The original “Mildred Pierce” is one of my wife’s favorite movies. If she’s ever feeling blue, that’s a go-to flick of cherce. I have to admit, it’s so stylish-looking and so juicy and melodramatic that it is hard to resist. Now, there is a new HBO mini-series based on James M. Cain’s novel. In the New Yorker, Hilton Als, breaks it all down:
By the late thirties, when Cain began to think about writing “Mildred Pierce,” his fourth novel—his third, the underappreciated “Serenade” (1937), was another first-person account of male alienation—life was dictating a new reality. (A five-part miniseries adapted from the book, and directed by Todd Haynes, will première on HBO on March 27th.) Cain had recently befriended a woman named Kate Cummings, who did perhaps more than anyone else to urge him toward a more sympathetic and complex view of women’s need for both conventionality and freedom. Cummings, the single mother of the actress Constance Cummings, had sacrificed her own prospects as a singer to get her daughter the training and the exposure she needed to become a star. What Cain saw of Kate’s life—and the nearly selfless love with which she made Constance’s career happen—may have jump-started his imagination. After creating two antiheroines, probably inspired by Hemingway’s view of woman-as-death, Cain paid homage to his friend’s indomitable spirit. He set out to explore what one of his characters would call “the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July, a grass widow with two small children to support.” As he was writing, employing the third person and creating a female protagonist for the first time, Cummings stood over him, prodding him to revise whenever she felt that his perceptions of a working mother did not ring true. When “Mildred Pierce” was finally published, in 1941, Cain’s alternately stilted and full-bodied portrait of a striving woman was well received, but few reviewers noted the fact that the novel was also a study of a woman who, time after time, subjugates her own needs to those of her child.
I’m curious to see the HBO show but it’s not likely to replace the original in my heart.