‘IMITATION OF LIFE’

Written by  on April 21, 2013 

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In 1959, glamour goddess Lana Turner made a triumphant screen comeback in the Douglas Sirk/Ross Hunter vehicle “Imitation Of Life”.German-born Douglas Sirk ranks as one of cinema’s premiere auteurist heroes.Critics have often tried to dismiss his work as mere tissue fodder – salient and weepy melodramas produced for the women’s market. In fact, there is much to be gleaned from such Sirk/Hunter box office hits as “All That Heaven Allows”,”Written On The Wind”, and “Imitation Of Life”, if one is prepared to look beneath their complex surface. Sirk had been a successful theatre director in
Germany before entering the world of film in the 1930’s.His stage work hadincluded Shakespeare, Shaw, Pirandello, Ibsen, and Brecht. Brecht’s influence on Sirk was considerable; his innovative thoughts about distancing and alienation are readily apparent in “Imitation Of Life”. Sirk chose to work with controver- sial figures in Hollywood, such as Albert Zugsmith on “Written On The Wind”, and gay Hollywood producer Ross Hunter on their classic collaborations “There’s Always Tomorrow”, “Imitation Of Life”, “Magnificent Obsession”, and “All That Heaven Allows”.

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“Imitation Of Life”, based on the celebrated novel by Fannie Hurst, had originally been filmed in 1934, directed by John Stahl.It had starred Claudette Colbert in the lead role, with Louise Beavers co-starring. Sirks’ 1959 version took the same theme, but made alterations to the storyline.”Imitation Of Life” is a keenly observed study of friendship, racism, and patriarchal oppression.A classic character piece, it tells the tale of two mothers – one white, one black, who form a lasting bond together, whilst their daughters (also friends) go on to face the trials and tribulations of growing up in a harsh, unfair, and often judgemental society. Lana Turner plays Lora Meredith, the All-American Anglo Saxon single mother, with blonde bombshell looks and a burning ambition to make it to the top as an actress. Her hot-headed daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) is the prom queen sweetheart at odds with her mother’s relentless ambition, whilst harbouring a secret crush for Lora’s beau Steve Archer, played by John Gavin.Into their lives enters impossibly angelic African-American maid Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her troubled half-caste daughter Sara Jane (Susan Kohner) who has a big problem with her own imitation of life.

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The movie’s opening titles instantly convey Ross Hunter’s obsession with beauty and glamour, whilst the luxurious shot of diamonds slowly falling into a glass container filling the frame from top to bottom is Sirks’ way of acknowledging the precious and artifical nature of the film itself.As the movie begins, Lora Meredith is frantically searching the beaches of Coney Island for her little Girl Susie.A single mother and an aspiring actress, she is well past the first flush of youth, yet determined to succeed in her quest for greatness as a stage actress.She encounters freelance beach snapper Steve Archer, who helps her to find the child.Susie is soon located, playing with her new friend Sara Jane, watched over by Sara Jane’s mother, Annie Johnson. A relieved Lora strikes up a conversation with Annie, and muses that she wishes she had somebody to look after Susie for her (evidently, she has assumed that Annie is Sara Jane’s nanny; her being coloured, and Sara Jane seemingly white). Annie answers that she would be perfect for the job. Lora is surprised that Annie would consider leaving her current position almost on impulse, until she is told that Sara Jane is in fact Annie’s daughter, and that “My baby goes where I go”.Annie tells Lora that Sara Jane favours her father, who “was almost white”. She also mentions that they have nowhere to stay, and Lora offers them shelter for the night in hers and Susie’s meagre apartment.

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 The next day, Annie agrees to look after the two children while Lora walks the pavement on and off Broadway, trying to get herself an acting role, and an agent. From this moment on, a friendship develops between the two, and Annie and Sara Jane become a permanent fixture in the Meredith household. Lora appears to be getting nowhere fast in her quest for fame, and after a day spent modelling for a flea powder advertisement, she is visited by Steve Archer, the beach photographer. He has come armed with the pics he took of Susie and Sara Jane at the beach, but he has an ulterior motive – courting Lora. As he flirts with her, complementing her bone structure, he says “My camera could easily have a love affair with you.” Lora is taken with Steve, but always at the forefront of her mind is what he can do for her profess-ionally.Eventually she meets a seedy agent by the name of Albert Loomis (Robert Alda) who feeds on her desire for fame.After putting on an act to talk her way onto his books, her ruse is quicklyuncovered. Alda tries to bed her, whilst suggesting that she prostitute herself for success: “If the dramatist’s club wants to eat and sleep with you, you’ll eat and sleep with them. If some producer with a hand as cold as a toad wants to do a painting of you in the nude, you’ll accommodate him for a very small part.”Lora is disg- usted, telling him that she will not be cheapened, and that she will make it her own way, not via the casting couch.

