While watching Todd Haynes’ stunning adaptation of “Mildred Pierce” in a nourish mini-series for HBO, I recalled the first time I viewed a production by this brilliant (and yes, Jewish) writer-director: Edward Albee’s, “The Zoo Story,” which Haynes directed and starred in at a professional theater in Hollywood in the 1970s.
Haynes was all of 13, and a classmate at Gaspar de Portola Junior High School (now middle school) in Tarzana. In the seventh grade, we’d eat lunch every day among the same circle of friends who met under a tree near the cafeteria, where Todd would often show us the intricate pen drawings he had made to illustrate various creative ideas. Even then he was talking about issues of identity – and his own emerging gay identity— that would later surface in his nuanced cinematic explorations of race, gender, and sexuality.
“Far From Heaven” (2003) is Haynes’ homage to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, who fled Hitler to Hollywood and transformed “women’s pictures” into slyly subversive critiques of American social taboos. “I’m Not There” (2007) divided Bob Dylan’s life into six personae, each represented by a different actor; while “Mildred Pierce” tackles social class and gender anxiety in a faithful adaptation of James M. Cain’s gritty 1941 novel (compared to the weepier 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford).
What I didn’t know about Todd back in junior high was that he counted Judaism as an important aspect of his personal identity; I had always assumed he was non-Jewish, and was surprised to learn—decades later—that he is, in fact, a member of the tribe. When I interviewed him about “Far From Heaven” in 2003, he explained that his mother is Jewish, his father is not, and while he grew up in a non-religious household, he is “damned proud” to be an MOT. Laughing, he added that he wished his surname didn’t sound so WASPy.
When asked about his relationship with “Far From Heaven’s” composer, Elmer Bernstein (who won his final Oscar for “Heaven’s” score), Haynes said: “Elmer and I became friends very fast, which I think has a lot to do with being Jewish, left-leaning and interested in the arts.”
Bernstein (1922-2004) reminded Haynes of his charismatic grandfather, Arnold Semler, who died in 2001, and to whom “Far From Heaven” is dedicated. Semler was a son of Romanian and Polish immigrants who started out in the Warner Bros. mail room in the 1930s and worked his way up to head of set construction and union organizer. A Communist Party member, he quit his job during the McCarthy-era blacklists and founded a communications and electronics business.
Over his brown bag lunch back at Portola, Haynes spoke often and with great admiration about his grandfather, but it was not until our 2003 interview that I realized the scope of Semler’s influence. “My grandfather identified with the history of Jewish struggle,” Haynes said. “All my films are about resilient outsiders, whether in terms of race or sexual orientation, and I think I inherited that from [him].”
“Mildred Pierce” is Haynes latest saga of a resilient outsider: as played by Kate Winslet, the character pulls herself up by the proverbial bootstraps from working class to upper class, has an affair with an aristocratic Lothario (Guy Pearce) but remains reviled by her spoiled, pretentious daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), to tragic effect.
Mare Winningham, by the way, is superb as Mildred’s blunt waitress co-worker, Ida, who winds up running Pierce’s business empire.
Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the “Mildred Pierce” mini-series will continue airing this week; parts 4 and 5 will air on April 3 and April 10.