Melodrama-Rama: Where Do I Begin?
Twenty years ago, a film professor told me that Mildred Pierce (1945) was the only movie of its kind. Every heroine of mid-century film melodrama winds up dead, blind, or married, she explained, only mildly exaggerating; Mildred does not. In fact, Mildred (Joan Crawford) is the subject of the film. She is a figure with whom the viewer, regardless of their gender, is supposed to identify.
In classical Hollywood, especially the period between the mid-1930s and the late 1960s, movies, as a rule, objectify women even when female figures are central characters. These films fail the Bechdel Test, a benchmark coined by the MacArthur-honored graphic novelist, which states that a movie, if not thoughtlessly sexist, should have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Sometimes, classical Hollywood films don’t even pass the Sexy Lamp Test, a variation on the Bechdel Test in which the audience can replace a female character with an inanimate object without altering the film’s plot or characterization. In other words, these films labor under the male gaze, a term codified by the film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975. Her point, in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” is that women characters passively “connote to-be-looked-at-ness,” rather than taking on the active role of spectator, which is the standard male posture. Mulvey quotes longtime director Budd Boetticher: “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents…In herself the woman has not the slightest importance,” and specifies: “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen.” She’s a sexy lamp, to the characters and to the audience. What she wants, where she comes from, who she is—these matters of characterization are irrelevant for female characters, as long as she’s good to look at.
Mildred Pierce, though, is not subject to the male gaze in the same way as her sisters. When she wants something, she pursues it, whether it’s a liquor license for her restaurant or a new husband fluent in the society life her daughter craves. When she needs money, she sells her own baked goods to the neighbors or gets a job waiting tables instead of seeking a husband to provide for her. When men give her sexual attention, she often finds it annoying instead of pleasing, ignoring comments about her un-stockinged legs and dancing fluidly away from an octopus-armed friend.
The film comes from a novel of the same name (1941) by James M. Cain, who also wrote the crime classics Double Indemnity (1943) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Cain’s intent with Mildred Pierce was not to tread the same noirish ground he usually did, but to portray a woman struggling with her circumstances: running a household during the Great Depression, two terrible husbands in succession, the demands of single motherhood, even the cost of work shoes and uniforms. Cain makes these circumstances specific in a way few male novelists ever bothered to, and the results remain compelling today despite the eighty intervening years.
What Mildred undergoes while attempting to create a better life for her children—angelic Ray and demonic Veda—is sheer melodrama. She suffers, rebuilds, succeeds, and ultimately falls from grace, with the appropriate swelling strings and weepy collapses. The book and movie are too good for me to spoil them here, but all this is to say that there is no murder in the book. In the film, there is a murder, right up front, and the story unspools in response to it. This plot choice conforms to contemporary noir tropes, as murders take place in other Cain adaptations (Indemnity, 1944; Postman, 1946). But Cain’s fourth book was not a mystery novel. Mildred Pierce is about characterization, not crime, and that distinction matters.
As an audience, we struggle alongside Mildred. We sympathize as she tries to navigate the three shitty men orbiting her. We only sort of understand her obsession with Veda, but we don’t reject her for it. She is relatable. She is recognizable. For a female character to inspire such reactions in a 1945 movie is rare indeed—unique, if my film professor and my own experience are to be believed.
Mildred Pierce (the film) has rightly been classified as noir, but the shape of Mildred’s story is melodramatic. When I studied the film, it dawned on me that I had a narrow understanding of melodrama. I know that the genre involves big emotions and domestic stakes, women’s stories and two-faced betrayers, death and excessive cliché. Camp, sometimes. Beyond that, I can certainly identify melodrama in various media. Soap operas and primetime teen shows (Beverly Hills 90210 [1990-2000] to Riverdale [2017-present]) are TV melodramas. Romance novels and much of women’s fiction are literary melodramas. Douglas Sirk, probably best known for the Lana Turner vehicle Imitation of Life (1959), staked out an extremely precise territory for cinematic melodramas. But what are the true parameters of the form? Where does it begin and end, and what does it always/never include? I wanted to know.