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Sara Jane in the meantime is still in denial of her colour. A distraught Annie learns that she has been passing herself off as white when she visits the child’s school. A horrified Sara Jane dashes from the building, and back at the apartment declares to Lora and her mother “But I am white! I’m as white as Susie!”. Steve Archer has given up photography and found a steady job in advertising; he arrives at the apartment to ask Lora to marry him. However, at that very moment the phone rings. Lora’s agent has instructed her to pick up a script from a big time playwright, with a view to auditioning for him. Steve
tries to prevent her leaving, but she is not prepared to sacrifice her career for holy wedlock, and tells him (in one of the movie’s best lines) that: “I’m going up and up, and nobody’s going to pull me down! Chris- tmas is fast approaching. As Lora rehearses her lines for the audition, Annie tells Susie and Sara Jane the story of the nativity. Still obsessed with the issue of race, Sara Jane asks “Was Jesus white or black?”. As both Lora and Annie try to tactfully explain, Sara Jane replies defensively:“He was like me – white!”Lora’s audition for famed playwright David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy) goes horribly wrong. In spite of her we- asel like agent’s attempt to instantly disown her, a gutsy Lora challenges Edwards about the scene, and tells him that he is too good a writer to have it included in his play. He admires her spirit, and casts her in the role. On opening night she is a sensation; needless to say, she embarks on a love affair with Edwards, and he begins to write a series of plays specifically for her. As the years fly by, such productions as “Sum- mer Madness”, “Happiness”, and “Born To Laugh” take her to the very top of her profession.

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Eventually Lora grows restless with her lot, declaring that something is missing in her life. She decides to take a role by another playwright, which signals the end of her relationship with David Edwards. She throws a chic soiree at her new Frank Lloyd Wright inspired ranch house, to which Steve Archer is invited. He had run into Lora again at the theatre, at the end of one of her performances.To his surprise he discovers that Susie and Sara Jane are no longer littlegirls.They have grown up – Susie has become a junior Doris Day type, while Sara Jane has metamorphosed into a smouldering sexpot. Steve angles to rekindle his affair with Lora. He tells her: “You know I still have you in my blood, don’t you?”. On a countryside picnic they plan their new lives together; Steve promising to give up his ad executive job, and Lora vowing never to do another play. Unfortunately, in a déjà vu scenario, Lora receives a call from her agent to play “the best part since Scarlett O Hara”. Evidently she has not changed one iota in the intervening years.

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Meanwhile, Sara Jane has been playing around with fraternity god boyfriend Frankie (Troy Donahue). Unfortunately for her, he has learned that she is coloured.In an especially violent and disturbing scene, he confronts her: “All the kids are talking behind my back! Is it true?” he demands: “are you black?” “No, I’m as white as you!” she screams, as he proceeds to slap and beat the hell out of her, leaving her literally lying in the gutter. The incident fuels Annie’s anguish, and Sara Jane goes further off the rails, leaving the Meredith home to live on the West Coast. With Steve’s help, Annie traces her to Hollywood, and the see- dy bar at which she works. In one last desperate attempt to reach her daughter, Annie visits her there. Sara Jane’s pitiful act and the men’s leering manner sickens her. In the dressing room backstage she begs Sara Jane to come home. Sara Jane refuses, and in an emotionally charged scene, she says a final good- bye to her Mother, begging her to let her go, pleading: “If we should ever pass on the street, please don’t recognise me!”. When the bar manager enters and finds out that Annie is Sara Jane’s Mother, he fires her. She in turn packs her bags, and walks out not only on her job, but on her Mother, too.

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Heartbroken, Annie returns home, where she develops a life threatening illness. When Susie asks Steve what they can do to help her, he replies that there is no cure for a broken heart. Susie confesses to Annie that she is in love with Steve, and thereafter is devastated to learn that he and her Mother will finally marry. Annie tells Lora about Susie’s feelings for Steve, who in turn tells Susie that if Steve is going to come between them, she will give him up completely. An exasperated Susie responds, “Oh Mama, stop acting!” On her deathbed Annie asks Lora to put things right with Sara Jane, and to tell her that: “If I loved her too much, I’m sorry. She was all I had.” Lora dissolves into histrionics, and the scene is set for an especially tragic dénouement. Annie’s funeral is an overblown dramatic affair, worthy of Royalty. A cathedral resembling Westminster Abbey is full to capacity, whilst hundreds of flowers surround Annie’s casket. No less than Mahalia Jackson delivers the heart wrenching hymnal ‘Trouble Of The World’. Outside in the street, as a hushed crowd watch a group of pallbearers place Annie’s coffin onto a horse drawn funeral carriage, Sara Jane pushes through the throng, and throws herself on her Mother’s casket. Sobbing hysterically, she cries: “I’m sorry Mama. Mama I did love you.” As Lora rushes to her side, Sara Jane cries in anguish: “Miss Lora, I killed my Mother.” Together with Steve and Susie, Lora and Sara Jane exit by car in the somber funeral procession to the strains of a heavenly choir.

