Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) was the second adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s popular novel of the same name. The film tells the story of two women, white aspiring actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), and her black confidante/maidservant Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), and their struggles to raise their respective daughters, Susie (Sandra Dee) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner).
Using his own highly ironic interpretation of the original story, Sirk utilized the lens of fifties melodrama in order to project social issues such as race relations, maternal and sexual womanhood, and the artificial construction of whiteness, and in doing so, criticize the shallow representations that these issues find in “everyday” life.
Lora Meredith starts out as a struggling single mother who has just moved from the midwest to New York City. Her ambition to be a successful actress instantly seems odd, even selfish, especially considering the reality of supporting a small daughter. In addition to this, Lora is in her mid-thirties, hardly a “spring chicken” as one agent points out to her. Her age and situation call into question the soundness of her attempt to make it big as an actress instead of finding more stable work.
When Annie comes to live with Lora, she allows the would-be actress to disregard even more of her motherly duties. Initially having a live-in maid (although the role is not official until the second half of the film) allows Lora to leave home and audition constantly. After a rough start (including a harrowing modeling job for a flea powder ad), she finally starts getting steady acting work, at which point she is distanced even further from her home life.
She succeeds in her career, becoming a successful stage actress, but even this success is undercut by Sirk. Her success is seen to be as much a result of her sex appeal as her ability, and she is often portrayed as little more than a clothes horse for seedy agents and self-righteous playwrights. Sirk makes a conscious decision to have all the sets that Lora performs in front of appear trite-looking, flat, and archaic. These sets are so blatantly fake as to remind the audience of the imitationwhich is taking place.
About halfway through the film, the focus of the story shifts from Lora and her tribulations as an actress to Sarah Jane and the far more significant trials she faces as a young black woman in a culture that is strictly divided along racial and economic lines.
Central to Sarah Jane’s problems is how quickly and easily her mother Annie slips into the role of domestic servant in Lora’s household. The greater Lora’s financial success, the more clearly defined Annie’s maid-role becomes. The transition is played deftly, no attention is ever directly brought to it; it feels like a quite obvious turn of events. Annie plays into the conventional “mammy” role, the universal nurturer who stays at home and cares for both her own child and for the white mistress’ child. This situation, however, is anything but natural to Sarah Jane, who, despite being loved by Lora and Susie, feels the unconscious exclusion from the white women’s ascension to wealth.
This places Sarah Jane, a very fair-skinned black, into the uncomfortable position of appearing white or “superior” while being in a living situation where she is “inferior” because of her black heritage, symbolized by her mother. She continually acts out against her mother and Lora alike, rejecting what she sees as an unfair social situation. Throughout the film, Sarah Jane identifies material success with being white, a common construction of whiteness that she has fully adopted.
On the surface the acting appears to be vintage 50s melodrama: overwrought and overdone. But well before Todd Haynes’ dull and awkward attempt with Far From Heaven (2002), Douglas Sirk was intentionally using the melodrama in a sardonic fashion in order to get at the real issue of the film.
Lora and Susie are self-involved, overly dramatic, and completely clueless. The sappy love which both mother and daughter share for Steve Archer (John Gavin) is over the top ridiculous and is a damning condemnation of their obliviousness to the problems Sarah Jane is struggling with. The mannered style of Lana Turner and the Gidget-in-training turn of Sandra Dee bring to the forefront the shallow nature of the society they represent. Juanita Moore is elegant as the reserved but observant Annie. Annie is a generation apart from her rebellious daughter, so she appears on the surface to be more accepting of the subservient role handed to her. Oftentimes she over-parents Sarah Jane and seems confused by her daughter’s desire to “pass”. She is however, completely aware of the injustices of society.
We ultimately come to see that Annie’s trouble with Sarah Jane is not her daughter’s resentment of the white society, but that she has unwittingly bought into that society’s opinion of her, and as a result she herself has come to look on being black as something lesser.
In the end, Imitation of Life deals with just that, the artificiality of the social, racial, and sexual institutions by which the characters try to live their lives. The inherently shallow nature of these constructs fate these characters to either exist obliviously within them or struggle futily against them. It is a bonafide classic which transcends its genre and form to stand as a truly timeless piece of cultural commentary.
Finding a copy of Imitation of Life can be a bit tricky, as its initial printing is currently out of print. If you can find it at your local video store you would do well to give it a look, though disappointingly there are no extras of any kind on the disc.