Liz Smith: Kate Winslet Suffers Magnificently in HBO’s Epic Mildred Pierce

Robin Platzer, Twin Images

And more from our Liz: A star emerges in young Morgan Turner

“OH, MISS Winslet, this has always been my favorite side of your body!”

That’s what an admirer said to Oscar-Winner Kate Winslet at the Monday night screening of HBO’s miniseries “Mildred Pierce.” What caused the comment was Kate’s amazing peek-a-boo black cocktail dress, which looked sedate on one side … but was open from neck to knee on the other side. Sheer lace net kept everything in place. It was a fabulous get-up, prim or sexy, depending on the angle. Miss Winslet, to her credit, laughed bawdily, and replied, “But the other side’s just as good too!”

The dress was by Stella McCartney and only a heavenly creature like Miss Winslet could wear it properly.

* * *

HBO has attempted a mighty feat with its five-part miniseries, based on James M. Cain’s bestselling 1941 novel. First of all, there is the vivid memory of the 1945 black-and-white screen version starring Joan Crawford as the ambitious, long-suffering Mildred — the role which won her an Oscar — and co-starring Ann Blyth as Veda, the vicious, ungrateful daughter from hell.

At the time, Cain’s massive novel could not be condensed for the screen, nor could Mildred’s character be shown as Cain wrote her. But even the author himself was moved to write to Crawford, insisting that she had brought aspects to Mildred that even he had not seen. Still, the 1945 version ran an economical one hour and 50 minutes, and there was a hell of a lot more to Mildred and Veda’s story. Now HBO and director Todd Haynes have decided to give us the works: five hours’ worth. The Monday night screening offered only the first two hours. (Last night, HBO showed the final three hours, at the HBO offices. Alas, I had another commitment. I will have to watch the rest on TV, like millions of others, after the series debuts on Sunday.)

* * *

DIRECTOR Haynes has an exquisite eye for period detail — remember his homage to the color-drenched 1950’s in “Far From Heaven?” His touch is masterful here as well: clothes, cars, hair, even meal portions! (In the restaurant scenes, as Mildred miserably slings hash, one is startled by what appears to be rather stingy plates of food — only to realize that back then, super-sizing hadn’t begun. People didn’t eat like pigs.)

Miss Winslet is, as always, a remarkable actor. Her Mildred is far more manipulative, carnal and class-conscious than Crawford’s Mrs. Pierce. (Here, you understand why Veda is such an intolerable snob — so was Mildred; she vomits at the thought of having to become a waitress. But as her friend, played by Melissa Leo advises her, “Get over it, and take that job!”) And Winslet manages to be both dowdy and alluring. Kate’s figure, and her inherent sensuality, cannot be hidden, even in the frumpy fashions of the early 1930’s. But, like Miss Crawford, Kate suffers — a lot. And of course, this is just the beginning. Veda is still a pre-teen, Mildred’s restaurant has just opened, and her lazy beau, Monte, is still smitten. There’s already been a terrible tragedy, but for those of you who might not know the story, I won’t tell. Suffice to say, in the first two hours the agonies are just beginning for “Mildred Pierce.”

* * *

WINSLET is ably supported by the above-mentioned Miss Leo, the not-seen-often-enough Mare Winningham, Guy Pearce (in the old Zachary Scott role of Monty), and the two Vedas. Evan Rachael Wood plays the older Veda, but those who attended Monday night’s event saw young Morgan Turner as the pretentious brat who torments mama Mildred. And she is astonishing. At 12, she is already a beauty, with a striking, somewhat angular face. As a performer, she is remarkably convincing. She has only been in a few small productions before this. It struck me that within a few years, Miss Turner will be just right for a biopic on Katharine Hepburn. She has that kind of look and bearing. A star is being born. (It was charming to observe Morgan and Kate embracing at the after-party, as they compared their high-heels and Morgan oooh and aaahed over Kate’s dress.)

I have but one cavil: while it is an admirable concept to re-do “Mildred Pierce” as an epic, the pace of the first two parts was somewhat … languid. Miss Winslet’s quiet intensity, her clenched masochism, is compelling. But occasionally, one gets the sense the actors are being told, “Remember, we’ve got five hours to fill, take your time.” Somebody wisecracked, “Geez, even the waitress who fell on the floor did it slow!”