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‘Imitation Of Life’ was Sirks’ final American film. In spite of several bad reviews early on, it turned out to be a huge commercial success, and went on to become Universal’s biggest box office money spinner of 1959.For, behind the campy melodramatics, lush scenery, and designer gowns , ‘Imitation Of Life’ was a serious attempt to analyse social consciousness. Under Sirk’s direction, the idiosyncrasies of the film’s characters and the dark side of human nature is exposed in the most unflattering and cynical manner.The plot is an exercise in the pitfalls of materialism, and the pivotal role it plays in the breakdown of the nuclear family; it also examines America’s pre occupation with class and race.Lana Turner’s character Lora Meredith is one of the coldest and strangest protagonists ever to feature in a Hollywood film. Her complete obsession with personal ambition at the expense of all else makes for uncomfortable viewing. In the pursuit of becoming a star she neglects her daughter, (leaving her to be raised by Annie) and spurns the love of Steve – a man who truly loves her, and one who is ready to sacrifice his own career for their happiness; something Lora simply cannot understand. Ambition is her God, and it has made her blind to the really important things in life; she is the embodiment of all that is shallow and meaningless.Lora Meredith is supposed to be a great actress, but more focus is given to her wardrobe than her acting skills. Likewise, Lana Turner found herself conforming to her negative critical reputation as a ‘clothes horse’ – and how. However, in this instance, the clothes were a logical extension of her character Lora’s materialistic nature, and therefore entirely justified as an important prop. Lana wore $1, 000,000 worth of jewels in the movie, and a $78,000 wardrobe courtesy of star designer Jean Louis – 34 costume changes at an average cost of $2,214.13 each.With housewives high on the target audience demographic, it was felt that Lana’s character would enable them to live vicariously through her portrayal of a glamorous, mature, career girl.

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The character of Lora Meredith draws on Lana Turner’s own soda-fountain-to-stardom iconography and an M.G.M. tradition for movies about girls who brave the urban wolf trap to become showgirls or models (including the Lana Turner vehicles ‘Ziegfeld Girl’ and ‘A Life Of Her Own’).Although her character begins the movie at a disadvantage, the parallel existence of Annie deprives her of real underdog status, whilst neatly highlighting the issue of racial inequality by direct comparison. Sirk’s decision to make Lora Meredith a successful stage actress created an especially anachronistic air, whilst at the same time making her character harder for the audience to identify with.Given her circumstances, Lora’s deperate quest for fame makes her appear impractical and self indulgent. Interestingly, Sirk takes a neutral view on Lora’s motivations; he neither endorses nor moralises about her behaviour.As the film enters its second half, there is a rhetorical shift. The action moves forward by a decade.Lora, by now the toast of Broadway, has her sights set on a dramatic career in the movies. Although Steve is back in the picture, he is slighted once more by her determination to have a career. He may be a chauvinist by nature, but he is astute enough to realise Lora’s almost sadistic ability to reject personal happiness and fulfillment. In this part of the film, Sirk shoots the characters in such a way as to emphasise the emotional separation that exists between them.Even though Lora’s love for Annie is without question, Sirk is critical of its self centred nature.By now, it is very clear that money does not buy happiness; only a loving relationship can provide that.The viewer is thereby reassured that the woman she has been encouraged to envy and admire in the first half of the film is not so lucky at all; she is therefore able to leave the cinema reconciled to her own domestic situation, integrity intact.

