12 February 2010

Don't Mess with "Mildred"

I am a big film buff, with my main area of interest being films made during Hollywood's golden age of the 1930s and 1940s. That was when the studio system was working like a well-oiled machine, cranking out hundreds of films each year -- some duds, but some great examples of an art form.

One of the best studios for this was Warner Brothers in Burbank (which we have toured twice). One of the best films of the period was Warner's "Mildred Pierce."

"Mildred Pierce" was made in 1945, and starred Joan Crawford, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth and Jack Carson (with a fun cameo by favorite Joyce Compton). Based on the novel by James M. Cain, it is the quintessential product of the studio system. Every person involved in the film was at his / her pinnacle: Crawford won an Oscar, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Arden and Blyth were nominated for acting. If you want to see a prime example of the quality of film turned out during this period, you would not have to go farther than "Mildred Pierce." (It was added to the National Film Registry in 1996.)

But, Hollywood cannot leave its hands off a good thing. Plans to re-make "Mildred Pierce" date back to the 1980s when it was announced Faye Dunaway had purchased the rights to the story with an intent to star in it. (Dunaway's 1981 bomb "Mommie Dearest" included extended scenes centered around "Mildred Pierce" and Crawford's Oscar win.) Dunaway's version never appeared (thank the gods).

Now it is announced that HBO is producing a five-part miniseries version of "Mildred Pierce."

Normally, such news would incense me. However, this time, I am torn, and here's why:

HBO has a fantastic record with original film projects -- including the recent success with "Grey Gardens."

Directing will be Todd Haynes who proved with "Far From Heaven" (2002) that he understood period film and period filmmaking.

Mildred will be played by Kate Winslet. There are not a lot of younger actors today whose work I respect, but Winslet is one of them. She survived a rocky performance in "Titanic" to achieve creative success with many films -- among them "Little Children" (2006) -- and win an Oscar in 2009.

With this kind of pedigree, it is hard to be alarmed by Hollywood tinkering with a classic. In fact, I am actually feeling pretty good about this news. The 1945 film version strays far afield from Cain's novel -- which is substantially darker and meaner. Times were different, then; and I am hoping this new version stays closer to the original novel. (You think Veda was evil in the film? She was an angel compared to the Veda in the novel.) So, I am taking a cautious and optimistic stand with this one, willing to give Hollywood a chance to redeem itself.

You can read more about this project here.

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