Mildred Pierce


By: Beatrice Scholtz

In her article, “The Genre”, Jeanine Basinger says there are 3 main purposes of the Woman’s Film. Which purpose (choose one) do you think best describes the messages in Mildred Pierce?  Explain why.

There are three main purposes in the Woman’s Film according to Jeanine Basinger: Center of the universe, Repression, and Liberation. Although these purposes intermix and contradict each other and are all present in the film, liberation best describes the messages in Mildred Pierce.

Liberation is defined in the Woman’s Film as “providing a temporary visual liberation of some sort, however small- an escape into a purely romantic love, into sexual awareness, into luxury, or into the rejection of the female role  that might only come in some form of questioning (“What other choices do I have?”) (Basinger, The Genre)

In the case of Mildred Pierce, Mildred is forced to make a choice when her philandering husband Bert cheats on her. She is left with two daughters and no economic security; thus, she has to choose between motherhood and survival for her and her family. Mildred takes on a job as a waitress, quickly becomes the best, while baking dozens of pies out of her home oven, all with grace and charm and little sleep. She soon opens her own restaurant, and then after three years owns five restaurants. As stated in the article by Jeanine Basinger: “For instance, sometimes when the man dies, runs off or deserts her for whatever reasons, a woman is then forced immediately to go out into the world on her own and do something to survive. She does this brilliantly, and not only survives but survives on a very posh scale.” (Basinger, The Genre) Mildred does succeed very well; she is liberated at the expense of her choice, and soon we realize that it is catching up to her, and she is slowly punished, like Jeanine said: “She [woman] is not supposed to have two of anything. She can’t have both a career and a home […] and frequently she can’t even have two children, because one has to die for her sins.” (Basinger, The Genre) This is shown in the film when Mildred’s youngest daughter becomes ill and dies while Mildred was away at work and with her new love interest, Monty Beragon. This shows that because Mildred has chosen a career and the chance at happiness, she is punished by having her youngest daughter die. The remainder of the film focuses on Mildred desperately trying to regain control and affection of her only daughter while running her restaurant empire. She tries exceedingly hard to satisfy the expectations of Veda, but in the end all her efforts are thwarted. This is exemplified in one of the last scenes where Veda says to her mother after murdering Monty: “It is your fault that I am the way I am.” (Curtiz, 1945) She tries to cover for Veda, the daughter that despite having everything, was not satisfied with anything, while Mildred is made to feel guilty for her choice at every turn.  It is clear that the main purpose of the temporary visual liberation of a glamorous, independent life best describes the messages in this film.

Into which Women’s Film category (Molly Haskell’s four categories) would you place Mildred Pierce? Why? 

Out of Molly Haskall’s four categories: Sacrifice, Affliction, Choice, and Competition, Mildred Pierce would be placed into the sacrifice category. Mildred sacrificed her children for their own welfare, as well as herself for her children. At the start of the film she is forced to sacrifice them for their own welfare; she has to go to work to provide for them, even if that means not always being there for them. The second and majority of the film, she compensates for not being around and sacrifices herself for her children, more particularly Veda. She works night and day to make sure that Veda has everything that she herself did not have as a young girl. She even marries a man that she does not love, admitting: “I’d do anything to get Veda back” (Curtiz, 1945), knowing Veda’s love for Monty’s lifestyle. This sacrifice ultimately leads to her downfall because she cannot afford the expensive lifestyle that her daughter demands. Sacrifice is the category that best fits Mildred Pierce because she spent the majority of the film putting her daughter’s needs before her own.

Robin Morrison contends that Mildred cannot be seen as a “good mother” because she’s working outside the home – in what ways is she shown to be a “bad mother”? 

Patriarchal structures and sexist ideologies maintains that a woman’s role is in the home tending to children and husband. According to this, Mildred is considered to be a bad mother. Mildred had to go to work to support herself and her daughters after deciding to no longer put up with her philandering husband. This could be considered a selfish choice from the viewpoint mentioned above, because her first priority should have been to stay with the children. The ‘right’ thing to do as a ‘good woman and mother’ would have been to shut up and turn a blind eye, and continue as normal. By becoming her own woman, by becoming successful, she was simultaneously becoming a bad mother. “A woman cannot be an effective mother while being self-employed, for a number of different reasons. If she is a working woman, she cannot properly take care of her children, but also if she is a mother, her business decisions are negatively affected by that role, and she lets consideration of her children cloud her judgement. This is an indictment of the woman who works to support her family, because if she makes the attempt at both, she can have neither.” (Morrison, 1998) Mildred tried her best to appease a daughter who hated her, and in the end by attempting to have both a career and be a mother, she also lost both.

Kathryn D’Alessandro describes how many of the visual images (cinematography, lighting) in Mildred Pierce are reminiscent of film noir. Explain how. 

