Joan Crawford wanted the role of Mildred Pierce badly. But by the time Warner Brothers began production on the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, Crawford was considered a bit of a has-been. She hadn’t starred in a film in two years, since she had been let go of her MGM contract. Furthermore, the director of “Mildred Pierce”, Michael Curtiz, didn’t want to work with her because of her difficult reputation. Crawford decided to do a screen test for the part, something most established stars didn’t usually do, and she was so good, Curtiz relented.
“Mildred Pierce” is a drama with a film noir twist. The introduction begins with the aftermath of a murder, and Mildred (Crawford) being questioned by the police. Mildred starts to tell her story, and the bulk of the rest of the film is a long flashback on her life. A housewife with two daughters, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe), Mildred is left to fend for herself when she separates from her husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett). Wanting to give Veda everything, Mildred starts her own restaurant with the help of realtor Wally Fay (Jack Carson), and soon becomes a successful businesswoman with a chain of restaurants throughout southern California. But as Veda grows older, she becomes more materialistic and scornful of what she considers her mother’s lowly occupation, despite the fact that Mildred does all she can for her.
“Mildred Pierce” is an engrossing drama that Curtiz manages to keep from going too far over the top. Blyth is positively hateful as Veda in her first real dramatic role. But it’s Crawford who gives arguably the best performance of her career as Mildred, a role few other actresses in Hollywood wanted, since nothing would age them more than playing the mother of a teenager. But Mildred’s strength and independence are admirable, and the viewer roots for her all throughout the movie. Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actress that year, but she didn’t attend the ceremony, fearing she wouldn’t win and be humiliated. She feigned illness instead, but when she heard she’d won, she was quick to jump out of bed, get dressed, put on her makeup, and meet the press.
“Mildred Pierce” is available to rent or buy on all digital platforms, and is available to stream on the Criterion Channel through the end of November. Runtime: 111 minutes.