ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE: BEST PICTURE
A virtuous but naive self-made woman is sapped by human parasites of her own making. [ Mildred Pierce credits: Dir: Michael Curtiz/ Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Eve Arden, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott/ 112 min/ Drama/ Creator as Hero, Pro-Capitalism]
“This is a Hollywood classic by any measure, but more than that it’s also a great story about the ultimately life-destroying effects of dependence. It’s a story that lays the blame for parasitic behavior not just on the parasite, but also — as Rand would — on the willing host.”
Mildred Pierce is a gifted businesswoman. She rises from waitress in a downtown diner to owner of a chain of successful restaurants—through hard work, thrift, and genuine cleverness at trade. Her capitalist virtues and rags-to-riches story alone make this film of interest to libertarians, but there are also two anticipations of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that give it a special appeal.
First, although Mildred Pierce is a paragon of creative virtue, she has a fatal flaw: she inadvertently spoils those around her through excessive generosity. She expects to be loved for her kindness but instead is surrounded by resentful dependents, who join forces to backstab, denigrate, and nearly destroy her. As is the case with the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, you realize that it’s her own willingness to accept less than equal terms that is ultimately behind her troubles. And she too discovers this in the end.
Second, she is denigrated not for her faults but for her very capitalist virtues: her willingness to do hard work, her thrift, and her industry. Her dependents, on the other hand, openly aspire to a pre-industrial, aristocratic life in which they live on wealth they never earned and look down upon those with such poor taste as to work. They are supreme examples of what Ayn Rand called “second-handers,” people who derive their self-value from the admiration and envy of others.
All this is woven into a wonderful film-noir whodunit plot told in a series of flashbacks that leaves the audience guessing right to the end. What’s more: the script is full of snappy dialogue; a classy Max Steiner score adds much; and the cinematography is a symphony of light and shadows.
But even with all this, it’s really star quality that sends this film over the top into the Valhalla of “great” films. At the center, of course, is Joan Crawford. It’s easy to see why Crawford gave such an outstanding performance as Mildred Pierce. Here was a character with whom she reportedly identified and with whom she shared a number of life experiences. In particular, Crawford rose from humble origins by sheer determination and hard work, beginning as a laundry girl and ending up a successful actress and member of the board of directors of the Pepsi-Cola Company. (The hard-edged personality that made her rise possible apparently also made her an unsympathetic mother, according to her daughter’s tell-all biography; but in this story she is just the opposite.)
Particularly memorable in supporting roles are Ann Blyth as her sly, spoiled daughter, and wisecracking sidekick Eve Arden, who delivers her sharp-witted lines with memorable flair.
This is a Hollywood classic by any measure, but more than that it’s also a great story about the ultimately life-destroying effects of dependence. It’s a story that lays the blame for parasitic behavior not just on the parasite, but also — as Rand would — on the willing host.