Mildred Pierce (1945)
I think the first time I saw Joan Crawford in a movie might have been during my video store days in the late 90s. I had read an article somewhere, I think, in which Martin Scorsese talked about old movies and he mentioned Johnny Guitar was an underrated gem. So I took it home one night and watched it. I had thought it was okay at the time, but I couldn't understand why all the guys in the movie were hung up over a woman as... how shall I put it?... severe looking as Crawford. Her face had hard angles, with a thin and wide mouth that looked peculiar. And what was up with those eyebrows?
What I didn't realize at the time, of course, was this film was made later in Joanie's long film career, which dates back to the silent era. In her youth, she was much more glamorous, the way you expect a movie star to look. Still, while some old-school movie actresses aged well, like Audrey Hepburn or Olivia DeHavilland, Joanie... Well, I suppose such things are subjective anyway.
Joanie was one of those larger-than-life film superstars who hardly seem real anymore. The average person (read: non-cinephile) may remember her more for her off-screen activity, if anything, especially her contentious relationship with her daughter, a story which was also immortalized on the big screen, in all its unbelievable, campy glory.
Those of us who study the movies, though, know Joanie was way more than that. She, along with her great rival Bette Davis, not to mention the almighty Garbo, were the epitome of 30s romance and glamour in Hollywood movies during a time, the Depression, when Americans needed escapist fare badly. Perhaps that's why these screen queens have lingered so long in our collective memory: movies like the ones they made were cinematic comfort food.
Time soon had its way, as it does to us all. Garbo left the stage early so we wouldn't have to watch her age, but Joanie and Bette remained. It was in middle age that they gave us two films that showcased them at their fullest; mature yet powerful and glamorous roles in which their age worked to their advantage: Bette in All About Eve, and Joanie in today's subject, Mildred Pierce.
This was the kind of role every actress dreams of: an empowered rags-to-riches story, crossed with a murder mystery, crossed again with a dramatic mother-daughter tale. It has everything you could want in a movie and more, yet Joanie had to fight for the role. Bette, as fate would have it, turned it down. Joanie had to test for it like everyone else.
Once she got the part, though, the film was built around her. Jack Carson and Zachary Scott may not have been on the same level as Joanie's great 30s leading men Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery (and they were too busy fighting World War 2 anyway), but they serve the story, and her, well.
Mildred must have been a revelation to fans who remembered Joanie from her earlier work, sort of like when Julia Roberts went from doing easy rom-coms to Erin Brockovich. Joanie's role as wife and mother gave her a whole new color on her palette from which to paint. She employs it well, with help from some truly outstanding camera work and lighting from director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller that flatter her and take advantage of her thespic talents.
And then there's the rapport Joanie shares with Ann Blyth as her evil daughter Veda. Oh, did I say evil? I meant EEEEEEEEEEEVIL. You would never guess in a million years Blyth came from fluffy musicals! Jacqueline, the Internet's resident Blythologist, in her 2014 post on Mildred, talks about how Joanie screen tested with Blyth, which she totally did not have to do, and how she let Blyth share the spotlight in key scenes, so when we reach that OH NO SHE DIDN'T moment when Veda slaps Mildred, we know that moment was earned.
Joanie won her one and only Oscar for Mildred. She would go on to be nominated twice more. Some today may snicker at the mention of her name and make jokes about wire hangers, but before you do, take a look at her old movies, particularly this one. There's a reason we cinephiles still talk about her after all this time.