Liz Smith

Kate Winslet Suffers Magnificently in HBO's 'Mildred Pierce'

"OH, MISS Winslet, this has always been my favorite side of your body!"

That's what an admirer said to Oscar winner Kate Winslet at the Monday night screening of HBO's miniseries "Mildred Pierce." What caused the comment was Kate's amazing peek-a-boo black cocktail dress, which looked sedate on one side, but was open from neck to knee on the other side. Sheer lace net kept everything in place. It was a fabulous get-up, prim or sexy, depending on the angle. Miss Winslet, to her credit, laughed bawdily, and replied, "But the other side's just as good too!"

The dress was by Stella McCartney and only a heavenly creature like Miss Winslet could wear it properly.

HBO has attempted a mighty feat with its five-part miniseries, based on James M. Cain's best-selling 1941 novel. First of all, there is the vivid memory of the 1945 black-and-white screen version, starring Joan Crawford as the ambitious, long-suffering Mildred, the role that won her an Oscar, and co-starring Ann Blyth as Veda, the vicious, ungrateful daughter from Hell.

At the time, Cain's massive novel could not be condensed for the screen, nor could Mildred's character be shown as Cain wrote her. But even the author himself was moved to write Crawford, insisting that she had brought aspects to Mildred even he had not seen. Still, the 1945 version ran an economical one hour and 50 minutes, and there was a heck of a lot more to Mildred and Veda's story. Now HBO and director Todd Haynes have decided to give us the works -- five hours worth. The Monday night screening offered only the first two hours. (Last night, HBO showed the final three hours, also at the Ziegfeld Theater. Alas I had another commitment. I will have to watch the rest on TV, like millions of others, after the series debuts on Sunday.)

DIRECTOR Haynes has an exquisite eye for period detail -- remember his homage to the color-drenched '50s in "Far From Heaven"? His touch is masterful here, as well -- clothes, cars, hair, even meal portions! (In the restaurant scenes, as Mildred miserably slings hash, one is startled by what appears to be rather stingy plates of food, only to realize that back then, super-sizing hadn't begun. People didn't eat like pigs.)

Kate Winslet is, as always, a remarkable actor.

Her Mildred is far more manipulative, carnal and class conscious than Crawford's Mrs. Pierce. (Here, you understand why Veda is such an intolerable snob -- so was Mildred; she vomits at the thought of having to become a waitress. But as her friend, played by Melissa Leo, advises her, "get over it, and take that job!") And Winslet manages to be both dowdy and alluring. Kate's figure, and her inherent sensuality cannot be hidden, even in the frumpy fashions of the early 1930s. But, like Miss Crawford, Kate suffers -- a lot. And, of course, this is just the beginning. Veda is still a preteen, Mildred's restaurant has just opened, and her lazy beau, Monty, is still smitten. There's already been a terrible tragedy, but for those of you who might not know the story, I won't tell. Suffice it to say, in the first two hours the agonies are just beginning for Mildred Pierce.

THE ABOVE-MENTIONED MISS LEO, the not-seen-often-enough Mare Winningham, Guy Pearce (in the old Zachary Scott role of Monte), and the two Vedas ably support Winslet. Evan Rachel Wood plays the older Veda, but those who attended Monday night's event, saw young Morgan Turner as the pretentious brat who torments mama Mildred. And she is astonishing. At 12, she is already a beauty, with a striking, somewhat angular face. As a performer she is remarkably convincing. She has only been in a few small productions before this. It struck me that within a few years, Miss Turner will be just right for a biopic on Katharine Hepburn. She has that kind of look and bearing. A star is being born. (It was charming to observe Morgan and Kate embracing at the after-party, as they compared their high-heels and Morgan ooohed and aaahed over Kate's dress.)

I have but one cavil -- while it is an admirable concept to redo "Mildred Pierce" as an epic, the pace of the first two parts was somewhat languid. Miss Winslet's quiet intensity, her clenched masochism, is compelling, but occasionally one gets the sense the actors are being told, "Remember, we've got five hours to fill, take your time." Somebody wisecracked, "Geez, even the waitress who fell on the floor did it slow!"

But this is a very minor complaint, and I have no doubt I'll be completely riveted with the next three hours. (As usual with this sort of thing, it began late and there was too much said onstage before the lights went down. So maybe I was just generally antsy.)

AFTER the screening, HBO and Peggy Siegal put on a very appealing bash in the divine Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. Dressed up in white tie, the Alex Donner Band played nifty nostalgic music all night long, and the buffet tables groaned under the shrimp scampi, chicken pot pie, sirloin, ravioli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and a collection of fabulous desserts that would have made pie-queen Mildred Pierce jealous. Among the throng: most of the "Mildred" cast, director Haynes, various writers and producers of the show. Also, Mariska Hargitay, Bob Balaban, Paul Haggis, John Waters, Steve Buscemi, Dan Abrams, Michael Lewittes and Anthony Edwards.

And who had the most eye-catching date of the evening? Why 12-year old Morgan Turner. She attended with her mother, Sandra Landers, an actress, and her father Eric Turner, a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He was all decked out in his uniform, complete with epaulets and a broad chest full of ribbons. With close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, Mr. Turner was a manly knockout. There was lots of swooning in his wake. He stood proudly and protectively next to his child -- not too protectively. Just enough to ensure nobody took any liberties, and watched their language. He's a logistics specialist. And don't all child actors need a logistics expert?






TV - Kate Winslet Suffers Magnificently in HBO's 'Mildred Pierce'