Imitation of Life (1959)
Our reviewer John is the one who urged me to see this film. A weepy with a wardrobe for the principal star that is to die for. Though I’m not a fan of melodrama, especially the grand 1950s ones, the clothes aspect drew me in, shallow creature that I am. Considering that I thought the movie was nothing but overwrought angst, I was surprised to find that I like it as much as I do. I doubt I’ll ever become a true devotee but there is much more here than might initially meet the eye.
Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie meet Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane in 1948. Both Lora and Annie are single mothers struggling to survive in NYC. Annie is seeking employment in a place that will allow her to keep her daughter with her and despite Lora being unable to pay her much, black Annie and her much lighter skinned daughter move in with pale blonde Lora and her equally blonde daughter. Lora is an aspiring actress and we see her dejected, returning from days of hounding casting agents. Meanwhile Annie works her fingers off and comforts her daughter who bitterly resents not being the white girl she can “pass” for. Steve Archer (John Gavin), a photographer who met them all the day they all met each other, begins to date Lora who finally gets her big break when she impresses a NY playwright with her insight into his latest creation. The film is filled with these improbable moments which simply must be accepted. Soon Lora is the new, rising star of the NYC theater world, though she casts Steve aside in her quest for fame.
Flash ahead ten years and all the women now live in a lavish country house paid for by Lora’s wealth. Annie is still happy to “do” for Lora, Susie (Sandra Dee), who longs for her mother’s attention, is off at boarding school while her mother continues to single mindedly pursue her career, and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) increasingly hates who she is and how her skin color limits her future prospects in life. Steve moves in and out of their lives which are shown to be darker than initially they would appear. Annie is heartbroken when Sarah Jane rejects her and denies who she is in order to pass for white, Susie is still hurt by her mother’s lack of attention to her and Lora continues to swan through life being a star. It takes a “full box of tissues” tragedy to bring the women together again and the movie to a close.
If, like me, you aren’t a fan of gushy melodrama, there are other things to see in this film. Producer Ross Hunter wanted his usual “women’s” picture filled with beautiful people, wearing beautiful things and living in beautiful places – a glossy soap opera with sets deserving of a full color spread in Ladies Home Journal. Director Douglas Sirk gave him that but also made the kind of picture he wanted to make which was a critique of a Ross Hunter film plus a biting look at stardom and, more importantly, race in America. This version of the story differs significantly from the book upon which it’s based as well as the 1934 film of the same name. Here the white woman is seeking fame as an actress rather than success as a business woman while the black woman is content to remain a servant. Not having seen the earlier film nor read the book, I can’t say how the character of Susie differs but here, Annie and Sarah Jane provide the storyline which interested me most. And believe me, at times it’s hard to watch.
IoL is gorgeous to look at with lush colors for the clothes and carefully color coordinated backgrounds that emphasize or de emphasize certain aspects of the film. The house is lovely though Sirk’s camera angles and the shadows make it seem as if it’s closing in on the characters as the film progresses. Lana Turner’s wardrobe is amazing but in a deliberately OTT way. She dresses and struts like a Movie Star – as she herself had been taught by the studio in real life. The bling is also stunning. Lora could signal her location to overhead search planes if she were ever stuck on a desert island. Sandra Dee is given a perky, teenage wardrobe plus a pink, froo froo bedroom – all of which emphasizes how privileged, yet juvenile, her life is. In contrast Moore is almost always dressed plainly in navy, gray or black. Her dresses might get better as time goes on but she always dresses like a servant. Sarah Jane, though only a year or two older than Susie is years ahead of her in the more adult clothes she has and the way her room is decorated which suits the problems she faces, many of which she brings on herself.
