Strong, independent and opinionated women- in a Hollywood film from the 50s? Get out your Kleenex box and get ready to enjoy Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodramatic masterpiece IMITATION OF LIFE
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Starring Lana Turner
Released by Universal Pictures
(1959) 125 min.
Douglas Sirk will always be one of my favorite directors for the way he used the “woman’s picture” to tackle the major issues in American society. In IMITATION OF LIFE (a remake of the 1934 Claudette Colbert film of the same name) Sirk shows how even in the ultra conservative period of the 1950s, a group of women could band together and create their own non-traditional family.
The film is loosely broken down into two parts, with the first half focusing on Lora Meredith (Lana Turner). Lora is a unique character for the 1950s because she’s a woman who wants a career as an actress instead of a husband. The film never apologizes for her ambitions.
One day on the beach in 1949 Lora and her daughter Susie meet African-American Annie (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane, a tormented young girl who can pass for white. This chance encounter will turn into a decade long relationship that will change the lives of all four women.
As Lora tries to grab any opportunity she can to make it on Broadway she also begins dating photographer Steve (John Gavin). Gavin gives an incredibly stiff performance as Steve (Alfred Hitchcock apparently nicknamed him “the stiff” after his performance in Psycho a year later), but honestly he’s so handsome that you almost forgive him for it.
When Steve starts to earn a steady income working for an ad agency he asks Lora to marry him and is shocked when she refuses. Lora does loves Steve, but she makes the choice to stick with her dreams over the comfort of domesticity. “I thought you’d be happy that you wouldn’t have to try to support your family anymore.”
Steve sulks after Lora turns him down. After they part angrily we see Steve has gone on to date a stream of women who allow him to be the dominant partner in the relationship while Lora dates a famous theater director who she doesn’t really love but knows can help her career.
The second half of the film takes place ten years later. By 1959 Lora has firmly established herself as an actress and the focus of the film shifts to the relationship between Annie and Sarah Jane.
In the first half of the film Annie optimistically became maid/mother/therapist in the Meredith household, convinced that living with Lora was the fresh start her and Sarah Jane needed. But ten years of watching Sarah Jane wishing that the white Lora was her mother, Annie’s optimism has been replaced by a tired, forced smile.
While Lana Turner is fabulous in the role of Lora Meredith it’s honestly mostly because she’s well, Lana Turner. The real stars of this movie are Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner for portraying the complicated relationship of a daughter who desperately wants to fit into white society and resents her mother for showing the world what she really is.
“I don’t want to have to go through life coming through back doors and feeling lower than other people-and always be apologizing for my mother” the grown up Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) heatedly declares to the grown up Susie (a syrupy sweet Sandra Dee, the least interesting character in the whole film).
The most powerful scene in the film occurs between these two when after years of trying to force Sarah Jane to accept her history and culture, Annie tracks her down in Los Angeles. Annie tells her daughter she’s accepted that she doesn’t want her in her life and she’s only come to see her one last time. Sarah Jane is overcome with guilt but she lets her leave anyways, even lying to a white friend that Annie was her “mame”, not mother.
Imitation of life is a soap opera for certain, but never is it sappy. While the film does unfortunately resort to some Hollywood clichés, on the whole it is a perfect example of how Sirk used the genre of the melodrama to explore a women’s desire for a career or racial identity and did so long before civil rights or women’s lib.