Classical Hollywood Cinema: most people get a picture of what it is at the mere evocation of this influential and extraordinary “machinery”. However, it is more difficult to put a word on what exactly defines classical Hollywood style and how it works.  David Bordwell, in the chapter “Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures,”[1] explains how Classical Hollywood Cinema works as a narrative system, deciphering the means by which Hollywood movies are constructed. It is a neoformalist approach, that is to say based on the devices used (empirical approach) rather than imposing a prior theoretical approach (sociological or historical). Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) is a classical Hollywood film, that I will use it to illustrate some of Bordwell’s points. Linda Williams, feminist film theorist, questions Mildred Pierce’s meaning for the female spectator in a both psychoanalytic and poststructuralist approach in “Feminist Film Theory: Mildred Pierce and the Second World War”[2]. In other words, she studies the relation between the film and the viewer within sociological-historical context.

Mildred Pierce is a particularly interesting case study because it is a typical Classical Hollywood film (as it has all the ingredients explained by Bordwell) and an atypical film for its plot combines – as Williams says – two contradictory genres: film noir and melodrama. In a very schematic language, it imbricates the most masculine genre and the most feminine genre, yet the targeted audience was the female spectator. My point is that Bordwell’s and Williams’ readings are complementary, for Hollywood reflects the dominant ideology, and studying its forms as well informs on society of the time. Women are part of society, and they have to seen as spectator within a historical-sociological-ideological context, just as a film is a snatch of time and way of thinking and looking.


First, as I mentioned in the introduction, Bordwell has a very scientific approach to Hollywood narration. Indeed, the neoformalist reading is partly focused on the film’s narrative form and style. Bordwell defines three ways to study narrative[3]. The semantic reading refers to representation (a world or body of ideas), the syntactic reading concerns the structure, or how the elements of the narrative combine to create a certain world and the last one would be the study of the actual act of telling (here showing, projecting) a story to a viewer.

By analysing representation and structure, Bordwell wants to demonstrate how “Hollywood narration constitutes a particular configuration of normalized options for representing the story and manipulating composition and style.”[4] In other words, Hollywood narration has its own patterns and structure repeated in all its films, whatever the plot is.

One of the key rules is that everything in classical Hollywood narration has to be clear, defined and easily legible. For example, a classical character has to be stereotyped, with a quite simplistic psychology. The character struggles to solve a problem or to achieve his goals, and in the course of this struggle, he enters into conflict with an external element. The end is either a victory or a defeat, a resolution of the problem and a clear achievement or non-achievement of the goals. Usually, the main character is the most “specified,” he/she is at the centre of what happens in the story and the object of audience identification. The beginning of Mildred Pierce exemplifies these rules.

In Mildred Pierce, the main protagonist, as the title indicates, is Mildred, interpreted by Oscar-winning and star Joan Crawford. Mildred is at the centre of the plot first because it is the first word of the film:  it is the last word of a man after he is shot. The identity of the murderer is not shown, as there is no reverse shot. However, the next shot is that of Mildred driving away from the crime scene. We are led to think that she committed the crime. Later in the beginning, she is questioned by the police, and starts to tell the story of her life – there is then a flashback – and we learn that she was not happily married, as her husband (who is cheating on her) blames her for spoiling her daughters. Therefore we have the two intricate plot lines Bordwell mentioned: Mildred’s struggle in her personal life and this mysterious murder (the external element). She is both an object of identification as a mother and as a mysterious woman – the femme fatale. The femme fatale is an emblematic figure of film noir of the 1940s. She is “a mysterious, alluring, enigmatic female character in stories, who poses a threat to male protagonist, using her sexual power to entrap him and lure him to his downfall.”[5]

Bordwell divides the narration into fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot). The story is a construct of the spectator, as he puts the narrative events in causal chronological order. Mildred Pierce for example contains flashbacks, and the spectator is able to make a chronological sense out of them. The plot is how the events are presented. In Mildred, the film begins with an event that actually happens towards the end of the story (the murder). As said earlier, the plot has two plot lines usually heterosexual romance/another sphere (here work). The two lines coincide in the climax. It is the case in Mildred:  in the end she goes back to her husband Bert, meaning that she will stop working in her successful restaurant business and go back home.

Bordwell provides a closer dissection of the functioning of the plot (syuzhet). A scene, for example, is an independent segment which “continues and closes off cause-effect developments left dangling in prior scenes while also opening up new causal lines for future developments.”[6] If we look at the scene where Mildred is in the kitchen (the beginning of the first flashback), everything is already exposed. The voice-over specifies the time and the past of Mildred. She is baking in the kitchen and represents the archetypal housewife. As the voice-over mentions the two daughters (Veda and Kay), there is a close-up on a picture of them in a frame. Bert comes back from home (he is wearing a suit and a tie, embodying the typical working head of family, and they argue about the fact that Mildred spoils her kids too much. Mildred says that she “would anything for them. Anything.” It foreshadows the tragedy that will occur because of Mildred spoiling Veda. The phone-call suggests that Bert is having an affair, and that the couple will part for economic reason, as Bert cannot sustain for Veda’s extravagances.

