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Written by Timothy Sexton
Mildred Pierce Beragon
After two decades of steadily working in Hollywood during which seventeen Academy Award ceremonies were held without her receiving a single nomination, Joan Crawford fatefully decided to stay home on the pretense of being ill the night the Oscars would finally include her name among the nominees for Best Actress. Fearful of the possibility of having to play the part of the proud loser since Mildred Pierce represented not just her first nomination, but a nomination for a part she only got to play because Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine all turned it down, Crawford wound up missing the biggest night of her life by finding out she had won the gold while listening to the telecast over the radio. Mildred Pierce would become the role the redefined Crawford’s middle period as an actress between her sultry flapper days of yore and her mannish and overbearing person that marked the last two decades of her long career.
Veda Pierce Forrester
The central role of Mildred’s bratty, ungrateful teenage daughter eventually went to Ann Blyth, but only after Crawford had spent considerable time prior to production offering her instruction. The result was one of the movie’s two nominations for Best Supporting Actress and—perhaps not coincidentally—Blyth’s only Oscar nomination in a career stretching into the 1980s.
The movie opens with the murder of Mildred’s second husband—which leads to the question for some of why the film isn’t called Mildred Beragon—who is played by Zachary Scott. Sporting the pencil-thin mustache which was cinematic shorthand for suave and debonair at the time, Scott takes on the role of a cad with great aplomb, but it only takes one look at the list of three players whom Oscar voters rewarded with nominations to realize that Zachary Scott never had a shot at turning the role of Mr. Mildred Pierce the Second into one capable of catapulting him to stardom. Mildred Pierce may verge into noir territory as a novel, but as a film it is lodged quite snugly into a completely different subgenre: the so-called “women’s melodrama” or, a bit more on the nose, a “weepy.”
Ida is our Greek chorus in this ride through the nightmarish underworld of Mildred’s relationship with her daughter and men. And like any Chorus worth their salt, Ida’s job is to keep the audience entertained with the occasional offhand and throwaway observations that seem merely humorous on their own, but when taken together serve to create and accompanying narrative through the slow boat ride through hell. Nobody in Hollywood history has ever been better at delivering these cookies filled arsenic than Eve Arden, who rounds out the trio of actresses receiving nominations for elevating this particular weepy to legendary status.
Wally had been a partner in the real estate business with Mildred’s first husband, Bert, and could be just about any gregarious, companionable guy with the potential to suddenly turn creepy without warning. Actor Jack Carson, amazingly enough, fits that same description perfectly: a guy seen driving a car around any town in America. Actor Carson seemed to never experience a day’s unemployment from the late 1930s until his death in the early 1960s, he had neither the face nor the person destined for stardom as a leading man. A solid character actor with the capability of seeming to fit into scene in which his characters found themselves, Carson likely made Wally Fay as memorable as he could possibly could be.
The job of the actor playing the husband whom Mildred has divorced is to exhibit a long-term loyalty and not just the desire—but the expectations—that the problems leading to their split will eventually be reconciled while also successfully projecting Bert’s basic personality flaw of being lazy and whiny while at the very same convincing the audience that he truly would be willing to face the consequences that come with protecting Mildred by confessing to a murder he thinks she likely committed all while being the kind of guy who sulks off into the arms of another woman because his wife is lavishing attention on their daughters that she should by all rights be giving him. A tough nut to crack, no doubt and it is a testament to the solidly understated performance by Bruce Bennett that the nut got cracked at all.
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