Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)Its been a good few years since I’ve seen a Douglas Sirk film, personally preferring Nicholas Ray, complete with heightened emotion and high contrast colours. However a recent discussion about Sirk has rekindled an interest in the director of melodrama. Catching the other night Imitation of Life (1959), itself a remake of a Claudette Colbert 1934 film. What got my attention was the depiction of the black characters in the film. Namely Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) who willingly takes on the role of housekeeper whilst her white friend Lora Meridith (Lana Turner) goes after her dream of being a successful actress of the stage. The depiction seems too easy to work on the surface, to willingly dedicate your life to servitude, whilst being given lots of screen time. Playing the stereotypical African-American role at the time we see beyond all the wild southern accents of that era to have a character of substance (kind of).

Whilst Turner takes her in more out of friendship you can see this is her film. Looking at the billing Moore is second to last, making way for John Gavin whose only in a third of he film if that. Sadly the politics of race were far more subdued than they are today, where #OscarSoWhite was a movement for change for fairer representation at the recent Oscars, 50 years after this film had been released. Within this now archaic dynamic both are given dramatic roles to play with and Moore has plenty to chew on.

As I found with All that Heaven Allows (1955) there’s an issue at the heart of the film, the earlier about being in a relationship that breaks social order, a middle class woman falling for her Gardner. Here we have two themes going on within the black and white house where it’s not as cut and dry as the phrase wants us to believe. The aspiring actress who neglects her daughter, whilst the more doting mother is more protective of her mixed race child. Not as average as you first thought, this is Sirk after-all, taking issues and blowing them up in front of your face, with a touch of cinematic magic to draw you into these world of melodrama.

Split into two parts, the first a few years after the war, both mothers are finding it difficult coping alone and jobless, becoming friends and moving in after a chance encounter on the beach. Where we also meet aspiring photographer Steve Archer (Gavin). Everyone is aspiring to be more than they are, the top of the ceiling is out of reach as far as they’re concerned for the white people. Whilst its firmly in place foe Annie and her troubled daughter Sarah-Jane (Susan Kohner) who even in childhood would do anything to deny her mixed heritage that would stigmatise her throughout her life. As a child she would only want to be identified as white, not only a child of a single parent but one who is black made her situation more awkward than you’d experience today. Where her situation was still common, looked down-upon by society to be born out of marriage, mixed race was just icing on the cake of a bad situation. Of the two children we’re drawn towards the trouble Sarah-Jane who has a life-long fight ahead of her, compared to the still innocent and if I’m honest annoying.

Back in the adult world we have two single parents who as much as they want very different things, one supports the other. Lora aspiring to be an actress that takes her away from all she loves and matters in life. Leaving her friend Annie to bring up two girls, not just an unpaid maid but a nanny, doing all of this out of friendship and love. At first it was for a roof over her head. Only on the big screen could this happen, that love can equal or surpass the value of money and last so long without bad feelings developing. That’s not to say we don’t do things out of love, when the dynamic is very much of its time. Today you could possible see a flexible homosexual reading, living together, developing a love that is more than friendship, and able to lead their own lives for more than ten years together. In that time together Lora has become a big name on Broadway she has bought a big house in the country, all that money can buy and wear it too. Whilst Annie has stayed by her side through it all.

The daughters have grown up (practically adults) starting to explore, whilst Sarah-Jane’s pushing the boundaries, wanting to use her new found features to indentify herself as a white woman. Something that Annie wont allow, at the expense of pushing them apart. Unable to accept her position and heritage as part of her identity. This for me is the meat of the film, where the real drama is. We also have a daughter who has grown apart from her mother whose more concerned with fame. An image that we have seen throughout the history of film. There’s even potential for another Mildred Pierce (1945) daughter attempts to steal her mothers lover. It’s pale in comparison for the fight to be excepted by society for the colour of your skin.

Its a melodrama that is flawed but magnificently beautiful at the same time, its all there on the screen, the colour, emotion the big dreams and ambition to be more. Its a soap opera in the confines of a feature film running time that has dated in places sadly. We can see it as a product of its time that is a great vehicle for Turner who is enjoying the attention from the camera. I wonder what my next encounter with Sirk will bring.

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