James M. Cain, Joan Crawford, Kate Winslet, and “Mildred Pierce”: Women, Ambition, Romance, and Motherhood

Screen shot from trailer of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford. Trailer screenshot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Screen shot from trailer of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford. Trailer screenshot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mildred Pierce, the Hollywood Film

Mildred Pierce is perhaps best known as a 1945 film starring Joan Crawford, one for which she one an Academy Award. It is a really great film.  At the beginning there is a murder, and the entire story is told as a flashback as the police try to solve the crime.

The heart of the story is the love and rivalry of a mother, Mildred Pierce, and her daughter Veda. 

In 1945, when the film was made, certain rules had to be followed.  If there was a crime, there had to be punishment.  That was for the moral good of the public.   

So the plot was changed to meet the moral codes in place at the time for American films and simplified so that the film is about a mother struggles to provide both a home and “advantages” for her daughter, a daughter who takes to the trappings of the society life just fine while being a little snob about the work it takes to support that life.   

Naturally, the movie going public in the United States wants to see hard work rewarded and society people portrayed as corrupt and lazy, and that’s pretty much what you get in this movie. 

Not say that the movie isn’t great: it is.  But it’s also a mid-20th century Hollywood film.  There were conventions and rules. 

Mildred Pierce, the HBO Miniseries

HBO made a miniseries version starring Kate Winslet in 2011 that sticks considerably closer to the book.


With a six hour running time, you can read the novel as quickly as you watch it…literally.  My Kindle clocks the novel reading time at just under six hours. Obviously, little if anything needs to be left out.  In fact, some, including Stephen King, who wrote a review of it, would say that more should have been left out. 

Either way, the miniseries is great too.  I personally like a novel as a miniseries because then you do usually get most of the details, but that’s just me. 

One aspect of the novel that the original film completely omits and the miniseries catches well is the atmosphere of the early 1930’s, especially the tension of the early Depression years, which is the event that reveals to Mildred that her husband is not a good businessman but rather, up until 1929, a lucky one.  In less than a year, the order for Mildred’s fur coat and Veda’s piano have been cancelled, and the Pierces are worrying about putting food on the table. 

Mildred Pierce, the Novel

What both the miniseries and the original movie miss, however, is the true conflict in this story.  It’s not maternal love, and it’s not about sexual love.   

Mildred Pierce is a story about ambition.  

It’s not just about business ambition, which is part of it but not all of it.  It’s also a story about ambition for the trappings of society that money can, but doesn’t necessarily bring.  Something we Americans don’t like to admit exists, or anyway aren’t supposed to want if we aren’t born to it. 

It’s clear from Mildred’s backstory, and everything she does in the novel, that she doesn’t always know what she wants, until she sees it anyway, but she knows she wants something.  That’s the “squint her in eye” that the narrator calls unattractive but is what attracts Bert Pierce to her in the first place.  The squint that tells Bert she isn’t “completely vacuous”.   

The description of this book talks about Mildred’s weakness for “shiftless men” and her “unreasoning devotion to her monstrous daughter”, but the facts are that she has no trouble kicking any of her boyfriends out when they start to give her trouble…and getting them back when she wants them.  She kicks the daughter out too when she gets mad enough. 

And with her daughter…is her daughter so monstrous, or is she exactly like her mother?  Or perhaps Veda is Mildred mixed with the “breeding” she has gotten from her upper middle class father. 

Read the book for yourself and decide.  I say that Mildred Pierce never makes a sacrifice for anyone in this book. She makes investments.  

What she really wants, and can’t get, is a sense of importance.  Of being “somebody”.   

By the end of the book, it’s pretty clear that’s what she’s after and that Veda won’t let her have.  Is Mildred justified in taking part in the spoils of Veda’s success?  There’s an argument that she is.   

But I argue that this book is not about sacrificial maternal love with a good mother and an ungrateful daughter. 

This book is about a daughter who becomes what the mother wants but never will be. 

It’s complicated, for sure.  That’s what I like about this book.  Life is complicated.   

But women are about more than being mothers and lovers, and that’s what this book is saying.

 Give the book a read and see what you think.  Does it work better as a story about the conflict between romantic love and mother love or as a book about ambition?