After a middle-class woman, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), loses her mediocre husband to a divorce, she is faced with raising two daughters and rebuilding her life from scratch. One of her daughters is nice but boyish; the other is nasty and very feminine. The nice daughter is younger than the nasty one, who, though brought up in a solidly middle-class environment, believes she is better than the rest, that she deserves the best the world has to offer, that her place is not in the postwar American suburbs but in the highest, most glamorous realm of society.
After the younger daughter dies, the mother works hard and begins to make loads of money in the restaurant business. Eventually, the Pierces become filthy rich and the nasty daughter becomes nastier than you can imagine. She even begins to look down on her mother—working class, uncultivated, unrefined. Finally, the worst happens: Either the mother or the daughter murdered the man the mother married to impress her daughter (he had class but no money).
This is what I love most about Mildred Pierce: the woman who plays the Pierces' maid, Butterfly McQueen. When she appears on the screen, my heart fills with warmth and joy—her high-pitched voice, her down-to-earth face, her lively eyes. Most of the world knows McQueen as Prissy, Scarlett O'Hara's maid in Gone with the Wind, but I know her as a humanist and atheist who hated playing the only roles Hollywood would give to black women, roles that always made her a servant to women who were spiritually and intellectually beneath her. Burn, Hollywood, burn. (I listened to Sonic Youth's "Mildred Pierce" while composing this review.) Seattle Art Museum, Thurs Oct 4 at 7:30 pm.