Imitation of Life (1959)
Director: Douglas Sirk, king of the ironic 1950’s melodrama.
Cast highlights: Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner are stand-outs in the stronger of the film’s two narrative strands. Both actresses were both nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.
Netflix User’s Rating: 4/5
One – sentence Synopses: A struggling actress and single mother takes in a black housekeeper and her daughter, and the two experience the various challenges of motherhood as they raise their daughters.
Emotional?: In typical Douglas Sirk fashion, Imitation of Life undercuts the artifice of 1950’s American film with deeply embedded social commentary about race, class and gender. Starkly progressive for the time in which it was made, the film plays as both an over-wrought melodrama and a sharp critique of 1950’s America. But, despite the many attempts to intellectualize Sirk’s work, the true impact of his films lie not in their cerebral qualities but in their ability to affect audience emotion. As Tag Gallagher puts it in his article on Sirk’s melodramas “We understood Sirk’s melodramas because we felt them. In fact his movies work less as “texts” than as physical emotions. They need to be felt.” As far as ‘tear-jerkers’ go, Imitation of Life stands in the upper-echelons along with Bambi and Terms of Endearment.
The film is a classic mother-daughter story, considering two parallel sets of single-parent relationships. One concerns a typical working-mother conundrum: Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is a woman chasing her dream of becoming a famous actress, all the while trying to raise her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee). But when Lora’s career takes-off and she finally achieves the theatrical success she has always craved, her relationship with her daughter becomes increasingly strained. Housekeeper Annie – who is taken in by Lora after the two meet at the beach – ends up taking the bulk of the mothering responsibilities, caring for Susie along with her own daughter, Sara Jane.
This brings us to the alternate, and far more emotionally affecting, mother-daughter relationship – that of Annie and her light-skinned daughter, Sara Jane. Born to Annie and her deceased, “almost white” husband, Sara Jane grows up with a feeling of deep shame and anger at her black heritage. Most of this anger is directed at her long-suffering mother, who persists in trying to get her daughter to accept her identity. Sara Jane attempts to pass for white in her daily life, continually denying her black identity.
The heartbreaking aspect of their relationship comes in the way Annie’s unconditional love for her daughter persists despite Sara Jane’s outright rejection of her mother. As Sara Jane grows into teen years, this self-hatred manifests in rebellious behavior. In the most emotionally affecting scene in the film, Annie tracks Sara Jane down after she has fled to Hollywood to dance burlesque in a nightclub. Accepting the fact that she can no longer be a part of her daughter’s life, she asks simply to hold once more like when she was a baby. Despite whatever resistance I had to the flagrant melodramatic display at work here, things certainly got dusty.
Strength of the female lead:
Long before the ‘can women have it all’ debates raged across the blogosphere, Sirk created a female character who attempted to have career success while raising a child and balancing a romantic relationships. And while the film takes a pessimistic stance toward life-work balance, having Lora’s relationship with her daughter suffer due to her career ambitions, her defiant desire to become a famous actress puts her ahead of her time. The most interesting example of this is when Lora runs out on a burgeoning relationship with the handsome Steve Archer in order to take her first major role in a theatrical production. Rejecting Steve’s attempts to support her and Susie if she steps back from acting, she insists “I’m going up and up and up – and nobody’s going to pull me down!”
But, undoubtedly, the real backbone of the film comes from Juanita Moore’s Annie. Although Annie is dis-empowered by her position and the times in which she lives, she maintains a quiet strength throughout the film. Lora’s problems seem pithy in comparison to Annie’s. She has to contend with racial prejudice not only from society at large but from her own daughter, and yet she handles them with far more grace than the over-dramatic actress with delusions of grandeur. While Annie’s struggle instills in the viewer a deep sense of anger and injustice, these are traits which she herself never displays. She has a set of strong moral convictions, influenced by her religious leanings, which she never wavers from. It is her willingness to grin and endure, both for her own good and the good of her daughter, which characterizes her courage.
Add to instant queue? : Highly recommended – as long as you are armed with a full box of Kleenex.