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Mildred Pierce Remake and Homosexuality

February 21, 2010

The A.V. Club has the story that H.B.O. has finally greenlit a remake of Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce (1941) is one of James M. Cain’s best novels and it was originally adapted into a film noir classic by Michael Curtiz in 1945 with Joan Crawford in the title role. Kate Winslet is to play Mildred, ‘the woman of stone’ and it will be directed by Todd Haynes. Unlike the film version the remake will be adapted into a five part mini-series, and according to early reports, homosexuality will be a major theme. Haynes is openly gay and homosexuality has been a theme in much of his past work. Crawford is a gay icon, although only in retrospect is that term applied– it is fair to say that she did not intend to be. I find it difficult to see where homosexuality is a major theme of the novel. Unless you read Mildred’s obsessional love for her horrible daughter Veda as being rooted in sub-conscious lesbianism, but this would be a reductive analysis of the narrative. Not every adaptation has to be literal, Michael Curtiz’s version is a brilliant film, but a murder is added to the narrative which is not in the novel to make the story seem more traditionally film noir. Another reason to consider that homosexuality is not important to the novel is that it is fairly well known that Cain was homophobic. In another classic Cain work, Serenade (1937), the lead character John Howard Sharp is an opera singer who is being blackmailed by a male colleague and probable former lover. Although the character of Sharp is sympathetic, the portrayal of homosexuality is not. Sharp says of his affliction:

Every man has five per cent of that in him, if he meets the one person that’ll bring it out, and I did, that’s all.

Cain claimed to have scientific backing for his views on homosexuality, but he never considered it to be a valid form of love. There is an intriguing anecdote in Roy Hoopes excellent biography of Cain. Cain was friends with the British actor Charles Laughton. Laughton liked Cain because Cain could spot things in his film performances that were lost on his other friends. One night Laughton took Cain to see his film The Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). The film is a comedy in which Laughton plays an English butler who, through an unusual set of circumstances, ends up working for a hick family in the American West. When Cain mentioned to Laughton that the butler was merely a comedic exaggeration of Laughton himself, Laughton burst into tears as Cain had inadvertantly reminded him of his very poor former life in England. Laughton recovered from this embarrassing moment and invited Cain to his house to look at some of his recently acquired art pieces. Cain accepted, but while he was looking at the art he noticed that Laughton was staring at him intensely, which made Cain feel uncomfortable. Cain made his excuses and left. He would never see Laughton again. Hoopes’ take on the situation was that Laughton had broken the convention of friendship which states that friends should not be too intimate with each other. However, there are differing accounts as to what happened. Laughton’s wife Elsa Lancaster claimed that Laughton was a homosexual and that their marriage was a sham to conceal his sexuality. Did Cain break off contact with Laughton because he discovered he was a homosexual? And if so, was Laughton staring at Cain out of desire that night at his house?

Of course these questions are academic. It would be a shame to remember one of the greatest American crime writers, which Cain was, as merely a homophobe. That being said, it is difficult to see how homosexuality is a major theme of Mildred Pierce, and it will be interesting to see how Todd Haynes intends to make it one.

Below is a clip of Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce. Crawford won an Academy Award for her performance, which definitely ranks as one of the finest of her career:

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