Martin Shingler (Senior Lecturer in Radio & Film at the University of Sunderland) was joined by the broadcaster Anna Raeburn for a public conversation on the topic of Joan Crawford and her role in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 classic noir melodrama Mildred Pierce at the Mildred Pierce Event in Bristol on Saturday 20th October. This event, organised by Professor Sarah Street (University of Bristol), was held at the Whickham Theatre. It consisted of screenings of the original movie version and an episode of Todd Haynes’ 2011 TV mini-series, along with papers by Professor Pam Cook (University of Southampton) and Professor Stella Bruzzi (University of Warwick). Martin and Anna’s discussion was the penultimate event of the day and, although it touched on Joan Crawford’s film career prior to her joining Warner Bros. in June 1943 and the reasons behind her move from MGM, it focused mainly on the reasons why the actress chose James M. Cain’s novel as her first Warner star vehicle and what she was able to bring this role.
The discussion focused in particular on Crawford’s performance in two scenes of the film. In the first, Mildred’s vicious daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) slaps her (Crawford) across the face, which leads to a separation. In the second, Mildred (Crawford) tells her best-friend and business colleague Ida (Eve Arden) that she wants Veda back despite her bad behaviour. Notions of camp were dismissed here by drawing attention to the way Crawford used restraint followed by a swift transition to vocal and physical animation to enhance the dramatic potential of her confrontation between Mildred and Veda. In the second scene, meanwhile, attention focused on how she used apparently spontaneous and impulsive minor gestures while drinking a glass of whisky and smoking a cigarette to evoke a sense of sincere emotion when admitting to Ida the strength of her maternal feelings for her daughter. These scenes were used to highlight the extent to which Crawford was able to inhabit her role as Mildred, the only one in her long career for which she received an Academy Award.
Crawford emerged from this discussion as a compelling actor whose powerful performance was born out of concentration and attention to detail as well as large-scale dramatic gesture. Personally and professionally, she only achieved serenity through the expenditure of energy (mostly hard work), while inactivity was a source of stress and anxiety. Crawford invested (and exposed) this characteristic in her finest screen achievement, making this one of the most important links between the actress and her role in Mildred Pierce. Combining their insights into screen performance and character psychology, Martin and Anna attempted to shed light on some of the most remarkable features that have contributed towards Mildred Pierce’s reputation as a compelling, distinctive and distinguished movie: a reputation that remains as strong today as it did in 1945.