Mildred Pierce certainly gave me the same strong emotions and fits of yelling at the TV that Sirk’s films do (especially All that Heaven Allows , which made me throw things). I faintly recognized these reactions from the long-ago reading experience of Sweet Valley High books—that 181-book franchise of teen fantasy revolving around identical twin sisters from Southern California who cope with everything from messy rooms to felony kidnapping—and felt their spirit vibrating in aural memories of operas like La Traviata and musicals like Moulin Rouge! (2001).
I knew enough to apply the word melodrama to these stories, but what truly united them was not any dictionary definition, but the feelings they gave me. Still, I tried to find some definitions anyway. Jackie Byars and Peter Brooks have written foundational books about film and literary melodramas, respectively, and neither of them offers a convenient, bite-sized definition of melodrama. The closest Brooks comes is to say that both Honoré de Balzac and Henry James “participate” in “the effort to make the ‘real’ and the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘private life’ interesting through heightened dramatic utterance and gesture that lay bare the true stakes.” That’s fairly useful, if broad enough to apply to The Great Gatsby (1925) and Dynasty (1981-9) equally. Besides, Brooks emphasizes the importance of melodrama in the canon of men’s writing, rather than focusing on how it’s often seated in the worlds of women. Byars, meanwhile, writes almost entirely about melodrama privileging women’s stories, though her study is restricted to a single decade of film.
Always, but especially when I consider melodrama in the 20th century, I think of Virginia Woolf’s words:
The values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and more subtly the difference of value persists.
I refer to this as the “battlefield vs. drawing-room” split between what matters and what doesn’t in the eyes of cultural arbiters. Mildred Pierce (the film) was a hit because it was juicy, beautifully made, and well-pedigreed. Unfortunately, Joan Crawford’s later melodramas (The Damned Don’t Cry, Queen Bee, The Story of Esther Costello) do not maintain the woman as subject. While Mildred Pierce proved that a female subject could compellingly lead a successful film, this lesson was lost on producers. Two of the best-selling books of their respective decades were Peyton Place (Grace Metalious, 1956) and Valley of the Dolls (Jacqueline Susann, 1966), both unabashed melodramas revolving around women’s lives. Are they considered important in 20th century literary studies? No. They are deemed trash. (And yes, they are trash, but that doesn’t mean they lack significance!) Television dramas about women (The Good Wife, 2009-16) are melodramas; melodramas about men (Breaking Bad, 2008-13) are dramas. Is this fair? No.
This column will explore melodrama in as many ways and means as I can muster. Professional wrestling, opera, scholarly books, bad TV—whatever I can find that explains what this genre/form/style/sensibility means. Since I’m best schooled in film and literature, I’ll write about those a lot, but I’m eager to find other kinds of art for this lens. Suggest some, if you’d like to. I have plenty of cultural blind spots, so don’t hesitate to point them out.
Mildred Pierce will come up again, I’m sure, as the only film of its kind. (And Joan Crawford will reappear as one of the premier faces of Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s.) The subjectivity vs. objectification of women in various genres is paramount to this exploration. Most of all, my work will privilege feelings. My emotional responses to melodrama distinguish it from other genres. I recognize emotions are harder to identify and study than whether a story takes place on a battlefield or in a drawing-room, or what key a musical score is written in. I understand how, as a critic, I’m supposed to receive a battlefield scene, the importance I’ll assign it as compared to a drawing-room scene (particularly when those scenes are written by 20th century white men). D minor, the saddest of all keys, instructs the listener on its own melodrama in songs like “The Boxer” and “Somebody That I Used to Know.”In this project, though, I’ll point out that the drawing-room scene makes me feel something the battlefield scene doesn’t, and I’ll confess that I passionately sang along with Gotye and cried to Paul Simon. Those reactions might not be quantifiable, or repeatable, like a laboratory result. But they’re genuine.
That’s why I’m excited to write this column, and excited for you to read it. Instead of analyzing, thinking critically, filtering what I see and read through Mulvey and Sontag and Bechdel, I’m feeling my way through. Literally! Join me
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (2020) and a monograph on Plan 9 from Outer Space (2021). Her work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, the Believer, Conjunctions, NPR, and many other places. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida