Punishing Mildred Pierce

Mildred: “I want you to have nice things. And you will have. Wait and see. I’ll get you everything. Anything you want. I promise.”
Veda: “How?”
Mildred: “I don’t know. But I will. I promise.”

The title character of the 1945 classic Mildred Pierce, based on the 1941 novel by James M. Cain, is inarguably one of the more complex figures to emerge from the noir genre. Played to the hilt by Joan Crawford (in what amounts to the defining role of her career, one that finally awarded her a Best Actress Oscar), the self-sacrificing, ambitious Mildred fulfills both masculine and feminine roles in the film, subsequently obliterating the boundaries inherent to her gender–and, as a result, serving as the implicit cause for all of the events that would follow. Because Mildred dares to construct a life separate from the home, separate from the values that define her gender, she must be brought back down to size through the most unceremonious–and tragic–of means.

Indeed, Mildred Pierce can be interpreted as a cautionary tale, a sort of “blame game” of a film, laying much of the fault for the characters’ actions solely on the protagonist’s padded shoulders. Like other women who “forget their place,” Mildred must be schooled through tragedy and ill fortune. In other words, because she moves outside of the typical female role–leaving the home to provide for her family–she must be punished for blatantly disrespecting the rules of the patriarchy.

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Mildred casts out her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), because he can no longer provide for the family–or, more precisely, he cannot provide enough to keep their selfish elder daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) living in the high style Mildred feels she deserves. Bert calls Mildred out for spoiling the girls: “The trouble is, you’re trying to buy love from those kids, and it won’t work. I’m no bargain, but I make enough to get by. But no, that isn’t good enough.” And Mildred acknowledges that Bert is correct–he’s just not good enough to fulfill her dreams for the children. “You might as well get this straight right now once and for all,” she declares. “Those kids come first in this house. Before either one of us. Maybe that’s right and maybe it’s wrong, but that’s the way it is. I’m determined to do the best I can for them. If I can’t do it with you, I’ll do it without you.”

Bert is not the only one lacking in his perceived duty to his family, however; it is implied that Mildred has not been conducting her “wifely duties,” to the point that her perceived frigidness has driven her husband into the arms of another woman. When Bert leaves, therefore, Mildred not only loses a husband, but a part of her femininity; she becomes the de facto “man of the house,” taking on the role of mother and father to Veda and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and thoroughly stripping her husband of his masculinity–and his authority–in the process.

Initially, it seems as though Mildred has bucked the trend: instead of being punished for her shortcomings, she eventually becomes wildly successful, starting a chain of restaurants that allow her to continually feed Veda’s selfish desires. But this unchecked success cannot be allowed to continue. The recently-divorced Mildred pushes the boundaries of gender conformity even more when she begins an out-of-wedlock affair with Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Having now gone too far, the wayward woman must be schooled punitively … and her subsequent punishment is the death of her younger daughter. And when Mildred later marries Monte–not out of any sense of love, but solely for Veda’s social benefit–further punishment comes in the form of financial ruin (as Monte’s playboy ways serve to significantly drain her wealth), not to mention the affair that develops between Monte and his new stepdaughter.

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Mildred’s role as the sacrificing mother-figure is complicated by the film’s perception of her as a typically-noir femme fatale, particularly in her manipulation of Wally Fay (Jack Carson), as she attempts to lay the blame for Monte’s murder on him. Knowing full well that her husband’s corpse lies in the parlor, Mildred entices Wally to the beach house through the implied promise of sexual gratification. This move can be construed as (perhaps somewhat justified) revenge for Wally’s takeover of Mildred’s restaurant chain–a takeover aided and abetted by Monte’s abuse of Mildred’s checkbook. But the history of film–and noir in particular–tells us that, generally speaking, the woman seeking vengeance on the men who have wronged her will rarely be satisfied, for the construct of patriarchy doesn’t allow women to seek redress against men–well, successfully, anyway.

The only female character in the film who does not adhere strictly to the inherent rules is Ida (Eve Arden), Mildred’s boss and eventual employee. The smart-mouthed, quick-witted Ida provides a great deal of the movie’s comic relief while serving as a direct counterpoint to Mildred. Here is a woman who shuns the binds of patriarchy, forging a career and foregoing the “hearth and home” path. Yet Ida is given a pass largely because she lacks Mildred’s abounding femininity. Ida is “one of the boys,” not even considered marriage material by the men in the film: as she quips at one point, “When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding rings.” Because she is not seen as a feminine threat, she is allowed a certain level of freedom that Mildred is not. This is emphasized in her styling throughout the film; her hair and clothing are less pronouncedly feminine than Mildred’s, and Ida even carries herself more self-assuredly. And Ida definitely lacks the maternal gene; her disdainful attitude toward Veda speaks volumes: “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”

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Perhaps of all the characters in the film, Ida sees the truth most clearly, and she speaks for the audience: she knows, as we do, that Veda, and Veda alone, is in all actuality responsible for her own downfall. But in the end, looking at Mildred Pierce through a feminist lens inextricably paints Mildred as the real cause behind every character’s actions. Because she abandons her marriage and neglects to prioritize her role as wife and mother, the film seems to tell us, one daughter dies and the other commits murder. When Veda, after killing Monte, tells her mother, “It’s your fault as much as mine,” she may as well be speaking for the patriarchy that implicitly places the blame for Kay’s and Monte’s deaths (and Veda’s own selfish transgressions) solely at Mildred’s weary feet. The only resolution is for Mildred to accept that role, to acknowledge her mistakes and fully shoulder her share of blame, while simultaneously stepping aside to finally force Veda to answer for her own share. And once that is done, Mildred can find redemption in reuniting with Bert, thus re-donning the mantle of respectable womanhood. Then, and only then, can the natural order of things be restored, and Mildred can find some measure of peace.

A version of this article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of The Dark Pages newsletter. For more information or details on how to subscribe, check out their website.

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