But this is a very minor complaint, and I have no doubt I’ll be completely riveted with the next three hours. (As is usual with this sort of thing, it began late and there was too much said onstage before the lights went down. So maybe I was just generally antsy.)

* * *

AFTER the screening, HBO and Peggy Siegal put on a very appealing bash in the divine Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. Dressed up in white tie, the Alex Donner band played nifty nostalgic music all night long, and the buffet tables groaned under the shrimp scampi, chicken pot pie, sirloin, ravioli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and a collection a fabulous desserts that would have made pie-queen Mildred Pierce herself jealous. Among the throng: most of the “Mildred” cast, director Haynes, various writers and producers of the show. Also, Mariska Hargitay, Bob Balaban, Paul Hagis, John Waters, Steve Buscemi, Dan Abrams, Michael Lewittes, and Anthony Edwards.

And who had the most eye-catching date of the evening? Why twelve-year old Morgan Turner. She attended with her mother, Sandra Landers, who is an actress and her father, Eric Turner, a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He was all decked out in his uniform, complete with epaulets and a broad chest full of ribbons. With close-cropped salt and pepper hair, Mr. Turner was a manly knockout. Lots of swooning in his wake. He stood proudly and protectively next to his child — but not too protectively. Just enough to ensure nobody took any liberties, and watched their language. He’s a logistics specialist. And don’t all child actors need a logistics expert?!

Robin Platzer, Twin Images


16 Responses so far.

  1. avatar J G says:

    Dear Liz,
    I am so sorry that my post does not discuss your topic, however I just heard the news about the late, great Elizabeth Taylor.

    I am so worried about Mr. Wow. I hope he will let us know that he is alright, as I know how much he adored her.


  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I got a call followed by the media release about 30 minutes ago and as I always said I probably would I really didn’t believe it until I saw the release came from Sally Morrison.

    Somewhere in the universe there is now this bright new star. Named Elizabeth Taylor. 

  3. avatar J G says:

    Please tell Mr. Wow, Baby, that we are all thinking of him.
    ‘I’m sure it is a sad day for him.

    Best to you,

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      It’s a sad day for everyone whose lives were touched by “Elizabeth of Nimes” as I jokingly called her from time to time. As in St. Elizabeth. She truly had the proverbial heart of gold.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Baby…she did. 

        Just a few months back, the mother of her adored longtime assistant, Tim, became terminally ill.  This woman had previously recuperated from an illness at Elizabeth’s home.  Now she was dying.  And she wanted to die in Elizabeth’s house.  Without a hesittaion, ET arranged a room, filled it with flowers and sunlight and allowed this woman to spend her final days at Nimes Rd. 

        And when the time came, in the middle of the night, Elizabeth and her assistant stood by his mother’s bed and watched her go. 

        Elizabeth had many lives and many personas.  But the lady who stood at the bed.  That was the woman Monty Clift called “Bessie Mae.”   And the woman Burton called “Ocean.”

        • avatar rick gould says:

          ET faced death on a personal level early on, beginning with James Dean’s car crash near the end of Giant. The following year, making Raintree County, her beloved Monty Clift nearly died in a car crash leaving her home… and she was the one who crawled in the wreckage to hold him and pull two teeth out of his throat to keep him from choking.

          The lady loved life…and didn’t flinch at death.

        • avatar Baby Snooks says:

          Ironic that it was her heart that took her from us. The same heart that gave so much to us.

          She was this divine Earth Mother.  She. “Simply” Elizabeth.  I think she became “Simply” Elizabeth in Washington.  Campaigning for her husband.  Mingling with the masses. Later trying to be just a senator’s wife. No longer the Hollywood star. Made it easier to mingle with the masses later when she did her promotional tours for the perfumes and of course when she appeared at AIDS benefits. I often wonder if she realized how much people in Washington really liked her. Some probably would have preferred he had moved to Los Angeles and she had stayed.  She shocked everyone with that dinner at which Ronald Reagan appeared.  Barely able to say the word AIDS.  But he showed up. Because of her. Many others showed up at many benefits because of her.

