8 February 2005 | FilmOtaku
A four-hanky masterpiece
The conflict between mothers and daughters has long been a Hollywood plot device. Sometimes it is done badly ("Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood"), sometimes it can be campy (the immortal shriek fest "Mommie Dearest") and sometimes a film does it really well ("Mildred Pierce"). "Imitation of Life", Douglas Sirk's 1959 film starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore, squarely fits into that last category.
Lora Meredith (Turner) is a young widow, a single parent and struggling actress. One day when she loses her young daughter Susie at the beach, and with the help of a photographer she encounters, Steve Archer (Gavin) she finds her with Annie Johnson (Moore), an African-American woman, and her own young daughter Sarah Jane. After Lora and Annie talk for a bit, we find that Lora is having a hard time juggling her career with having a young child, and that Annie and her daughter are newly arrived in town and do not have a place to stay, so after Annie asks to work for Lora in exchange for room and board, they strike up a close friendship, as do their daughters. The film spans about ten years, and during those ten years Lora becomes a very successful Broadway actress, and Susie is sent away to an exclusive boarding school. Meanwhile, Annie is still her loyal right-hand, having decided to continue working for Lora, even though she has been putting the money that she has earned away. Sarah Jane, however, a very light-skinned girl who is able to pass as white, cannot get past her hatred of her own race, and her embarrassment of her mother's color and position. She is continually scheming and running away in order to rid herself of her true heritage, which ends up literally breaking her mother's heart.
"Imitation of Life" is outwardly a very pretty film with gorgeous coloring, beautiful actors and costumes to die for. When this veneer is peeled back, however, the true nature of the film is revealed, and its conflicts are painfully apparent. Lora and Steve are clearly meant to be together, but her career repeatedly gets in the way until Steve is no longer able to sit by idly, waiting for her while realizing that he is always going to be low on her priority list. While Sarah Jane envies Lora and Susie's looks, money and ultimately, color, it quickly becomes clear that their problems are substantial. While they had a close relationship when Susie was six, with the advent of Lora's career, the love Lora had for Susie did not diminish, but her attention and time for her did. When Susie returns home from a break at school, it is in her mother's absence that she latches on to Steve, (newly reunited with the family after ten years) and ultimately falls in love with him. In regard to Annie and Sarah Jane, there is nothing that the kind-hearted, completely selfless Annie can do to appease her daughter, a realization that is so hurtful that it makes her physically sick.
The great Douglas Sirk weaves all of these conflicts masterfully. Sirk, often marginalized as a "fluff piece" director due to the strong melodramatic content of his films, is at his very best with this film. "Imitation of Life" does not stray from his other films in terms of formula: We have a conflict that is socially relevant and somewhat inflammatory, beautiful actors and actresses playing the part, rich, lush colors throughout the entire production and loads of expensive jewelry and costumes. While there are Douglas Sirk movies that I really like for their camp value ("Magnificent Obsession" immediately comes to mind), "Imitation of Life" is so much more. Just when you're about to laugh at a line or a gesture that seems really over the top, Sirk beats you to it. The best example of this is when Lora and Susie are having a fight over the fact that Susie has fallen in love with Steve, after Lora announces their intention to marry. When Lora looks directly at the camera, puts a stoic look on her face and says in her best Joan Crawford imitation, "Then I'll give him up", Susie immediately says grimly, "Oh mother, don't act for me." The performances by the actors are all good, particularly the Oscar-nominated performances of Moore and Kohner. Here's a warning about the film, however chances are, you'll get upset. My boyfriend, who will probably kill me after he reads this, very rarely cries at films. I've personally seen him cry once at a movie, and that was at "Return of the King", where everyone in the theater was honking. He had the waterworks big time at the end of this movie, much to my surprise. (And yes, personally I was a big mess; I had to blow my nose about three times.) "Imitation of Life" has both beauty and substance. It is a multi-layered film wrapped up in an exquisite little package, which is often cast away as fluff, but is really so much more. Watch it and judge for yourself, but this judge gives it a solid 8/10.