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!



Posted on August 13, 2008, in Film log, Top 1000 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This is a remake of a 1934 film with Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers… can’t remember who played Beavers’s daughter, but the “passing” storyline was included in that film too. Pretty out there for 1934. I haven’t seen Sirk’s remake.

  2. Knew there was an earlier film and a book, but guess I was sort of surprised how much the maid and her daughter were given a virtual backseat treatment until the very end of the film.

    Sirk’s images are fantastic here, but maybe he shouldn’t be given credit for being as subversive as I’d thought. That is, until I catch up with the original, which probably won’t be as Eisenhower-era inducing as this pic.

  3. I again have to make the embarrassing admission that even though I own this movie, I haven’t, um, actually seen it yet. (Even more embarrassing: I think I bought this one to fulfill a Columbia House DVD club purchase obligation. :-)

    I did want to get it, though, because
    a) It’s the Sirk film I’ve heard most about
    b) I looooved “Far From Heaven” (Dennis Quaid wuz ROBBED of at least an Oscar nom for that one, I tell you.)
    c) I HAVE seen “Written on the Wind” and enjoyed it, in its campy, color-saturated way. Rock Hudson! Lauren Bacall! All right! The “WotW” theme song still gets stuck in my head whenever I think about it (“Written on the wind! Blah blah blah blah BLAH blah!”).

  4. Nothing embarrassing about it. I’ve got several discs I haven’t watched. Spartacus (all 3 hours of it) is gathering dust on my rack now.

    Agreed on Quaid in FfH. It’s Todd Haynes’ most accessible work to date, and Quaid enjoyed a nice resurgence on its heels. However, I did just see him in Smart People…. guh. not good….

    In IoT, the opening song is by Nat King Cole and it features an extended cameo by Mahalia Jackson. Sirk knew from his music, which is so ingrained in the overall experience.

  5. By the way, Susan Kohner played a black woman is never black; she is of Hebrew and Mexican origin.

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