Aspiring actress Lora Meredith meets Annie Johnson, a homeless black woman at Coney Island and soon they share a tiny apartment. Each woman has an intolerable daughter, though, Annie's little girl Sarah Jane, is by far the worse. Neurotic and obnoxious, Sarah Jane doesn't like being black; since she's light-skinned (her father was practically white), she spends the rest of the film passing as white, much to her mother's heartache and shame. Lora, meanwhile, virtually ignores her own daughter in a single-minded quest for stardom. Written by
As others have pointed out, IMITATION OF LIFE is an important film for many reasons. Seeing it again recently, I was reminded of the top three reasons why it has earned a cult following among women, African Americans and gay men. For women, it's all about letting go of a child and allowing them to live their own life. For African Americans, it's a reminder of how much they've had to struggle for equality in American society. It's the message of not hiding who you are and not living a lie just to please other people that resonates with gay men. This film was one of the first to expose the cultural divide between black and white in America. That really wasn't being addressed in the cinema up to that point. So it must be put in it's historical context to be fully appreciated.
This film marked a crossroads not only for American society, but for the acting profession as well. Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner seemed to be of the new school of method acting. By contrast, Lana Turner and Juanita Moore seemed to be of the old school of melodramatic acting. Perhaps this is why the older actors come off as far less believable than the younger one's do. That's what makes Sandra Dee's line, "Oh mother, stop acting!" so hilarious. I really thought Sandra Dee was too perky to be taken seriously until that scene. Then she showed she could act by keeping it real. Compared to Lana Turner, she's Katherine Hepburn! Also, anyone serious about an acting career should study Susan Kohner's amazing performance. She steals the show in a role that would be a challenge for any young actress. I think she was one of the most talented actors to ever leave the business for married life.
IMITATION OF LIFE is one of those rare films that gets better every time I see it. I guess that's because it's important on more levels than you can take in on a single viewing. I could go into how it's also about a single mother's struggle for independence in 1950's male dominated society. I could argue that it's not as sappy and melodramatic as it's reputed to be. I could argue that John Gavin's performance was better than a lot of people say. However, I think I'll save those discussions for when I see it again.
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