Narcissism Before We Knew About It

Joan Crawford’s onscreen daughter, left, is a study of malevolence in Mildred Pierce.

His first film came out before women could vote; his last one was released the same year Bob Dylan dropped his debut record. Between 1917 and 1962, Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz directed more than 100 films in almost every imaginable genre — including Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, White Christmas, We’re No Angels, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. There’s a real sense among critics and film buffs alike that the most prolific filmmaker of Hollywood’s golden age could do almost anything: swashbucklers and Westerns, musicals and crime dramas. And with Casablanca, he gave cinema the greatest love story ever made.  

Curtiz’s 1945 film-noir adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce is among the director’s most celebrated achievements, maybe because its fraught emotional dynamics haven’t gone out of style. The story of a hardworking mother’s increasingly desperate attempts to mollify her narcissistic eldest daughter defies easy genre categorization. Novelist Cain was best known as a hardboiled crime writer, but Mildred Pierce was something different: a psychological story centered on a parent’s crippling devotion to a monstrous child — one whose insatiable appetite for fame, status, and power at any cost nearly destroys her whole family. 

Curtiz’s film, with a script credited to Ranald MacDougall (Catherine Turney and William Faulkner also worked on it), adds murder as a framing device, providing the long-suffering Mildred (Joan Crawford) with an impetus for telling her tale of woe. The film opens with Mildred attempting to exonerate her ex-husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), for the murder of her second husband, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). The story unfolds flashback-style from the dissolution of the Pierces’ marriage, through Mildred’s persistent attempts to support her children through baking, waitressing, and ultimately as a restaurant owner and entrepreneur. Daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) aspires to a grander life, as a musician, a singer, and a debutante. Mildred is forced to sacrifice another aspect of her independence, ultimately leveraging her business, her emotional security, and her scruples as she acquiesces to her daughter’s increasingly impossible demands, culminating in her attempted cover up of Veda’s murder of Monte Beragon.

Veda’s cruel narcissism and unabashed malevolence play almost like a monster movie grotesque. She is a creature that thrives on manipulation, whose blind egotism and cruel self-interest stand in stark contrast to Mildred’s perennially indulgent self-sacrifice. It is testament to Curtiz’s direction and to Crawford’s Academy Award-winning performance that the film succeeds as something more than a melodrama. Even at its most over-the-top moments, Mildred Pierce evinces real emotion and shows the deft hand of a director able to navigate the formal constraints of genre to arrive at a film that feels, even today, fresh, relevant, and beautifully executed. 

In our current milieu, often defined by larger-than-life personalities and a cultural fixation on fame at any cost, Mildred and Veda’s story pointedly interrogates our relationship with ego. Are we the taker or the enabler? How much do we sacrifice to feed a hunger that can never be sated? At what point does our willingness to give in to a tyrant — even a tyrant we’re conditioned to love — make us complicit in whatever damage they cause? 

Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, and Ann Blyth, will be screened by the Hendersonville Film Society at 2pm on Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Smokey Mountain Theatre at Lake Pointe Landing. Other films in the Curtiz series will include Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) on November 4, Casablanca (1942) on November 11, and Francis of Assisi (1961) on November 25. Donations accepted at the door. For more information, call
828-697-7310.

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