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Just as Joan Crawford did in ‘Mildred Pierce’, Lana Turner as Lora finds herself competing with her own daughter for the affections of a man. The deluded Susie believes that Steve Archer is really in love with her, and not her Mother. In this instance the truth is painful for both parties; Susie experiences abject dismay upon discovering that her feelings for Steve will not be reciprocated, while her confession to her Mother about her feelings for him and her unhappy childhood makes Lora realise just how distant and inadequate a parent she has been. This plotline must have stirred up unwelcome memories and associations for Lana Turner. One of the reasons she was cast in ‘Imitation Of life’ was the notorious real life scandal of 1958 when her fifteen year old daughter Cheryl stabbed her Mother’s gangster lover Johnny Stompanato to death, a true life-imitating-art episode.There was some speculation at the time that Cheryl had been part of a ‘lover’s triangle’, and had held an unrequited crush for Stompanato. Several cruel hacks were heard to comment that Lana gave the best performance of her life as herself on the witness stand at Cheryl’s trial.’Imitation Of Life’ itself was a wholly commercial project, and one which was not afraid to exploit its stars for its own benefit.The Lana Turner casting was one such example.Then again, Ross Hunter had ‘pre-sold’ casting with most cast members; Robert Alda as a lecherous agent for the mature spectator, Sandra Dee as Susie for the teenagers, John Gavin for the housewives, and sultry Susan Kohner for the boys.

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Of course, Sirks’ trump card in the ‘Imitation Of Life’ plot was its treatment of racism. It was an important movie for him to make precisely for this reason, and because it embodied so many of his key beliefs and aesthetic truths. The film’s rare fascination with white America’s difficulty in relating to people of colour was considered revolutionary at the time of its release.Many see the film as a painful if overblown depiction of racial passing.There is no doubt that Juanita Moore as Annie, and Susan Kohner as Sara Jane, gave the film some of its most powerful and dynamic moments, and earnt them both Academy Award nominations in the process. Sirk thrived on such dramatic scenes; he excelled in explicit directness, such as in the sequence where Frankie (Troy Donahue) beats Sara Jane mercilessly upon learning that she has been passing herself off for white. The action is full on, which not only dramatically intensifies the scene, but more importantly its impact, on the viewer. Annie’s self sacrificing saintliness seems of little purpose or help to her daughter throughout the film; she desperately wants something that money can’t buy – a white skin. Ironically, just as Juanita Moore’s character Annie acts as a Mother substitute for Susie, so Lana Turner’s Lora provides an indirect role model for Sara Jane.As the girls grow up, both begin to rebel against their Mothers.Susie runs away to college in Denver, whilst Sara Jane, humiliated by the Frankie beating incident, escapes to the West Coast to become a chorus girl in a cheap dive.She blames her Mother for ruining her life, which ultimately creates even more tragic implications for her than the issue of her colour.In fact all of the film’s characters make gross assumptions about one another, and feed off deceptive surfaces, always to their detriment. When Annie visits Sara Jane at school (and by so doing revealing her true ethnicity) the schoolteacher exclaims “We didn’t know”. Later, when Annie is in Sara Jane’s dressing room at the seedy club where she is working, a fellow chorus girl enters and immediately assumes that Annie is a maid, instantly issuing a list of demands. Nobody ever questions Sara Jane’s colour, so she doesn’t feel inclined to tell the truth. Naturally Annie is upset at her denial, but this is the moment when she finally realises that she has to let the girl go.Much as it pains her, she understands that she can no longer live her life through Sara Jane.

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Sara Jane’s move to distance herself from her racial identity by performing in a dance troupe once more offers a direct comparison between the characters, and the boundaries that separate/constrict/define them. Although the chorus line that Sara Jane finds herself in is an all-white affair, traditionally this is one area of showbusiness that has always been open to coloured people; not so the ‘legitimate’ stage of Lora Meredith’s career. It is darkly ironic that even while passing herself off for white, Sara Jane can only find a lowly, secondary role as a showgirl in an environment that still leaves her desperately searching for the respect and acceptance that she craves. Not for her the glittering opportunities that open up willingly for Lora Meredith. Not for her the classy, subdued colours and décor of Lora’s world; Sara Jane’s nightclub environment is a riot of garish colour and gaudiness; it personifies the stereotypical manner in which blacks were merchandised to thrill-seeking whites. One of the movie’s most tragic and heartbreaking moments occurs when Annie agrees to Sara Jane’s request to no longer see or be seen with her. Effectively she asks Annie to disown her, and it is a measure of the Mother’s deep love for her child when she complies. Grotesque as Sara Jane’s request may be, Annie is quick to understand the opportunities that her daughter’s deceptive skin tone can provide. She may have condemned herself to a life of subjugation because of her own colour, but Sara Jane tries to give herself the chance of a life by casting off the restrictions of that colour, however brutal and misguided her methods may be.

