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Remembering Joan Crawford’s ‘Mildred Pierce’ on its 70th Anniversary

Mildred Pierce,” the classic film noir-meets-melodrama that won Joan Crawford her only Oscar, was released on this day in 1945, 70 years ago.

Like many of Crawford’s pictures, Michael Curtiz’s “Mildred Pierce” — based on the novel by James M. Cain — told a story that in its essence, if not its details, was the story of the actress’s own life: Scrappy gal is born in hard luck city but pulls herself up by her bootstraps to achieve success, if not quite happiness. Read the original Variety review here.

To audiences who’ve read or seen the film version of “Mommie Dearest” — the story of the very unhappy childhood reportedly inflicted by Crawford on her own adopted daughter, Christina — however, the film resonates in a way that it did not when first seen seven decades ago, as “Mildred Pierce” is the story of a mother so self-sacrificing and dedicated to her daughter that the girl grows up well groomed, well educated and completely ungrateful.

In an interstitial that runs occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, actress Ann Blyth, who played Mildred’s spoiled daughter Veda, recalled shooting “Mildred Pierce” with Crawford and declared that despite their characters’ fraught relationship on screen, she and Crawford got along very well — so much so that it was hard for her to slap Crawford for one of the movie’s pivotal scenes.

Director Curtiz (an Oscar winner the year before for “Casablanca”) was initially reluctant to work with Crawford on “Mildred Pierce,” and reportedly exploded to Jack Warner: “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads…why should I waste my time directing a has-been?” According to the blog Girls Do Film, he forced Crawford to take a screen test in what was undoubtedly a humiliating experience for an actress with her professional experience, to say nothing of fame.

In addition to the best actress Oscar Crawford won for “Mildred Pierce,” the film was also nominated for best picture, among other categories. Crawford was famously so nervous that she was unable to attend the Academy Awards ceremony. As the IMDb says, Crawford “feigned ill that night. Meanwhile she listened to the show on the radio. When she won, she ushered the press into her bedroom, where she finally accepted her Oscar.”

“Mildred Pierce” was remade by Todd Haynes as an HBO miniseries in 2011 that starred Kate Winslet as the entrepreneurial Mildred, with Evan Rachel Wood playing the ungrateful Veda.

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