Even though Mildred Pierce is primarily a women’s film (melodrama), many of the visual images in Mildred Pierce are indeed very reminiscent of the fi m noir style. Key style elements and how they are shown in Mildred Pierce:

  • Majority of scenes take place at night (in the city)- The majority of scenes do not take place at night, but most of the dark and dramatic ones do. The film starts with a murder scene at a beach house at night. Then, “Mildred, distraught, appears on a moonlit, rainy pier, contemplating suicide.” (D’Alessandro, 2002) When Mildred receives the news of Kay’s illness, it is dark and raining. Then towards the end when the creditors are asking for money, they are in her restaurant at night while Veda’s birthday party is at the house. Finally at the end (back at the beginning) the murder is played out in the beach house.
  • Light falls on walls and surfaces in odd shapes (blinds and shapes reflected)- This is very evident in the beginning of the film when the murder is taking place. “…the murder victim  and murderer’s shadow are captured in a bullet-shattered mirror.” (D’Alessandro, 2002)
  • Use of dramatic lighting (heavy shadows, faces shrouded in darkness)- This is evident again at the beginning and at the end. At the start how the shadows of the victim and murderer are shown, and at the end when Mildred discovers Monty and Veda together; she walks in and at first they are in shadow but the audience still knows who it is.
  • Use of flashbacks and voice-over narration- This technique is used extensively throughout Mildred Pierce. The narration starts when Mildred recounts her story to the detective; the whole movie is a flashback of what happened with intermittent voice-overs and flashbacks back to the police station.
  • Ending is bleak- Mildred’s husband is murdered by her daughter who had an affair with him, Mildred tries to cover for her daughter but the truth is found out. She is buried in bills and expenses from providing Veda with luxury, and about to lose her restaurant business because of it. Mildred, despite all her hard work, loses everything.
  • Femme fatale and private detective characters- The film has a detective character who Mildred recounts her story to, and the femme fatale character as Veda.

Mildred Pierce is representative of a mix between the “male gaze” and the “female gaze”. Explain how, using the FILM NOIR and PSYCHOANALYTIC Theory lecture notes as well as the web link on DEFINING THE FEMALE GAZE. “Mildred Pierce” has ONE femme fatale. Who plays the femme fatale and how does she fit this stereotype?

Mildred Pierce is a mix between the male and female gaze, because the film is aimed at women or mixed audiences, yet is directed by men. It constantly jumps back and forth between the male and female gaze. The film caters temporarily to women by providing a visual escape, where a strong and independent woman runs a successful business, and falls in love with a man other than her husband.  This is turned around, however, when women are ‘put back in their place.’ Her attempts are all thwarted, and she loses everything. At the beginning of the film when Mildred wanders onto the pier and Wally spots her, he is not really interested in what she is doing there, but just trying to woo her. This ignores the woman’s point of view and voice (Mulvey, 1975) and shows her as a pretty face and pair of legs and nothing more. Even worse is how this vulnerability is attractive to men such as Wally, because female sexuality is believed to be “passive, responsive to the male, submissive,” (course reader) even though Mildred stands her ground when it comes to his advances, and even uses it to her advantage when she takes him to the beach house. Mildred is aware that Wally is interested in her, and takes advantage of it by trapping him in the house and framing him with murder. A character that exemplifies the female gaze is that of Ida. She is strong and independent just like Mildred, and voices her opinion about men: “Oh, men. I never yet met one of them that didn’t have the instincts of a heel. Sometimes I wish I could get along without them.” (Curtiz, 1945) The film shows for women that being successful and having a lover is all possible, but then reverts back to the male gaze that takes it all away again.

The femme fatale in Mildred Pierce is played by the daughter, Veda. She fits the stereotype perfectly. She is as beautiful as she is vindictive and manipulative, and draws the attraction on Monty. She also has an insatiable appetite for money and would do anything to get it. For example she marries a wealthy young man, only to dupe him into giving her money by claiming that she is pregnant, saying later to her mother: “At this stage, it’s a matter of opinion. And in my opinion, I’m going to have a baby. I can always be mistaken.” (Curtiz, 1945) Veda also leads Monty to ruin by having an affair with him, then murdering him when she realizes that he has just been using her and does not love her. This femme fatale is shown in the end to be rightfully charged with the murder.


Basinger, J. (n.d.). The Genre. In A Woman’s View (pp. 1-23).

Curtiz, M. (Director). (1945). Mildred Pierce [Motion Picture].

D’Alessandro, K. (2002). Linking styles: Mildred Pierce. Audience: Informal commentary on film, 38th year.

Morrison, R. (1998). Mildred Pierce and His Girl Friday: Portrait of Working Women in the Pre-andPost-World War Period.

Mulvey, L. (1975). The Male Gaze.

…and various slides from the course reader

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s