The manipulation of space is important in the legibility of the narration. Bordwell calls it the “classical omnipresence”. The camera is an “invisible observer,” meaning that there is no trace of actual “making” of the illusion. The classical narration depends on the notion if “invisible observer,” as the narration pre-existed its representation. The aim is to give an illusion of reality, as if the fictional elements (characters, settings…) had their own existence before the camera came to film the disruption in their equilibrium (without them knowing).

The story (fabula) is a logical construct of the spectator. Classical Hollywood guides this construction in the spectators’ mind through different devices. As always, the strong causality is the priority of the story to avoid ambiguity. There is also a firm borderline between the subjective and objective POVs. For instance the flashback may be a subjective action of a character, yet it shows more than the character could know.

Lastly, Bordwell studies the relationship between the spectator and the classical Hollywood film. According to him, the classical spectator is not passive for the spectator performs cognitive operations (rational and conscious attempts to make a sense out of what he is watching) even though he is familiar with this style. Indeed, the spectator has internalized the schemata of Hollywood cinema (causality, defined characters, realistic motivation…). The spectator projects hypotheses on these schemata (e. g. they will fall in love with each other, he is going to die, etc…).

At the end the chapter, Bordwell sketches a more poststructuralist analysis of the film, as a film cannot escape ideological or economical context. “The goal-oriented hero (…) bears the traces of social-historical processes of production and reception.” Mildred is often seen by the feminist film theorists as the example of the working woman of the 1940s who has to go back to the kitchen when the GIs are back from war. Mildred Pierce would be therefore an expression of the patriarchal society, the latter having been upset by the war and the new opportunities it gave to women.



Before studying Williams’ text, we need to differentiate the notions of spectatorship and audience.  Spectatorship is the relationship with the film text; the spectator is an abstract notion. The audience implies sociological and cultural notions; there are therefore different kinds of audiences, as for example the male audience and the female audience. Feminist film theorists challenge the notion of spectatorship because it does not take into consideration how gender can influence the reception of a film. This is why Linda Williams refers to the female spectator – that is to say the target audience of Mildred Pierce – in her text.

Williams, influenced by feminist theory on psychoanalysis and visual pleasure, asserts that the female spectator has been denied access to male’s gaze pleasure, and woman as “a subject in her own right” has not been shown in films, notably classical Hollywood films.[7] Thus she wants to define the interaction between the female spectator of the 1940s and the way women were depicted in the films of that period. She introduces to two key concepts on representation of women upon which two traditions of theorists have argued.

The first concept is repression, “the often devious ways in which texts that supposedly represent women actually repress them.” That is why melodramas – here Mildred Pierce – are at the centre of feminist film theorists’ debates: are melodramas in favour of women or subtly inject patriarchal ideology to maintain women as inferior in women’s own minds? The other concept is reflection, “which establishes the connection between a given female image [e.g. Mildred] and the historical moment that produces such an image [e.g. the 1940s].”[8]

According to Williams, each tradition has something to learn from one another. Moreover they are based on feminist enlightenment and do bear in mind that the female spectator of the 1940s did not have their feminist hindsight (feminism became important in the 1970s). For Andrea Walsh, in favour of reflection theory, Mildred Pierce is a sign of nascent feminism consciousness, for it showed a strong woman, Mildred becoming a successful and independent businesswoman. Yet, Williams says that it is an optimistic point of view, and that treatment of Mildred in the film was not in her favour – she does everything for her ungrateful daughter (Veda) who happens to have an affair with Mildred’s husband, and kills him. It all happened because of Mildred who spoiled Veda too much.

Pam Cook (repression theory) argues that the double structure of the film makes Mildred guilty. The story she is trying to tell is intercut by the film noir scenes which contradict what she is saying and therefore destroy her credibility. The false structure – the murder at the beginning and Mildred getting away in a car) – suggests that Mildred is the murderer. All in all, Williams think that the reflection theory underestimates the power of patriarchy and the repression theory overestimate it. Williams’ point is that the reading of the film text should be more aware of the specificities of the historical moments in which the film was produced and the situation of its contemporary audience. We must look how Mildred Pierce reflects and represses the contradictions of its historical moment. This is the concept of the political unconscious by Frederic Jameson: the analysis of the collective denial of historical contradictions.

The female spectator of the 1940s was in a “contradictory situation,” as in the men were back from war, during which women had replaced them in the workforce. Mildred Pierce parallels this contradiction in itself, as it is both a melodrama and a film noir. The film shows the contrast and conflict of the gendered-genres: “the day-time filmic discourse of Mildred’s own story and the noir male discourse of a dangerous nocturnal underworld.”[9] Although Mildred Pierce was released in 1945, the film lacks direct political-historical references. By not anchoring the film clearly in history, it allowed to apprehend the gender upset less abruptly, and this upset is resolved at the end to a return of the patriarchal order. Moreover, the absence of patriarchal authority – an oblique reference to the war, suggesting that the father was fighting – “permits a more substantial reflection of the new opportunities for women in a wartime economy.”[10] The new female financial independence allowed by wartime was unacceptable to the dominant patriarchal ideology. Mildred’s financial success and independence lead to a murder: because a man did not guide her, she badly raised her daughters. Kay is dying after Mildred flirted with Monte Beragon and Veda becomes an obnoxious spoiled and materialistic woman. The film noir is repressive and dark, yet seeing Mildred Pierce as only a repression against women would be too simplistic, for this genre is “unbalanced and untriumphant genre” itself.[11]

Mildred Pierce is neither an expression of matriarchal power or a patriarchal power. It is rather a combination of contradictory identification: Mildred as a Depression-era wife, wartime mother, businesswoman and post-war femme fatale. The historical circumstances of the film create even more upset in the roles of wife, mother, worker and woman.



