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Mildred Pierce: The Story of a Matriarchal Power Hierarchy
According to Laura Mulvey, men typically drive the narrative forward in films. A prime example of a film in which Mulvey’s theory is inapplicable is Mildred Pierce (1945). The protagonist, Mildred (Joan Crawford), is the central figure throughout the entire film. There are also other strong female characters in Mildred Pierce, particularly Ida with her sarcastic humor, that defy the stereotype that women are merely quiet, docile eye-candy for men to ogle. The typical film narrative power hierarchy in which men rule supreme is completely abandoned in Mildred Pierce; the power structure in this film is strictly matriarchal, with Mildred on the throne. However, it is evident that the power Mildred wields comes with an enormous price. She is constantly forced to stifle her emotions, swallow her pride, use her sexuality and even make financial sacrifices in order to maintain the affections of yet another strong female, her daughter Veda. Mildred is steeped with symbolism and metaphors, which represent emotional subjects that are difficult to face. These subjects are conveyed through conversations, light and dark imagery and the use of mirrors to further highlight that the characters, particularly Mildred, repress a great deal of their feelings in order to succeed. In contrast to the powerful, intelligent women characters, there are a handful of men who have little actual power and are controlled by the women. There are no heroes in this film, only heroines. Most of the male characters are quite distasteful and unheroic. The three men who vie for Mildred’s romantic affections, Bert Pierce, Wally Fay and Monty Beragon, are all in scenes with Mildred in which she asserts her power and blatantly challenges expected gender roles. Through close ups of Mildred’s facial expressions and half shadow lighting on her face, the viewer is able to see that behind the stoic façade is a mother who desperately hungers for the love of her daughter.
In several separate situations, Mildred fools Bert, Wally and Monty into thinking that they possess a form of power over her, but in reality she still has the reins. At the beginning of her flashback story, clad in a matronly apron and in the middle of baking, Mildred appears to be a typical 1940’s wife and mother as she discusses her daughter with Bert. Bert may appear to be in charge because he is male and a breadwinner but appearances can be extremely deceptive. When Mildred says to him, “They (her children) will never do any crying if I can help it,” this is one of the first indicators that she is in control. It becomes even more apparent that Mildred is the true head of the household when she stresses that she is the accountant and the decision-maker of the family by kicking Bert out. Another example of Mildred shattering male illusions of power, is the scene in which she lures Wally to the beach house with flirtation. He is under the obvious impression that he has finally managed to break down Mildred’s barrier with his sex appeal when he attempts to kiss her. She, in turn, slaps his glass away, without a change of facial expression, and calmly comments that she feels sticky and would like to change her soiled clothes. This shows that she had been in control the entire time and had not been swayed by his “charm.” The scene in which Monty tells Mildred of his abhorrence of grease, gives the viewer a momentary impression that he may actually manage to be condescending toward Mildred and get away with it. However, Mildred ultimately has the power to humiliate when she writes him a check and he finally knows what it is like to take a tip. After each of these situations, there is a close up of Mildred’s face, which shows the true anguish and pain she is experiencing that the men cannot see.
The use of mirrors is a very effective visual device used in Mildred Pierce. The viewer is first introduced to the importance of mirrors in the very beginning of the film when we see the mirror behind Monty riddled with bullet holes as he falls to the ground. When Mildred is sitting by the fireplace on her first date with Monty, the viewer sees her first through the large mirror on the wall. Then we see them kiss through the mirror. After Kay, Mildred’s daughter, tragically dies, we see the doctor closing the door on the room through the mirror in Mrs. Beeterhoff’s hallway. Monty watches Mildred and Bert through the mirror above the bar in the restaurant as they discuss their divorce. All these instances in which the mirror is used are significant because they are all scenes in which something emotionally charged is taking place.
The age-old device of light and dark is masterfully worked into Mildred Pierce . Wally accidentally knocks over a lamp to reveal Monty’s corpse. The police officers “hit the house with light” when they arrive at the murder scene. One of the cops shines the spotlight on Wally and later shines a flashlight directly on his face. At the end of the long night at the police station, the main cop lifts up the shade over the window, letting in light and air, as if to imply the night had been spent tackling a dark and foul smelling subject. Shadows are an important element in the light and dark theme. The viewer sees Wally’s frantic shadow, initially searching for Mildred, and moments later, searching for an escape route. The shadow of Bert tearing up the newspaper announcing Mildred’s marriage to Monty effectively shows his jealousy and contempt toward Monty. The viewer only sees Mildred’s and Wally’s shadow when she remarks, “Oh Wally! You’re wonderful!” Mildred’s face is consistently half shadowed throughout the entire film. The half shadowing is a way to show that Mildred is hiding some kind of deeper emotion. Mildred’s face is half in shadow at the bar when she is talking to Wally about the afternoon’s business proceedings. It is also half in shadow when she says, “Maybe I find you irresistible, Wally” at the beach house. Her face is half in shadow in many of the scenes at the police station, particularly when she admits to murdering Monty. Death is said to be a person’s darkest hour. The two people who die in this film, both have Mildred on their minds when they die, she is their light in their darkest hours. Kay’s dying word is “Mommy” and Monty’s dying word is “Mildred.”
Mildred, independent business owner, mother and wife atypically tears down film stereotypes of leisurely unintelligent, unopinionated homemakers. Mildred, however, is not a flawless heroine. Her greatest faults are her dire obsession with the happiness of Veda and the neglect of her other daughter Kay. Mildred’s story is one with a bittersweet message: it is possible to be a successful woman, but she must sacrifice things and people that she loves in the process.
The preceding text is an essay I did for a film history class in 2003.