While the beauty of Lora and Susie’s lives might catch the eye at first, I soon found myself far more interested in Annie and Sarah Jane. Lora emotes and overacts, Susie is so sugary sweet and bubbly she makes my teeth hurt but they can both whine and be totally self absorbed in their troubles which in the end are seen for the superficial issues they are. This side of the film does serve as Sirk’s commentary on ambition and Hollywood. While part of me cheered Lora’s determination to succeed and her refusal to give into Steve’s demands that she give up her ambitions as an actress, some of me cringed at the cold, bitchiness she displays and her willingness to give up or put on the back burner almost every relationship in her life for it. Lana Turner is lovely to look at but for most of the film, she looks as if she’s acting. It’s a very staged performance but it still works since the character of Lora is an actress as well. Dee is the epitome of the Grease song “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee.” I’m not sure if she was like this in real life or just forced into that role for the public but in all the movies I’ve seen her in, she plays the same – cute, bouncy and perky. Could she have played better roles had Hollywood been willing to put her in them?
In contrast, what comes between Annie and Sarah Jane is real, painful and not something easy to put aside. This isn’t the first Hollywood film to feature racial issues but since it was made in 1959 it served to show something of what had gone on for years and also emphasized the racial tensions sweeping the nation. Some of the stunts Sarah Jane pulls do prove the saying “more sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” Is SJ annoying? Yes. Does she have a reason for what she thinks and how she acts? Maybe yes. She’s seen her mother work as a domestic, seen that other blacks are limited in what they can do, where they can go, how society views them. She’s also seen – first hand – the opportunities Lora has and that Susie will have. She tells her mother that she’s tired of “living in the back” and doesn’t want to be limited to chauffeurs, cooks and other servants as potential husbands. She’s seen the black butler at the house. She doesn’t want her children limited and scorned. Is that reason to hurt and reject her mother? No but SJ is up against the ingrained racism of the time that was only just then being changed – little by little though. Susan Kohner, herself a mixed race child though of Mexican/European Jewish parents, does a fantastic job here. All the anger, the bitterness, the envy and, yes, the love for her mother is there in Kohner’s acting. Though I do wonder why a light skinned black woman wasn’t cast in the role as had been done in 1934. Still Kohner deserves her nomination that year for Best Supporting Actress.
Juanita Moore got the opportunity to play a large role, something few, if any, black women got a chance at then. She also deserved the Oscar nomination she shared with Kohner (though neither woman won). Still a lot of the lines she’s given make me cringe. She volunteers to do Lora’s laundry because she “likes taking care of pretty things.” She’s always there with a pat, down home truism to ease the white characters’ worries. It’s she who basically supports their little family during the lean times by cleaning their apartment steps and taking in laundry in addition to keeping the apartment they live in. Then once the money begins to roll in, she still keeps the lovely home they move to even though she puts aside money for SJ and for a lavish funeral for herself. But it’s in the scenes where she tries to soothe her child’s hurt feelings and get SJ to accept who she is rather than lie that get me. The heartbreak on Annie’s face when she realizes just how far SJ will go to achieve her goals, breaks my heart as well. Moore might have to play the saint but she does it with dignity and quiet grace. And when she gets her lavish funeral, she goes out like the Saint she is. I maintained dry eyes for most of the film but Mahalia Jackson’s powerful singing had me reaching for a hankie.
Oh, the men in the movie? Steve is basically a handsome Ken doll for most of the film – nice to look at but asexual to the point where we might be forgiven for wondering if he’s anatomically correct. Robert Alda – Alan’s father – is the slightly sleazy agent. But since this is a women’s picture and focuses on them, the lack of strong men is actually not a problem.
This movie makes me think. I’m not so much into weepy melodrama but I do like the thinking part and there’s a lot here to muse on. What should we pay for success, are material things worth it and most importantly, what possible difference should our skin tone or eye color/shape or any other physical features make in our opportunities in life? Watch it for the flash, listen to what should be called the Lush Lux Orchestra with their soaring violins, but think about the deeper message Sirk is trying to convey. B
If you want to watch it right now, someone has loaded it in 13 parts to youtube.