This film, which focuses on the relationship struggles of mothers and daughters, was Lana Turner's first since a very public scandal involving Turner and her daughter Cheryl Crane. The previous year, the fourteen year old Crane had fatally stabbed Turner's boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. Stompanato, part of Mickey Cohen's infamous gang, had been beating Turner, and the court ruled that Crane's actions were justifiable homicide. Nonetheless, the killing and subsequent scandal created a rift between Turner and her daughter, and seriously threatened to end Turner's film career. However, Turner channeled the pain from her experience into this film. It proved financially and critically successful, and served as a comeback vehicle for the actress.
The funeral scene hit a little too close to home for Lana Turner. As Mahalia Jackson started singing, she lost control and fled to her trailer in tears. When no arguments could convince her to return to the church and shoot the scene, her makeup woman slapped her in the face, breaking her out of her hysterics. She then returned to the set and completed the scene perfectly.
Although she has the second largest role in the film, Juanita Moore was billed seventh, behind actors with much smaller roles. As some form of compensation, her on-screen billing reads "presenting Juanita Moore as Annie Johnson," but that credit didn't make it into the film's advertising.
This became Universal's top-grossing film up to that time, and Lana Turner's most successful film ever. Her deal for half the profits kept her financially comfortable for the rest of her life, particularly after fifth husband Fred May invested much of the money in real estate.
Universal encountered some resistance to the promotion of the film and tailored its advertising campaign for the South. A studio representative was quoted as saying, "White southerners avoid films that are advertised as dealing with the race problem." On February 2, 1959, Hollywood Reporter reprinted the following wire sent by LA Tribune editor Almena Lomac to numerous white publications: "Imitation of Life...is a libel on the Negro race. It libels our children and the Negro mother [and] should be banned in the interest of national unity, harmony, peace, decency and inter-racial respect. The Tribune is refusing all advertising of it and will picket it in the Los Angeles area and call upon the N.A.A.C.P. to condemn, oppose and picket it, too." The outcome of this boycott is not known.
Ross Hunter insisted on maintaining a lavish production, despite a tight budget. He always used real flowers on the sets, and the jewelry was the real thing, too, supplied by Laykin et Cie. It was appraised at $1 million.
Because of the heavy public interest in Lana Turner's first film after the Johnny Stompanato scandal, producer Ross Hunter threw the set open to the press on the first day of shooting. They even staged a press conference with the stipulation that Turner would not answer any questions about the case.
Ross Hunter had a reputation for pampering his female stars. During filming, he sent flowers and gifts to Lana Turner's dressing room regularly. She also had a limousine and driver at her disposal. As well as a music system installed in her dressing room. Hunter even hired someone to operate it for her.