The Great Villain Blogathon: The Life and Times of Veda Pierce
Webster defines a “villain” as a cruelly malicious person who is involved in, or devoted to, wickedness or crime.
Given that definition, what kind of person comes to mind? A tall, beefy man with a weathered face and a handlebar moustache? A wiry fella in a pinstriped suit, gray fedora, and shifty eyes? A brassy blonde with sharp features, t-strap pumps and a figure like an hourglass (with a gat in her hand)?
Maybe, maybe not. But chances are that the face that springs to your consciousness is not that of Veda Pierce.
In Warner Bros.’ Mildred Pierce (1945), Veda was superbly brought to life by Ann Blyth. She was petite and lovely, with silky, raven-black hair, a melodious voice, and a way with a wardrobe.
And she was also a villain. Par excellence.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mildred Pierce, this film tells the story of the title character, played by Joan Crawford, who is forced to make a life for herself and her two young daughters – Veda and Kay (JoAnn Marlowe) – when her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) leaves her high and dry. Mildred does better than make ends meet – she gets rich by opening a chain of successful restaurants, and although nothing is good enough to satisfy her selfish older daughter, that doesn’t stop Mildred from pulling out all the stops in an effort to win Veda’s love and devotion. She learns by the film’s end, though, that she would have done better to expend her energies elsewhere. If you know what I mean.
For my entry in our Great Villain Blogathon – Part Deux, I’m taking an in-depth look at the life and times of Miss Veda Pierce – and why she’s a prime candidate for Villain of the Year. (Tread lightly – spoilers ahead!)
The Early Days
In the beginning, Veda is like a villain-in-training. She’s more brat than brute; more meanie than miscreant. When we first meet her, she’s extricating her tomboy baby sister, Kay (the delightful JoAnn Marlowe), from a street game of touch football with some neighborhood boys. In contrast to Kay, who’s clad in dusty dungarees, Veda’s wearing an A-line skirt and plaid blazer, with her hair neatly tied with an attractive bow. “Look at your clothes,” Veda admonishes her sister. “Honest, Kay, I think you ought to take a little more pride in the way you look. You act like a peasant.” Veda’s persona is further revealed when she tells her mother that the name of the musical piece she’s been working on is “Valse Brillante,” then snottily adds, “That means ‘Brilliant Waltz.’”
As Veda demonstrates her piano prowess, the girls learn from Mildred that their father has left the family. While Kay is saddened by the news, Veda seems completely unaffected, even slightly amused as she inquires about the reason for the split. “If you mean Mrs. Biederhof, Mother, I must say my sympathy is all with you,” Veda says, referring to her father’s “friend” from the neighborhood. “She’s distinctly middle-class.”
More basic bitchery is displayed when Veda tries on a dress that her mother bought her, and complains about the material: “I wouldn’t be seen dead in this rag,” she says. But her self-centered nature and innate cruel streak first rear their collective ugly heads when Veda suggests to her mother that she marry Wally Fay (Jack Carson), her father’s former business partner. “If you married him, maybe we could have a maid like we used to. And a limousine,” Veda says. “It’s just that there are so many things that I – that we should have and haven’t got.” (Sweet kid.)
But the hate really comes out after Mildred gets a job as a waitress, successfully hiding her new vocation from her children until Veda finds her uniform. When Mildred confronts her, Veda lets forth with a spew of venom that leaves no doubt as to her character (or lack, thereof): “I’m really not surprised. You’ve never spoken of your people – who you came from – so perhaps it’s natural. Maybe that’s why father –“ (She doesn’t get to finish that last thought because Mildred gives her a well-deserved double smack, but you get the idea.)
The Middle Years
A few years go by. Kay, sadly, dies after a brief bout of pneumonia, Mildred gets rich off of her restaurants, and Veda begins to grow into her villainy. She starts out by borrowing money from the waitresses who work at her mother’s restaurants, but this is small potatoes. Her next move is to secretly marry the son of a wealthy local family, get the marriage dissolved, and blackmail the family into forking over a $10,000 settlement by saying that she’s expecting a child. When Mildred learns that Veda lied about the impending joy bundle, Veda’s true colors come shining through again: “Why do you think I went through all this trouble? Why do you think I want money so badly?” Veda inquires. “With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its mean that wear overalls. You think just because you made a little money, you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t. Because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!”
