With her emotive style and melodramatic flourishes, Joan Crawford burned an indelible image into the brains of those who saw her play the tough dame in the 1945 noir classic “Mildred Pierce.”
But while reading the James M. Cain novel upon which the movie was based, director Todd Haynes could only envision a very different woman: Kate Winslet.
“In the book, she’s described as having ‘dirty blonde’ hair, which immediately took her out of the Joan Crawford model for me,” says Haynes, who directed and co-wrote HBO’s new miniseries treatment of “Mildred Pierce.” “I had never worked with Kate, or even met her, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind. She was the only actress I could see playing this part.”
Fortunately for Haynes, Winslet agreed to take on the role, which placed the kind of demands on her that probably would have sent the diva-esque Crawford into a tizzy. Over a span of five-plus darkly riveting hours, Winslet plays an independent single mother struggling to carve out a new life during the Depression.
It’s a part that calls for varying measures of steely determination, heartbreak, vulnerability and sexual honesty — all of which Winslet delivers with ardent precision while avoiding showy emotionalism.
“Kate was a workhorse,” says Haynes, during a phone interview. “She just throws herself into her roles with such commitment, and I admire how she’s willing to explore sensuality in ways that are daring. She thinks outside the box. She loves a challenge.”
Crawford captured an Oscar for “Mildred Pierce,” and Winslet probably has established herself as the early front-runner for an Emmy, having done so after making a conscious decision not to watch the original film.
“It’s a fine line when you know that someone extraordinary has played the role before,” she told TV critics during television’s winter press tour in January. “I saw the first five minutes, and then I thought, I shouldn’t watch this because I wouldn’t have been able to un-see it. What I was working toward with Todd was just something different.”
Among the major differences was a choice to be faithful to the source material. The Crawford movie, directed by Michael Curtiz, had a film-noir approach and a sensationalistic murder plot that didn’t exist in Cain’s book. While reading the novel in 2008, Haynes found himself much more drawn to Cain’s depiction of ambitious and successful women in the work world, as well as the sexual frankness with which he wrote.
The director was also gripped by the complex relationship between Mildred and her insufferable older daughter, Veda, to whom she is blindly devoted. Played by Evan Rachel Wood as a young adult, Veda is a self-absorbed social climber who openly sneers at her mother’s middle-class work ethic. For Mildred, Veda represents everything in life that she has cherished, but suppressed.
Although Veda has been described as a “monster” and a “shrew,” Haynes tried to bring more nuance to the character than the big-screen version offered.
“I think we all can relate to her in some ways,” he says. “So much has been projected onto her by the parent. There’s this need to push back and create her own space and identity.”
The miniseries opens in Glendale, Calif., in 1931 with Mildred about to divorce her philandering husband (Brian O’Byrne), and follows the title character over 10 tumultuous years as she evolves from a penny-pinching waitress to savvy businesswoman. Along the way, she enters into a series of relationships with unreliable men, including the dashing playboy Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce).
The stellar cast also includes recent Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, James LeGros and Mare Winningham.
“Mildred Pierce” represents the first foray into television for Haynes (“Far From Heaven”) and Winslet, both of whom were stunned by the amount of work and frantic pace the medium requires. The director describes the 16-week shoot as “a shared torture.” The actress, who appeared in virtually every scene, called it the most demanding film project she’s taken on since “Titanic.”
“It was like doing 2 1/2 films in 16 weeks,” she said. “It was very challenging but collaborative and rewarding at the same time.”
Haynes acknowledges that the HBO production represents two ways long-form television can be superior to theatrical films: The miniseries format not only allowed his team to explore Cain’s novel in intimate detail, but it provided a mature leading role to a female — something the big screen too often fails to do these days.
“It’s sad that that’s the case. Not enough films are tied to women who really engage and drive the story,” he says. “And it’s getting harder and harder to tell stories that aren’t action-oriented or romantic comedies.”
9 p.m. EDT March 27 (Parts1 and 2); April 3 (Part 3), and April 10 (Parts 4 and 5)