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"Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."—Ida Corwin
One gunshot opens the film. Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) collapses onto the floor, and chokes out "Mildred" before dying. Mildred herself is walking out to the docks, looking over the edge as if to jump. The police take her to the station and she relates her story.
Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is a typical middle-class housewife in suburbia. Bert (Bruce Bennett) is her recently unemployed husband, and they have two spoiled daughters--pre-teen Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and teenaged Veda (Ann Blyth). Bert is against Mildred's parenting style, which he calls "buying them love", but Mildred sees it as protecting them. After fighting over this and Mildred's claims that he has been cheating on her, Bert decides to leave. Mildred rebuilds her life by becoming a waitress and eventually owner of a successful restaurant (with money borrowed from callow heel Wally (Jack Carson), though Veda sees the work as degrading. Mildred does anything she can to impress Veda, but the girl insists on regarding her mother as "a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing."
Mildred eventually marries Monte, a rich playboy, to impress Veda. Things go downhill from there, until we find out how Monte was killed.
Joan Crawford won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance, and the film was nominated in several other categories.
In 2011, the original novel was adapted into a three-part, five hour mini-series for HBO, with Kate Winslet as Mildred, Evan Rachel Wood as Veda and Guy Pearce as Monty. The mini-series followed the novel more closely than the movie, restoring the novel's Downer Ending and plot points such as Veda becoming a successful opera singer.
Sonic Youth named one of their songs after the film.
Tropes used by the story:
- Acceptable Feminine Goals: ("I'll do anything for those kids. D'you hear me? Anything!") in which the eponymous heroine becomes rich as a restauratress.
- Adaptation Distillation: The movie; while the entire third act and murder plotline are invented for the movie, it is largely seen as a move that better fits the story. Having Joan Crawford as Mildred helps as well, as Crawford's strong will makes Mildred's blind spot towards her daughter's sociopathic nature all the more believable.
- All Take and No Give: Mildred's relationship with Veda, obviously.
- Bratty Teenage Daughter: Deconstructed.
- California Doubling: In the miniseries, New York doubles for Southern California.
- Character Title
- Color Coded for Your Convenience: Kay, the sweet good child has blonde hair. Veda, the bratty, manipulative daughter is a brunette.
- Composite Character: Lucy Gessler, who is Mildred's neighbor and best friend in the novel is left out from the movie, but a part of her personality is incorporated into Ida's character.
- Cool Car: Mildred gets Veda a very nice, expensive car.
- Cut and Paste Suburb
- Cut Himself Shaving: Wally says this is where he got the cut on his hand when he was framed.
- Deadpan Snarker: Ida -- oh, so much!
- Also Kay, awesomely (when Veda whines about her new dress not being good enough, she drawls "oh, you're breakin' my heart"). However, she doesn't get too many good lines.
- Death by Adaptation: Monte. While the novel ends with him leaving with Veda, the film opens with his murder.
- Downer Ending: The book: Mildred throttles Veda after she catches her with Monty. Veda fakes being rendered mute, in order to use the "injury" to get out of her existing contract and to a more lucrative one, that would relocate her to New York. However, there is the matter of the public scandal her actions have caused: Wally uses it to force Mildred to resign from her company, while Veda fakes a reconciliation in order to salvage her career. While Bert and Mildred remarry once Mildred divorces Monty, the couple spends their days getting drunk and not noticing Veda's plot until Christmas morning, where she drops the bomb on them via speaking for the first time in months and announcing her move to New York to live with Monty. And for the final indignity, Mildred has gotten fat and ugly since strangling her daughter and Monty is physically repulsed at Mildred when he sees her when he picks Veda up to take her to New York.
- The mini-series takes the downer ending and turns it into a Bittersweet Ending: Mildred loses the company, Monty, and is back-stabbed by her daughter; however, her friends are still by her side and Ida is begging Mildred to start a new company. Veda keeps her distance from Mildred as she "recovers from her injury" with Mildred calling her out on her scam within seconds of finding out that Veda used her injury to get the New York job offer. Mildred disowns Veda once and for all and then gets drunk with Bert, who FINALLY convinces Mildred to renounce her evil daughter once and for all.
- Executive Meddling: When Warner Brothers bought the rights to the novel, they ordered it rewritten to be in line with James Cain's other noir stories. While it is widely rumored that the changes were done to appease the Hays Code, in truth they were made because studio executives thought no one would see a movie where a mother is treated like a doormat for 111 minutes.
- Fan Service: Evan Rachel Wood gets full-frontally nude on screen for the first time in the miniseries (though considering how revolting her character is by that point, it could be something else).
- Femme Fatale: Mildred fits this role. While a fairly good person throughout most of the story, she frames Wally for Monte's murder at the start of the film.
- Fille Fatale: Veda.
- Film Noir
- Food Porn: Any scene with Mildred cooking or serving food.
- Freudian Excuse: Veda insists on it. "You're the one who made me the way I am..."
- Good Girls Avoid Abortion: In the book, Bert and Mildred consider "an operation" when Veda falls pregnant, but veto it for health and moral reasons. Turns out she was faking it anyway.
- Gosh Darn It to Heck:
Kay: Aw, pretzels!
- Hair of Gold: Kay.
- Hope Spot: The mini-series; in the book, once she is stripped of her restaurant empire, it is stated that Mildred doesn't have the will to try again at business. In the mini-series, Ida (who now runs the business) is still friends with Mildred and makes it clear to Mildred, that she needs to get back into the food service industry when Ida points out how their customers have noticed a drop in quality in the product ever since Mildred was forced out.
- How We Got Here
- Incurable Cough of Death: Kay develops one right before going on vacation with her father.
- Karma Houdini: Monte and Veda in the novel; in the mini-series, Monte gets one, but Veda at least gets one last chewing out by her mother before walking away
- Kill the Cutie: Kay.
- Mama Bear: Mildred, so much. She'll do anything for her ungrateful daughter. Even taking her murder charges as her own.
- May-December Romance: Veda and Monte.
- Manipulative Bitch: Veda full stop. At first she mostly just uses her mother to get things she wants. Later, she does this other people. At one point she gets married to a rich young man, then almost immediately demands separation in order to get money out of him. When she doesn't get much at first, she lies about being pregnant in order to squeeze more money out of him and his mother.
- Parental Favoritism: Bert favors Kay above Veda, due to how spoiled she is. Mildred doesn't sway too much towards either daughter, though she is the reason Veda is way she is.
- In the book, Mildred favors Veda - when Kay (Ray in the book) dies,, she (guiltily) thinks to herself that she's glad it wasn't Veda.
- Playing Against Type: The movie: Joan Crawford playing a doormat, Ann Blyth in a rare villain role, and Jack Carson (a notable comedian of the 1940s) playing a slimy yet charming corrupt businessman.
- The novel itself can be seen as such, as James Cain (who wrote Mildred Pierce) was a noted crime noir writer.
- Pretty in Mink: Mildred has a sable coat and hat at the end.
- Smoking Is Cool
- Smoking Is Glamorous
- Spoiled Brat: Veda.
- Spoiled Sweet: Kay.
- Stay in the Kitchen
- Teens Are Monsters
- The Vamp: Veda.
- Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: In the book, Mildred's daughters are called Veda and Moire, due to "the principles of astrology, supplemented by numerology". Mildred and Bert mispronounce Moire as Mwaray, and shorten it to Ray.
- Your Cheating Heart: Monte cheats on Mildred with Veda.