IMITATION OF LIFE (1959)

  • Director: Douglas Sirk
  • Writers: Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst
  • Starring: Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, Robert Alda, Dan O’Herlihy, Karin Dicker, Terry Burnham, and Mahalia Jackson
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#99), 2 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actress – Juanita Moore, Best Supporting Actress – Susan Kohner)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Douglas Sirk is a director with a reputation that has done a full 180 since his best known films were first released in the 1950s. At the time, his movies were basically considered trash by critics, but most of them were big hits with audiences. Today, most moviegoers have either never heard of him or consider his movies to be pop trash, but critics adore him and consider him one of the major directors. His movies are, on the surface, melodramas about the surface concerns of 1950s life, full of tears and hand-wringing. Most critics today assume he is being ironic much of the time, undercutting the dumb concerns of 50s suburbia by taking them a little too seriously.

Sirk grew up and started his directing career in Germany before moving to Hollywood prior to World War II with his Jewish wife to escape the Nazis. Imitation of Life was his final film before he decided to call it quits and quietly retire back to Europe. It was actually the second movie made from the same novel, and at the time the first film (from 1934, starring Claudette Colbert) was considered superior. Sirk’s version stars Lana Turner as a widow pursuing her dream of Broadway stardom, with Sandra Dee as her teenage daughter. Their lives are intertwined with Lora’s Black maid Annie (who she takes in off the street before she can actually afford a maid), played by Juanita Moore, and Annie’s light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is ashamed of her dark-skinned mother and constantly trying to “pass” as white, usually with tragic results.

I would not be the first to remark that Sirk seems much more interested in the story of the Black mother and daughter than he is in the ostensible “A” story with the white mother and daughter. He even admitted later that he was basically using the “mainstream” part of the story to sneak in the story he wanted to tell, about Annie and Sarah Jane. This may be borne out by the fact that Imitation of Life’s only two Oscar nominations were for Moore and Kohner. In its frank discussion of racial issues in the relationship between these two characters, it feels far ahead of its time, and this is certainly the element that will catch the attention of viewers today.

Imitation of Life was in fact a huge hit at the time of its release, but this fact was attributed at the time more to publicity surrounding its star, Lana Turner, than to the actual quality of the movie. Turner was a long-time Hollywood sex symbol and was considered one of the industry’s most bankable stars for a while. In 1957, she became romantically involved with a mobster named Johnny Stompanato, who became more and more abusive over the course of their relationship. After Turner went to the March 1958 Oscars alone (where she had been nominated for her performance in The Bad and the Beautiful), Stompanato confronted her violently at her Los Angeles home. Fearing for her mother’s life, Turner’s teenage daughter Cheryl stabbed Stompanato to death. She would be acquitted of murder after a sensational trial, and Turner’s return to the screen turned out to be a melodrama about her relationship with her teenage daughter. That audiences turned out in droves was unsurprising.

That Sirk is operating on a different level from many of his contemporaries purveying similar dramas is immediately apparent in the shots that he uses. Particularly in the story involving the way Sarah Jane sees herself, he shoots Kohner in a mirror whenever possible. One of the more dramatic scenes, in which her boyfriend (Troy Donahue), who she thinks she has fooled into thinking she’s white, confronts her with the line, “Is your mother a n*****?,” makes this particularly apparent. The camera swings back and forth between the two actors and the same events being reflected in a storefront window.

This is also a surprisingly modern movie in a #MeToo sense. Lora’s initial forays into acting and modeling are so beset with surprisingly frank sexual harassment, particularly from an agent named Allen Loomis (played by Robert Alda, Alan Alda’s father), that it initially discourages her until she starts to take more control of her own destiny. Her character’s success in the Broadway world allows Sirk to put Turner into some of the most expensive dresses and jewels ever seen in a movie. He was known for his over-the-top costumes and interiors, which he is again using to underline how silly all of this 1950s materialism actually is.

I keep coming back to Roger Ebert, who was of course probably the most influential critic on me and a whole generation of film fans. In his essay on another Sirk classic, Written on the Wind, he wrote that appreciating the movie, “probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman‘s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.” He gives us unrelenting artificiality, whenever he can. His backgrounds are very visibly sets. He elicits performances, often from female actors, that are completely over-the-top. His favorite male actor, not seen in Imitation of Life, was Rock Hudson, who in portraying heterosexual relationships always brought an air of artificiality. What Sirk is saying, I think, is that the world being sold to us is artificial, but within it we are real. The characters in his movies are the only real thing.

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