          She knew what lay ahead somehow. Not only the eath of Rock Hudson but her concern over Burton who was a hemophiliac. And later her daughter-in-law.  She was touched first, perhaps, which made it easier for others as they became touched by AIDS. Her foundation is her legacy.  Her logo sums up the comitment. Two hands reaching out within a heart. Her heart. Her magnificent heart.  

          I will fax a final note to the house this evening.  And remember her always. And forever.

  4. avatar HauntedLady says:

    Same here. I was stunned and hope Mr. Wow will be all right. Somehow, I always thought we would  be seeing a TV special celebrating Ms. Taylor’s 100th birthday, reliving her career, her love life, everything, and she would be seated on a dais, royally enjoying it all. She was one of a kind.

  5. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    They set this up a little while ago for those who want to share their sorrow and their wonderfull memories of a wonderful “dame.”

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      The link doesn’t work.  I called. Total mayhem. Hopefully the link will be corrected by the morning on the foundation website.

  6. avatar Mr. Wow says:

    Wow…to all of you, thank!  I am fine.  Just…a little stunned.  Though I shouldn’t be.  I do not believe the quality of her life was very good, nor had it been for a very long time.

    Now she whole again, healthy and in a better place.  Yes, I do believe in  a better place.   She was a a great part of my life in many ways. 

    I remembered this morning, going to see  the rowdy “X, Y and Zee” with friends back in 1972.  We drank Jack Daniels while watching it, because Jack was her fave drink (I actually hated it, myself)   And then–with the same group–going to see the elegant “Ash Wednesday” a year later.  That time we drank champagne.

    But let’s not distract too much from Liz’s column on Kate. 

    I love you all for your concern.

    • avatar rick gould says:

      Mr. wOw–
      I think we’re pretty much of the same mind when it comes to Elizabeth Taylor.
      I’ve been as sick as a dog with acute bronchitis…can barely whisper.
      And friends and family have been calling and emailing me regarding the passing of my favorite movie star.
      Which in turn made me think of you.
      I have always loved reading your comments and anecdotes regarding ET.
      And I look forward to reading tributes and thoughts both you and Liz Smith may write on La Liz.
      Elizabeth Taylor lost so many friends and lovers prematurely–Jimmy, Monty, Natalie, Judy, Peter, Grace, Mike and Richard to name a few–now she can see them again.
      And a hug to you Mr. wOw on this sad day.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Rick…feel better. 

        It’s kind of just starting to sink in.

        I’m remembering the cover of Look magazine in 1971—Liz in a hot pink bikini with the world’s most expensive fur coat semi-covering her.

        I began speaking in tongues when I saw that on the newstand, and friends had to take me away to calm me down.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      Believe me she didn’t wallow in it as they say – she took a deep breath and went out finally in a wheelchair. And still entranced everyone. She got out, perhaps not as much the past year, and enjoyed life.  Swam with sharks in Hawaii. Went out to dinner with friends. Had friends to dinner. Spent time with her granchildren. Stayed involved as they say.

      The last six weeks were probably as they should have been. Away from the house and the telephones. Just her and her family and her close friends.  

      No word on where she will be buried. I won’t go there again but I do wish Sally would relent and allow her to be buried in Celigny next to Burton.

      She granted us all so many wishes.  That was probably her one wish at the end.

  7. avatar Maggie W says:

    Right now the violet eyed beauty is giving Richard Burton another piece of her mind.   A true talent and humanitarian has left us.  Lovely Elizabeth performed in an era where talent mattered for survival; there was no technology to create a thousand different ways to diffuse imperfections and enhance mediocre talent.  

    Joan Crawford stepped into the Mildred character so effortlessly … or so it seems.   It was as though Cain wrote the book with her in mind.  If any actress can bring her own signature to the role, it will be Kate Winslet. 

  8. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    In the mid-80s I had the pleasure literally bumping into Miss Taylor at a Beverly Hills department store. I turned away from the counter after making my purchase and nearly plowed right into this teeny, tiny woman. My first thought was the same one I always have living in LA: She resembles Elizabeth Taylor. A nano-second later, she spoke, and I realized she was the real thing. And she apologized to me for being too close. I still remember what I said to her: “Belkhhsurhsjhfdjhduieruei,” and I walked away stunned.