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‘Imitation Of Life’ culminates with Annie’s death. Cliches aside, Annie truly does die of a broken heart. Although Lora loves Annie deeply, her self centred nature rears its ugly head once again when she screams about being left alone in the world. It is the perfect example of her inability to face up to, or deal with, her own problems by herself. Playing to the maximum violin factor, Sirk’s camera opens to a shot which includes a background photograph of Sara Jane. Annie’s last wish is for a grand funeral, and Lora is certain to provide it.Annie’s death forces Sara Jane to acknowledge her Mother at long last, and to realise the terrible cost she has paid for her own imitation of life. Emotionally distraught, she collapses in a scene worthy of a Greek tragedy. With the grand cathedral style setting, magnificent floral arrangements, and packed congregation, Annie is accorded a status she never received in life. In a telling inversion, Lora, Susie, and Sara Jane, (who so desperately fought to be white) are reunited in a black limousine, all made equal by the black of mourning and bereavement.

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The underlying message of ‘Imitation Of Life’ is that if you cannot live your life for who and what you are and be proud of the fact, then you are doomed to heartache and a miserable existence; ‘existence’ being the key word, here. The film’s characters are all searching frantically for the one thing that they feel will transform their lives and bestow happiness, when in actual fact it is already within their grasp. The things that they desire are, for the most part, of little value or importance. Lora wants nothing more than to be a star, but when she finally achieves her goal, she is left empty and unfulfilled, and has damaged her loved ones lives into the bargain. Annie only wanted a big funeral to bestow her with the importance that she never received in life. But what good has it done her when she is dead and unable to enjoy the accolade? Sara Jane yearns to be white, because she believes that she can live a better life as a white person. If she had only stood back and observed the white people around her, she would have realised that things were not that simple. Susie thinks that she is in love with Steve Archer, but when he rejects her, she decides to run away from her past. Like mother, like daughter. All of these characters are governed and manipulated by their social reality, but are unable to see it. They do not truly understand who they are and what they really want, and this in turn makes them blind to the needs of each other, and to those around them. A clear example of this is demonstrated in Lora and Annie’s relationship. Although Annie has lived with Lora for ten years, Lora knows little about her. She is surprised when Annie tells her one day that she has many friends and interests.Lora’s problems are the worries of the comfortably off, borrowed from the overblown Hollywood melodramas of the 1940’s.In short, they are as insubstantial as the lifestyle she has chosen to lead. They are certainly not as profound or as consequential as those of Annie and Sara Jane, who are fighting for survival and identity. Their problems are racial, social, open-ended, and on a grand scale which could never be resolved within the boundaries of a woman’s picture. Douglas Sirk uses convention in the film to cleverly highlight the need for a bigger more ideological world view on the racial problem. He said of ‘Imitation Of Life’ that he would have made the picture for the title alone.

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By the time ‘Imitation Of Life’ was released in 1959, the women’s picture had been in decline for many years.However, Ross Hunter came along and not only reinvented the genre, but made it his own. In the South, Universal booked ’Imitation Of Life’ into white and negro cinemas alike to unheard of audiences. It was also shown to racially mixed audiences in big city movie theatres like the ‘Roxy’ in New York. At the time, Pittsburgh newspapers declined ads with the catch-line “I’m going to pass for white”. Interestingly, in the late 1960’s when coloured people were included in demographic research into cinema audiences for the first time, the industry was amazed to find out that 30% of audiences were in fact black – higher than anyone ever suspected. As the ‘Jim Crow’ circuit disappeared in the racial upheaval of that time, white people deserted downtown theatres, leaving the remaining large ones to blacks. In 1959 the race riots were a world away. Sirks’ ‘Imitation Of Life’ was a brave and admirable attempt to draw attention to a difficult subject that would have a major cultural and political affect on the American nation in the decade that followed. It was a plea for understanding and tolerance, albeit dressed up in Hollywood finery. It is also one of the most important films ever to have been released about post war America – something the audiences of the day evidently realised long before the critics ever did.

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What is life, without forgiving?
Without love, we’re merely living
An imitation, an imitation of  life

Skies above, in flaming colour
Without love, they’re so much duller
A false creation, an imitation of life

Would the song of the lark sound just as sweet?
Would the moon be as bright above?
Everyday would be grey and incomplete
Without the one you love…

Lips that kiss, can tell you clearly
Without this, our lives are merely
An imitation, an imitation of life

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CAST

Lora Meredith………………………….Lana Turner
Annie Johnson……………………….. Juanita Moore
Steve Archer…………………………..John Gavin
Susie Meredith………………………..Sandra Dee
Sara Jane Johnson…………………….Susan Kohner
David Edwards………………………..Dan O’Herlihy
Frankie………………………………..Troy Donahue

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IMAGES  ©copyright 1959 UNIVERSAL PICTURES

*IMITATION OF LIFE”  : Text ©copyright 2013 Gary Alston

House Of Retro/Gary Alston make no claims to the ownership of images appearing on this page.

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