“Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”
It’s difficult to know how much more Mildred Pierce could have done to win the Oscar in 1945. Director Michael Curtiz had put in some stirringly patriotic pictures throughout the recently won war, not least the adored Casablanca. The spitfire script was adapted from a James M Cain novel (by, amongst others, William Faulkner), it features one of the dastardly protagonists of all time and Joan Crawford in the central role is at the very height of her powers.
It seems, however this galaxy of greatness was not enough for the Academy voters. When they met on the evening of March 7th 1946 they chose The Lost Weekend for Best Picture, plumbing as the Oscar constituency often does, for a film that wallows in morose introspection.
Not that The Lost Weekend is a bad picture, mind you. I mean Ray Milland and Howard da Silva, what’s not to love? But it is somewhat limited. It’s a snapshot of a few days in the life of a man on a downward slope and rewards the audience with only the mildest redemption at its close. In comparison Mildred Pierce is a magnum opus that tracks the growth of a bright young woman hemmed in by the limits of a suburban life. In this case it’s a loser husband (he’s a fairly decent guy but a loser is a loser) and two daughters. The bills mount up, the girls’ education becomes more expensive with each passing day and to top it off her husband begins to have an affair in plain sight.
Clearly a change in direction is needed. Her useless spouse gets the boot, Mildred turns her cake making business up a notch and bags a job waiting tables downtown. Wouldn’t you know she’s pretty good at both trades and within a couple of reels she is opening up a chain of her own restaurants and attracting the attention of the most eligible bachelor in the city. In its beating heart however, this is film noir so we know the good times can’t last. Sure enough, a dead body turns up and Mildred finds herself in police headquarters not even knowing whether she’s a murder suspect or just a friendly witness.
We actually see the murder at the opening of the film (though of course we don’t see the killer) followed by a fabulous sequence showing what must be the greatest frame-up of an innocent man in film history. A flurry of police activity follows and it’s when the protagonist is at the Chief of Police’s desk the story unfolds in typically Noir flashback.
Overall the film is a tremendous achievement, almost flawless. Part melodrama, part hardboiled thriller, part paean to the American Dream. It was the first film Joan Crawford made after she moved from MGM to Warner Brothers and she was never better, Curtiz never hit these heights again and nor did DP Ernest Haller.
To be nominated for six Oscars and to only take home one – step forward Joan – just seems cruel and makes you think the 1946 Academy was taking its cue from young Veda Pierce, the foul schemer at the centre of the movie who is only truly happy when bringing misery to everyone around her.
Mildred Pierce – directed by Michael Curtiz (1945)
Trapped in a dead-end suburban existence a housewife decides to turn around her life, only to find the greatest challenges come from those closest to her.