Joan Crawford’s Oscar-winning performance in 1945′s Mildred Pierce was a career pinnacle she reached after a long and hard climb back from near oblivion. Labeled box-office poison and dumped from MGM, Crawford turned to Warner Brothers and put herself in the very capable hands of their film noir experts with sensational results. Swallowing her pride and taking a role that had already been turned down by three leading ladies, including her arch nemesis Bette Davis, was the smartest thing Crawford ever did. (Fans of Mommie Dearest will remember how Crawford ‘took to her bed’ with a fake illness on Oscar night rather than attend the ceremony and risk losing in person.)
The luscious blacks and whites of this melodramatic noir classic suit Crawford’s kabuki-like visage perfectly. As the ambitious, neurotic, and much put upon Mildred, Crawford is all eyebrows, cheekbones, and lipstick as she frantically tries to hold her little family together and make her way as a single mother and businesswoman.
Like Citizen Kane (well… not exactly like Citizen Kane), Mildred Pierce is told in flashbacks as the fur-clad Mildred is interrogated in a police station at 2 in the morning after a mysterious murder. Going back in time to the Depression years, we see Mildred’s life as a driven housewife with two daughters who can’t stand her unsuccessful husband’s lack of motivation, especially when she needs money to shower her spoiled daughters with dresses and gifts. The elder daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), is quite the brat, even suggesting after Mr. Pierce leaves so Mildred can marry his former business partner, with whom they can have a better house and a maid.
Newly single, Mildred heads out into the working world, landing a waitress job after convincing manager Ida (Eve Arden) that she’ll do anything to make a decent wage so she can take care of her family. To make additional money she bakes pies and cakes all night, and, with Horatio Alger-like speed, she’s soon opening up her own restaurant and then an entire chain of eateries. Mildred is a success.
She also has a boyfriend, the dashing Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), who is one of her financial backers. The trouble is that no matter how much money Mildred makes and no matter how she kowtows to her repellent daughter, it’s never enough for the vicious Veda, who soon sets her sights on stealing her mom’s man. Even Mildred’s marriage to Beragon doesn’t stop Veda from making her move. And since Beragon is a man after all (this movie is pretty tough on the male of the species), he can’t resist. Only a final showdown involving six rapid-fire gunshots will bring this ugly situation to its conclusion.
Mildred Pierce has everything going for it, starting with the sparkling script (which got some uncredited doctoring from none other than William Faulkner). Mildred gives as good as she gets, and her many debates with the men who move in and out of her life are thrilling, as are her gut-wrenching fights with the abominable Veda, one of screen history’s greatest bitches. Meanwhile, Eve Arden stands to the side delivering one zinger after another as she so often does in her screen roles. Add elegant cinematography, a swooping Max Steiner score, and an interesting overlay of post-war sociology, and you’ve got a movie that’s memorable in all sorts of ways. If nothing else, there are Crawford’s gowns to admire.
It’ll be about 10, 15 minutes.