“Mildred Pierce” isn’t the greatest movie. But it is the great American movie. It explores money, class, relationships, and parenting from a uniquely American perspective. All with insight and empathy.
Joan Crawford earned a Best Actress Oscar playing Mildred Pierce. Mildred is a single mom of a spoiled teen – Veda – who demands money so she can live like the upper class.
The only job she can get as a never-employed, uneducated 40-year-old is waitress. But Mildred makes the most of her opportunity; ultimately opening a thriving restaurant of her own.
Success brings money but not pride. “Mildred Pierce” explores mid-Century America’s twisted attitudes toward women and work. Mildred needs the cash and is great at her job. But blue-collar employment is a source of shame; Mildred tries to hide her job from Veda as long as she can.
Mildred’s charming new boyfriend Monte Beragon would never stoop so low as to labor for money. Monte is the high-class but dead broke scion of the city’s most aristocratic family. For Monte, mooching off Mildred isn’t a problem; it’s practically an ethical necessity.
Poor put-upon Mildred, right? Not so fast! “Mildred Pierce” doesn’t have good guys and bad guys. Every character is a flawed human being with virtues and vices.
For example, one of the men in Mildred’s life is crafty, greasy lawyer Wally Fay. The very day that Mildred’s husband walks out, Wally is there to aggressively hit on Mildred. It’s uncomfortable and gross.
But Wally is a man, not a sleazy stereotype. When Mildred asks for Wally’s help with the restaurant, Wally earnestly does his best for her. Ultimately, it is Mildred who uses Wally’s affection to her advantage in unexpected and troubling ways.
What about Mildred’s surly two-timing husband, though? Surely he is irredeemable. Not so fast! He ends up being a model ex-husband: dependable and caring. He’s the first one to warn Mildred that there are serious consequences to spoiling Veda rotten.
And poor Veda. In any other film, she’d be the witchy little villainess. Haughty, snobby, imperious, judgmental … she’s just awful. But Mildred made her that way. Feeding her lust for class-climbing turned her into a miserable monster.
“Mildred Pierce” subtly questions the cornerstone of the American dream: working hard to give your children more than you had. Mildred thinks she’s doing the right thing: working her tail off to give her daughter the posh life that she covets.
In the end, it leaves Mildred morally and financially bankrupt. And it leaves Veda immature and emotionally adrift. Parents who expect gratitude for their sacrifice and generosity need to watch this film and prepare themselves for a devastating letdown.
“Mildred Pierce” is a classic of the highest order. It’s relentlessly substantive and surprising. Director Michael Curtiz is better known as the guy who made “Casablanca.” And, honestly, I’m not sure which is the better movie.