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
"Imitation of Life" was the biggest money-maker ever for Universal Studios upon its 1959 release. This is no surprise. Partly because people eagerly lined-up to see these types of melodramatic, big studio flicks. And also because this film is the best of its class. Director Douglas Sirk was a genius at creating larger-than-life star vehicles. But his films were not only aesthetically pleasing. They were also smart, social critiques on America and its issues and ideals. This is an incredible movie that uses the best elements of soap opera, fashion, music and high drama to convey Sirk's scathing comments of 1950's society.
The film revolves around mother/daughter relationships, with a hint of romance thrown in for good measure. Lana Turner(spruced up in her Jean Louis gowns)does her best to portray a neglectful mother to Sandra Dee. So consumed with fame and fortune is she, that she doesn't look at her daughter's needs. Meanwhile, Turner's black housekeeper(played gloriously by the underrated Juanita Moore)struggles with her own light-skinned daughter(Susan Kohner)who tries to pass for white.
There is no element too small in this film for Sirk and producer Ross Hunter to give the ultra-dramatic treatment to. Frank Skinner's campy(by today's standards)music thunders and swells throughout, while Turner emotes and the always-wooden John Gavin poses and preens for the camera. "Imitation of Life" may not be for all audiences. But those who enjoy Technicolored high-drama, bordering on brutal soap opera, this film is probably the best of the best.
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