To summarize: Bordwell analyses how Hollywood narration is constructed and says in the end of the chapter that construction is influenced by a given sociological-economical-historical context. Williams tries to explain what Mildred Pierce’s narration did to its female spectators, by taking into consideration the sociological-economical-historical context of the 1940s.  My point is that we should look at how classical Hollywood narration constructs its representation of gender, and what look it has on women.

But first, let’s have a deeper sight of the purely historical context to understand better the dominant ideology, which affects inevitably the production of films. Julie Weiss interestingly points out that we should study Mildred in a longer historical perspective and not only the 1940s.[12] Weiss goes back to the 1910s and 1920s in America, when feminists argued for women’s rights (voting, economic independence and sexual liberation) while women’s presence in the workforce was increasing. In the 1920s, the flappers represented the independent, sexually liberated women. During the Depression-era, more men were thrown out of work than women, as men’s work in industry was more affected by the crisis than feminine jobs. The Second World War was in a way a great hand to women’s independence, as they had to replace men, and thus question the patriarchal values of American society. This turmoil in gender roles gave rise to the “Mom-bashing” phenomenon: basically mothers were blamed for absolutely everything. It was epitomized by Philip Wylie’s best seller, Generation of Vipers (1942), which attacked American motherhood. According to him, American society was “veering towards matriarchy.”[13] This sentence underpins an important notion: male’s fear of castration, which in psychoanalytic film theory, has a direct impact on how women are represented in films.

Laura Mulvey, in her influential article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” argues that classical Hollywood cinema ensures the spectator to adopt a masculine point of view, notably on women who are objectified by the visual pleasure of the male gaze. “As an advanced representation system, the cinema poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking.”[14] The woman is the bearer of the meaning, not maker of the meaning. It is the case in Mildred Pierce: the detective makes the meaning out of what Mildred is telling.

Mulvey clarifies the notion of pleasure in looking (scopophilia). To look or being looked at can be both sources of pleasure. Hollywood, through its strong borderline between the screen and the audience, allows voyeuristic pleasure. The pleasure in looking is often in this one-way: active/male and passive/female. The spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, who controls events and possesses the active power of erotic look. He is therefore omnipotent. In Mildred Pierce, as it is a melodrama, the object of identification is a woman. So how does Hollywood manage to convey a male gaze through the point of view of a woman?

Mildred Pierce was aimed at female audience. The question is: do women enjoy films that seem to denigrate them?  Mulvey explains that women as representation provoke a castration complex, a threat that must be circumvented thanks to voyeuristic and fetishistic (even sadistic) mechanisms. Fetishism is “the quality of the spectator’s belief in the illusory world on the cinema screen and also to an over-investment in, or an idealization or worship of, the female form on the screen.”[15] Mildred, both as mother and femme fatale is beautiful. The fetishization of her body as a sex object is emphasized by the sexual advances of Wally Fay and Monte Beragon. As a femme fatale, she is punished in the end in being deprived of her two daughters (sadistic mechanism). How can female audience still identify? As I said, she is a mother. But I would not draw a clear and definite borderline between the mother and the femme fatale, for all she does is for her daughters. She uses her charms and traps Wally to make him accused at Veda’s place of the murder of Beragon. She eventually goes back to her first husband, giving up her business. I think that most of all she is a figure of self-abnegation and sacrifice to women, and this in the 1940s or nowadays. The only difference is the hindsight the female spectator has.



To conclude, Bordwell explains the workings of Hollywood narration, and I used Mildred Pierce to illustrate some of his points. It is characterized by its linearity, legibility and psychologically defined characters. The plot presents this rule: equilibrium/disruption/back to the equilibrium with a shift, hence a standardisation of the plots and only variations in the stories. Williams analyses the psychological impact of Mildred Pierce on the female spectator of the time by investigating on the social-historical-economical context.

[1] David Bordwell, Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

[2] Linda Williams, Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, ed. Deidre Pribram (London: Verso, 1988).

[3] Bordwell, 17.

[4] Bordwell, 17.

[5] Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, 1st ed., s.v. “femme fatale.”

[6] Bordwell, 20.

[7] Williams, 12.

[8] Williams, 12.

[9] Williams, 13.

[10] Williams, 23.

[11] Williams, 27.

[12] Julie Weiss, “Feminist Film Theory and Women’s Theory: Mildred Pierce and the 20th Century,” Film and History 22, no. 3 (1992): 80.

[13] Weiss, 82.

[14] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 7.

[15] Oxford Dictionnary of Film Studies, s.v. “fetichism.”