Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review: 1959 "Imitation of Life" is a Douglas Sirk Classic

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 19 (of 2004) by Leroy Douresseaux

Imitation of Life (1959)
Running time: 125 minutes
DIRECTOR: Douglas Sirk
WRITERS: Eleanora Griffin and Allan Scott (based upon the novel of the same name by Fannie Hurst)
PRODUCER: Ross Hunter
EDITOR: Milton Carruth


Starring: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Robert Alda, Susan Kohner, Dan O’Herlihy Juanita Moore, Karin Dicker, Terry Burnham, and Troy Donahue

With the release of the film Far From Heaven (2002), influenced by the work of director Douglas Sirk, perhaps, more people will take a look at his work, especially Sirk’s classic, quasi-campy, Imitation of Life. The high soap opera drama was the second film version of Fannie Hurst’s novel of the same title.

The film begins in 1947 when a struggling actress, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner, Peyton Place), and her six-year old daughter, Susie (Terry Burnham), meet a “colored” woman, Annie (Juanita Moore, who by 1947 was a veteran of several film roles for which she had not received screen credit) and her eight-year old daughter, Sarah (Karin Dicker), who is light-skinned/white (high, high-yellow) like her absent apparently Caucasian father and not like her darkie mother.

The film quickly moves to 1958 when Lora is a well-established Broadway star and the muse of her playwright boyfriend David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy), but she isn’t happy. Lora hardly sees now sixteen year-old Susie (Sandra Dee, Gidget), and she struggles to find time for the man she loves, advertising man/frustrated photographer, MoMA wannabee Steve Archer (John Gavin). Lora, self-absorbed with her career, fails to realize that Susie is also smitten with Steve.

Meanwhile, Anne’s relationship with her daughter, 18 year-old Sarah (Susan Kohner), is rocky. Sarah is ashamed of her mother because Sarah can pass for white, but the only thing that shatters that illusion and reveals her to be a light-skinned negress is her mother’s dark skin. Sarah hates it when her mother shows up unannounced when Sarah’s white friends are around and embarrasses her.

Imitation of Life has so many melodramatic subplots that it flies all over the place. Will Steve and Lora hook up; will mother and daughter (both pairs) make up; why can’t Sarah be proud of her race; and what’s wrong with Annie’s health? Still, it’s fun to watch this remnant of the old studio system of Hollywood filmmaking and as part of Sirk’s filmography. It’s a Technicolor and melodramatic wallop upside the head – equally parts hilarious and heartbreaking, absurd and real, and archaic and relevant.

The acting is over the top, but there are moments of genuine clarity and art. The bombastic elements usually overwhelm the quality moments in the film, but it is still worth seeing. It’s just such an enjoyable film, whether you laugh or cry, both, or one more than the other.

The best plot line of this film (and it is blessed, but mostly cursed with many) is the mother/daughter relationship between Annie and Sarah. Why is it wrong for Sarah to pass as white? Why does she have to be black? If this issue is merely skin color, she is white, but ethnic/racial/genetic issues that define any black ancestry as a taint foils her. Why can’t she be who she is and who and what is she? Why does she have to accept the second-class status that goes with being black and stands in the way of material success and happiness? Should she deny who and what she is to get material things or a better social station in life?

Sarah’s often like a child looking through a storefront window at what everyone but she can have. The racial issues in Imitation of Life are a movie by themselves. The rest of the story elements are pedestrian fare, but Sarah’s dilemma, which would even today be explosive, was all the more so in the late 1950’s. Sarah’s story adds flavor to the crazy stew that is Imitation of Life.

It’s often hard to say why this film is so appealing. It’s structure as a film is faulty, and there are too many subplots, even for a two-hour film. But see it for yourself. Once you do, you can’t help but return for second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on helpings.

7 of 10

1960 Academy Awards: 2 nominations for “Best Supporting Actress” (Susan Kohner, Juanita Moore)
1960 Golden Globes: 1 win for “Best Supporting Actress” (Kohner) and 1 nomination for “Best Supporting Actress” (Moore)


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