Mommie Dearest and Her Devil Daughter

Kate Winslet in "Mildred Pierce." Andrew Schwartz / HBO

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. Worse, Mildred becomes her willfully blind enabler. "I don't want her to just have bread," Mildred tells her friend, Lucy. "I want her to have cake."

Mildred is finally forced to take work as a waitress, although she refuses to breathe a word about it to her children. Ray, the cheerful younger daughter, probably wouldn't care one way or another, but Veda would be horrified and scornful. Mildred herself is horrified, and that is one of the things that makes her so hard to like. The other is her grim refusal, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, to see that she is nursing a viper in her bosom. And when Ray dies of a fever, the rattlesnake is the only one left in the nest.

Although the mini's chief selling point with HBO audiences may be Mildred's soapy, steamy romance with wastrel playboy Monty Beragon (beautifully played by Guy Pearce), the most vital sequences have to do with Mildred's rise to success in a man's world, first selling her pies and pastries to the hash house where she works, then opening her own restaurant. As distasteful as she finds her waitressing job, Mildred is a careful, almost predatory observer, and working in a come-n-get-it café teaches her all the pitfalls of food service. Chief among them are excess waste and too many choices. When she opens Mildred's, there are two basic items on the menu: chicken and waffles. She becomes, in a sense, Colonel Sanders in a woman's body—and quite the splendid body it is. Cain's novel describes a lady of voluptuous charms. Joan Crawford was not that woman; Kate Winslet is.

Mildred expands to three restaurants, experiences giddy success, and then loses everything (hence, back to Glendale). She blames the men who gave her too much credit and too much bad advice, but the real culprit is Veda, who hangs on her like a leech, bleeding Mildred dry until she blossoms as a coloratura soprano (something that happens late, with no foreshadowing, and in spite of her nonstop cigarette consumption). Veda leaves for New York, but not before committing one final act far too shocking for the 1945 version of Mildred Pierce to even contemplate—hence the trumpery murder plot. I think Veda's last betrayal will jolt even modern viewers, and Evan Rachel Wood is amazing in her penultimate scene. Nudity has rarely looked so evil. Or so enticing.

There's terrific acting in Todd Haynes's chilly remake. Melissa Leo gives a tough-as-nails performance as Mildred's one friend, Brían F. O'Byrne is perfect as Mildred's clueless but basically good-hearted first husband, and as for Winslet and Pearce … holy crow. I detest the term "chemistry" to describe actors playing people who are sexually attracted to each other, so let's just say these two are in perfect, ferocious sync. Imagine Bogie and Bacall in hell and you'll get the idea. Winslet and Pearce don't just heat up Mildred Pierce; they damn near burn it down. If for no other reason, you may want to tune in to see two actors at the height of their creative powers and physical beauty.

All the same, there are problems here. Haynes has shown his love for the Hollywood version of America's past before, most notably in the remarkable but equally hard to like Far From Heaven (2002), and here it has gotten out of control. In words of one syllable? It's too damn long. I suppose that sounds impudent, coming from a guy who's written several doorstop-size novels, but I stand by it. When Emperor Joseph II purportedly told Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that his new opera had too many notes, Mozart supposedly replied, "Only as many as necessary, Your Highness." Using that metaphor, the Haynes version of Mildred Pierce has way too much sheet music.

In his memorable introduction to three of James M. Cain's early novels, Tom Wolfe wrote: "Picking up a Cain novel [is] like climbing into a car with one of those Superstockers who is up to forty by the time your right leg is in the door." In this version of Mildred Pierce, you are not only in the door by the time the story gets up to cruising speed; you have had time to buckle your seat belt, turn on the radio, leaf through the latest issue of Photoplay, and eat a Butterfinger.

The Depression-era set decoration is perfect, and you get to appreciate all of it because Haynes lingers on each stucco bungalow, each deserted seaside road, each overdecorated Beverly Hills manse. There are soporific panning shots and at least one dolly-track sequence that seems well-nigh endless. Mildred and her friend, Lucy, are at the seashore, and I began to think they were going to walk all the way to San Diego. Perhaps even Mexico City. There are enough shots of a pensive Winslet seen through rain-beaded windshields to make you feel like screaming. Yes, she's beautiful, I kept thinking, so why the hell isn't the director getting her to do something more interesting than staring at the windshield wiper? Cain's novels are quick, hard stabs to the heart. His most famous book, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is just 128 pages long. The original paperback version of Mildred Pierce was only 250 pages. You could read the whole thing aloud before the miniseries finishes. I think Cain would marvel at the acting and production values, but roll his eyes at the plodding pace. Probably Elmore Leonard, whose famous recipe for good entertainment is "leave out the boring parts," would do the same.

And yet Mildred Pierce has a visceral, snake-farm fascination. Any mother who's ever had daughter troubles (I'd guess that would be most who have daughters) will be immediately engaged. And whatever other problems the mini may have, Haynes clearly conveys Cain's basic message: when you allow a kid to grow up unfettered by conscience or scruples, the result is apt to be unpleasant. In his introduction, Tom Wolfe calls Veda "a little bitch." Yet we finish able to offer Mildred at least conditional forgiveness. Veda is, after all, what she has, and Mildred fights for it, tooth and nail. And there's this bonus: Haynes has given us Cain's original shocker of a climax unvarnished and in lurid close-up.

In the end, though, Winslet carries this show on her sturdy shoulders, and when someone hands her the golden winged lady next year, I'll be the first to applaud. Did I hear someone out there say, "You're jinxing her"? Nonsense. Winslet's Mildred is a genuine star turn.

How Joan Crawford would have loathed her.

King is the author, most recently, of Full Dark, No Stars.