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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Douglas Sirk did not do subtle romances; he embellished his stories
with interesting yet vaguely exploitative elements more suited to the
soap opera genre and then amped the melodrama to eleven.
IMITATION OF LIFE, basically a romantic potboiler by Fannie Hurst that would not be out of place in an Oprah's Book of the Month, is here given the grand Technicolor treatment and stars Lana Turner -- not particularly known for warmth or romantic heroines. This for the most part, is her movie and even as a struggling actress (hard to believe given her icy beauty) she is dressed impeccably and seems quite well-to-do despite her character being a waitress. That she improbably forms an alliance with Juanita Moore and her daughter Sarah Jane in tow (who cries at the drop of a hat and later has what seems to be a moment when she quietly cracks as she says "White, like me") is only to set the stage for the "racial confusion" that develops later on (and drives the majority of events) and would color the film with "controversial elements".
That Turner's success as an actress seems as forced as her romance with daughter's love interest doesn't detract the soapy elements of IMITATION, but Susan Kohner, playing Sarah Jane all grown up, steals the show and is the only one who rises above the drivel that surrounds her, carrying a lot of the film's weight in its second half. In playing her racial trauma and need for survival at least her story fits the times; light skinned blacks admit that they did have to "pass for white" in order to move on up, and with Kohner being half white, half Mexican only hammers the point home even more and exposes a lot of hypocrisy that at the time a light-skinned African-American actress would and could not be cast for this part.
The best scene comes when Kohner's beau, on discovering she is actually black, all but rapes her in a dark alley. It's the only sequence that doesn't reek of soap, and although Kohner's storyline eventually becomes muddled with her melodramatic interaction with Moore and her later appearance at her mother's funeral, it's really the most poignant part of this film and manages to reveal its soul. This was the cornerstone of Douglas Sirk movies: tell a good, tissue-friendly yarn that in its second half and conclusion would punch the audience with a strong moral and in this he succeeded, with followers in Herbert Ross' STEEEL MAGNOLIAS and James L. Brooks TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.
Douglas Sirk, after this film, would basically retire and leave behind a collection of overblown melodramas that have quite a following.
This Five Hanky Weeper is a classic Lana Turner vehicle. She never looked
This is a remake of a 1934 Claudette Colbert movie of the same name from a popular Fannie Hurst novel.
The 1934 version is more true to the original story but it is difficult to find and is seldom shown on television.
The story has been rewritten to take full advantage of Ms. Turner's luminescent beauty. Now, instead of a restaurant owner she is a glamorous star of stage and film.
But the underlying pathos is the same -- two women, each with a daughter that does not appreciate the sacrifices their mothers have made.
Before I saw this film I had no idea who Susan Kohner was. She turns out quite a performance and I wonder why she didn't do more films.
Sandra Dee as Ms. Turner's daughter is Sandra Dee playing a daughter -- you've seen it before.
In the final scences when Susan Kohner's character does her "That's my momma..." piece you can hear sobs coming from the people in the audience...
Do not be surprised if some of them are yours.
I have seen this movie a countless number of times and know the dialogue by
heart. Each time I watch it, I say, "I'm not going to cry this time".
Sometimes I almost make it, but then Mahalia Jackson starts to sing and I
lose it. My children don't understand why Sarah Jane wanted to pass for
white. I tried to explain to them that in that day and age, it was sometimes
necessary. The beautiful Susan Kohner steals the film. It's a shame that she
only made a handful of movies. To me the most heart-wrenching scene is where
Annie visits Sarah Jane in her hotel room. She says' "I want to hold you my
arms one more time. Just like you were my baby." I puddle up just writing
In Lana Turner's biography, she writes about the making of this movie. It was made shortly after her daughter stabbed Lana's gangster boyfriend to death. She said that when you see her crying in the funeral scene, those tears were real. When Mahalia started to sing "Troubles of the World", all of her troubles started to come back to her and she got up and ran out of the church. They had to run after her and bring her back to complete the scene.
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
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.
For a long time Douglas Sirk was dismissed by all but he most
insightful critics. It was thought that he made a series of well
crafted, well acted, but ultimately empty"weepies"(as well as
"americana" films, a swashbuckler( Captain Lightfoot), a revisionist
western( Taza Son of Cochise),and a sandals and toga epic(Sign of the
However, the "weepies" have been reevaluated( and the Americana films may be reevaluated as well).Sirk is now seen as one of the most significant American directors of the fifties, and, perhaps, as one of the hundred greatest directors of all time. Imitation of Life was his last Hollywood pictures, and one of his best. I call this film, "Canned goods as caviar", because it is an example of taking a "low brow" genre and transforming it into art. Sure, the music is melodramatic, sure the performances by Gavin and Turner are somewhat contrived), sure, the story is campy, but Sirk in his genius transforms melodrama into a scathing critique of materialism, conformity, and racism. Sirk was no cynic, but a rigorous moralist-a superbly educated and sensitive man, steeped in European and American literature.
One of the most astonishing-and misunderstood- elements in this picture is the incandescent performance by Juanita Moore. Moore achieves what is almost impossible; she portrays human goodness. Ican rarely think of a time when an American film has more saintly, more purely Christian figure.
