Imitation of Life
(Douglas Sirk, 1959)
I can’t even count the amount of times I wanted to scream at Lana Turner in this picture about how I didn’t care about her stupid acting career.
Spoilers after the jump.
The real drama concerns Turner’s live-in black maid, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Throughout the picture, Sarah Jane breaks her mother’s heart again and again by “passing for white” and denying her relationship to her mother. It’s pretty heartbreaking to watch, although that story keeps getting derailed by the Turner/showbiz narrative.
My hunch is that director Sirk slipped the race story in so that it would be palatable for a 1950s audience. But for a modern viewer, it’s beyond irritating that a woman losing her daughter over skin color is given the same screen time as Sandra Dee’s crush on her mother’s beau. Maybe in contrast, you see how shallow the white people are, which is likely the point.
Vibrant Technicolor visuals abound here, and the womens’ fashions are impeccable. The acting is soap-opera level, and overly dramatic. But Sirk milks every scene for its emotional payoff. I didn’t quite go through three hankies, but it finally got to me with those damned white horses (no accident in color, I’m sure) during the funeral procession at the end.
Thanks again to Alyssa for loaning me her DVD!