mildred’s newly-hired pie-baking assistant to call her "Miss Veda" -- and what’s worse, she has unearthed her mother’s waitress uniform and instructed the young woman to wear it. Her claims of innocence are hollow; her tone is cruel.

Not as cruel as Ann Blyth’s Veda from the 1945 film version, but give her time. This Veda is played by Morgan Turner; in  later parts, she’ll be played by Evan Rachel Wood, who may bring on the nasty.

Mildred and Veda have a confrontation over the uniform, evidence that Veda knows exactly how her mother is paying the bills. Mildred is still working at the hash house (it wasn’t exactly clear if her piemaking allowed her to quit her day job -- apparently not). Veda gets a slap across the face, and then spits, “Did you have to go and degrade us by becoming a waitress?” Her mother grabs the girl, who is really too big for a spanking, and throws her over her knee, smacking her a dozen times.

The two separate like prizefighters, going to opposite sides of their living room. Worn down, Mildred begins to be honest with Veda, confessing that she shared the girl’s disgust at the waitressing job. But she can’t stay there; she invents a fiction about taking the job because she wanted to open her own restaurant. This prideful lie gives them something they can both live with, and Mildred is inspired to fulfill it.

Turns out a few harsh words weren’t enough to deter Wally. He’s back in her bed, and when she asks him for financial advice, he instead delivers a space she can have for free, which she can only have if she gets a divorce. It seems a little shady -- how, exactly, does she get it for free? -- but she's eager for the chance to open her restaurant.

Did I mention that it’s a chicken and waffle restaurant?

Fans of Roscoe’s might be surprised. But James M. Cain really did write Mildred saying, “Everybody gets a chicken-and-waffle dinner, or chicken and vegetables if they want, all at the same price,” back in 1941 -- three decades before Roscoe’s launched. Cain, a New Yorker who moved to L.A., might have been inspired by Harlem's Wells Supper Club, which says it began serving chicken and waffles in 1938.

Anyway, back to Mildred: She gets a tender kiss-off scene with her soon-to-be-ex husband, and space for the restaurant, a houselike former real estate office sitting vacant. As the place is being spiffed up, the kids are off for the weekend with their grandparents and it's Mildred's last day as a waitress. Tasting freedom, she accepts the jaunty solicitation of new customer Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) to drive up to his rustic Santa Barbara beach house for a day of swimming.

“Swimming” with Monty is, for Mildred, something of a revelation. Some tasteful yet HBO-level naked lovemaking swiftly leads her to fall for him (literally) overnight. She neglects to notice that when she asks if he does anything more than loaf, he responds with a smooth do-it-again couch seduction. Upon their return, Monty gets a view of her restaurant, set to open in two weeks, and drives off in his fancy car.

But no good sex goes unpunished: Ray, Mildred’s sweet young daughter, is in the hospital.

The father, grandparents and Veda are waiting there: They tried to bring the little girl home, but Mildred wasn’t there. Where was she, Veda gasps. Somehow there’s a sense that simply by being a waiting-at-home mom, Mildred might have made Ray better.

How sick is Ray? No one is sure -- maybe it's nothing, maybe it's something very serious. The doctor takes drastic, expensive measures, and she improves enough so the rest of the family goes home. Mildred, guilty and determined to be the ever-present mom, stays -- and before morning comes, Ray has taken a turn for the worse, dying before Mildred’s eyes.

In the face of such tragedy, Mildred is lucky to have Monty. Or, you know, maybe not.

RELATED:

An interview with Kate Winslet

Review of "Mildred Pierce"

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Kate Winslet in "Mildred Pierce." Credit: HBO

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