Lora Meredith, an attractive widow with theatrical aspirations, has
lost her 6-year-old daughter, Susie, in the crowded beaches of Coney
Island... She finally finds her in the care of Annie Johnson, a black
woman, and her very light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who had been
playing with Susie
Before long Annie goes to work as a maid for Lora
and the two women become fast friends
Encouraged by an agent (Robert Alda), Lora gets a good role in a play by David Edwards In the years that follow, she becomes a successful Broadway actress and appears in one Edwards enormous hit But fame means work and work means neglecting Susie, now sixteen, who must bear the loneliness of a teenager whose mother is too busy being a star
A handsome photographer, Steve Archer (John Gavin), is the resolute, admiring love of Lora's life but he too must wait and suffer for her affection Meanwhile, Annie has big problems with her daughter Sarah Jane rejects her race, and refuses to accept she is black She disclaims her mother to camouflage her ancestry and eventually takes a decision with extremely drastic effect
"Imitation of Life" was an ideal tearjerker/soap opera for the major talents of Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner... Moore shined as the self-sacrificing mother so loving, honest and sincere Cleverly enough, Kohner projected unafraid sensuality Both stars won Academy Award nominations as Best Supporting Actress
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.
What is there to say except I'd defy anyone not to be moved by this movie and you'll never tire of watching it over and over. No one special performance, they're all fantastic! If you enjoy Madame X then Lana Turner out acts herself. The film brings home the feeling we all may have but should not have in that you should never deny your loved ones, especially your mother and you realise that a mother's love really is unconditional. Sit back with a box of choccies,a glass of wine and a box of tissues and ENJOY! This is one of my all time greats! It really is a mother/daughter movie and will definitely bring you closer together.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
**** and bravo to this great 1959 film dealing with 2 poverty stricken
women who meet; one becomes a famous actress, the other works for her.
Successful in their lives, they are not successful with dealing with
their respective daughters.
Lana Turner was great as the actress and Juanita Moore, her maid, who is kind and beloved by all, only to be unable to deal with her daughter, terrifically played by Golden Globe supporting winner Susan Kohner. (Kohner would lose the coveted Oscar to Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank.) The daughter, who is light skinned, is ashamed of her black identity and tries to hide it at any cost. Who can forget the scene in school when she tried to hide from her mother in the classroom?
With her success, the actress who Ms. Turner portrays, can't handle her daughter, played effectively by Sandra Dee. Dee falls for Turner's boyfriend and Turner can't deal with her rebelliousness.
The hysterical ending with the Moore character dying and the daughter running up to the coffin pulls out every emotional stop possible.
Kohner and Moore were nominated for best supporting actress. They probably divided the Oscar ballots between them.
The film, which calls for racial understanding, was quite an achievement for 1959. The film producers were concerned how the picture would be viewed down south. It turned out that they did not have to worry.
Not only is this film one of the all-time great women's pictures, but it also is a visually and psychologically intriguing piece of art. Veteran director Sirk went out with a bang with this, his last film. The title refers to any number of subjects covered in the movie: an actress imitating people for a living, her daughter imitating her mother's romantic life, a Black daughter imitating white people, etc... (The title means more in this version. The "imitation" dimension has been heightened in this glossy remake....The original 1934 film already veered greatly from the book. By now, only the barest of story threads from the original novel remain.) Turner (an actress with imitation eyebrows and hair and, some say, talent!) plays a widow who drags her young daughter to New York while she belatedly pursues a career in the theatre. She comes upon a Black woman (Moore) whose own daughter is nearly white in appearance. The children hit it off and soon the woman has completely embedded and inserted herself into Turner's life. The relationship turns out to be mutually beneficial as Turner needs someone to watch her daughter and Moore has no place to live and few job opportunities. Eventually, Turner becomes successful, but she finds that she has sort of left her daughter behind emotionally. Moore, meanwhile, has an even tougher time of it because her daughter insists on passing as white (much to Moore's dismay.) Dee plays Turner's daughter as a teen and her bright presence brings a lot to the part. Kohner is the pale Black daughter and does a fine job displaying the torment she faces, often acting out towards the other ladies. Moore is an acquired taste. Some viewers see her as perfection; a doting, caring, loving, selfless mother who is rocked by the venom of her troubled daughter. Others see her as a pushy, bullheaded, relentlessly defeated annoyance. (In any case, considering the Negro condition in the 1950's, it's hardly difficult to understand why Kohner's character wanted to break free and get more out of life! Moore will have none of it.) Turner looks about the best she ever did, especially in the second half when a dizzying array of Jean Louis concoctions parade across the screen and she's dripping in every kind of jewel. She has many insincere and stiff moments in the film, but also has several great scenes including when she tells lover Gavin that she's going to make it and later when she's at another character's deathbed. Mercifully, her character's acting scenes are never shown....just the curtain calls. The film is a Faberge treasure box of interesting sets, lighting, color, costumes and shadow. Despite the relatively simple storyline, term papers could be written about the psychological behavior in the film and the irony of the editing and storytelling. Anyone averse to soap operas will have already run screaming from the room the moment the Universal-International logo comes up and Frank Skinner's gloriously sentimental scores begins to howl. Those who are game for some histrionics and glamour mixed with silliness and sorrow should be in hog heaven.
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