To Mildred’s credit, she sees Veda – for, perhaps, the first time –for the “cheap and horrible” person she really is. She tears up the $10,000 check, kicks Veda out of the house, and goes on an extended trip to Mexico. By the time she returns, though, she seems to have forgotten all about Veda’s cheap horribleness – when Mildred learns that Veda is singing in a dive owned by Wally Fay, she asks her daughter to come back home. But Veda refuses. “You still don’t understand, do you? You think new curtains are enough to make me happy. No, I want more than that. I want the kind of life that Monte taught me, and you won’t give it to me. . . . the way you want to live isn’t good enough for me.” (Yikes. If I said that to my mother, I would be spitting out teeth.)
The Later Years, or Villainy in Full Bloom
Veda tearfully returns to her mother, but only after Mildred has sold herself in marriage to her former lover, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), in exchange for a third of her business, and spent a mint refurbishing his run-down mansion. This, finally, was “good enough” for Veda. And her homecoming, typically, was chock full of promises: “I’ll change, Mother, I promise. I’ll never say mean things to you again.” (Yeah, yeah, put it to music.)
You’ll notice she didn’t promise not to steal her mother’s husband, though.
The proverbial poop hits the fan on the night of 17th Veda’s birthday party. After discovering that she is losing her business (because Monte decided to sell his share), Mildred goes looking for her double-crossing spouse and finds him at their beach house – in a lip lock with Veda. “It’s just as well you know. I’m glad you know,” Veda tells her mother, sharing that the affair has been going on since before she returned home. “He never loved you – it’s always been me. I’ve got what I wanted. Monte’s going to divorce you and marry me. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Mildred pulls out a gun, but she drops it and leaves after Monte
desperately wisely counsels her to “use [her] head.” To his credit, after Mildred’s departure, Monte tells Veda that he has no intention of marrying her: “You don’t really think I could be in love with a rotten little tramp like you, do you?” But Monte pays for those words when Veda empties her mother’s gun into his body.
Hearing the gunshots, Mildred returns to the house and is greeted by Monte’s dead body and her daughter’s tear-stained rationale for the shooting: “He said horrible things. He didn’t want me around anymore. He told me to get out. And then he laughed at me. He wouldn’t stop laughing. I told him I’d kill him. He said I didn’t have guts enough. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to, I tell you. But the gun kept going off, over and over again.”
Veda then turns to her mother – the same mother whose husband she stole (and MURDERED) – and asks her for money to flee. When Mildred instead tries to phone the police, Veda tries to talk her out of it – and actually puts the blame on Mildred! “Think what will happen if they find me. Think what will happen . . . Give me another chance. It’s your fault as much as mine. You’ve got to help me. Help me, Mother. Just this once. I’ll change, I promise I will – I’ll be different. Just give me another chance. It’s your fault I’m the way I am!”
Once again, Mildred is suckered by the one-two punch of her love for her daughter and Veda’s tears, and she gives in, fully intending to go as far as taking the responsibility for the crime. But the jig is up when Veda is caught trying to escape, and offers these emotionless last words to Mildred: “Don’t worry about me, Mother – I’ll get by.”
The Final Analysis
It occurred to me recently that Veda might not have grown into a full-fledged villain if it had not been for the death of her sister. Kay served as the common-sense adviser to Veda, as well as her confidante and conscience. Once she was gone, though, this barrier to villainy was removed, leaving Veda vulnerable, impressionable, and ripe for the double-barrelled influence of Wally Fay, who had dollar signs for eyeballs and would sell out his own brother for a buck, and Monte Beragon, a wastrel and a spendthrift with the morals of a gerbil.
Don’t get me wrong – Veda was far from angelic; after all, anyone who tries to pimp out her mother for a new house and a limo definitely has the necessary seeds to sprout a full-grown villain, no question. And there’s also no doubt that even if Veda hadn’t been driven to murder, she could qualify as a villain simply by virtue of her self-centered, narcissistic, avaricious nature (not to mention calling her mother a common frump!).
Still, sometimes (usually after a glass of wine or two), I like to think that maybe, just maybe, Veda isn’t the complete sociopathic wretch that she appears to be, and that, at her core, is just misunderstood.
A gal can dream, can’t she?
This post is part of The 2015 Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Ruth at Silver Screenings, Kristina at Speakeasy, and yours truly.
Click the picture to the right to check out the many great posts being presented as part of this event!
You’ll be glad you did.