Imitation of Life (1959)
Written by Eleanore Griffin & Allan Scott
Directed by Douglas Sirk
This was the final film from Douglas Sirk. He didn’t die following its release. He just left the United States and lived in Switzerland for the next twenty-eight years when he passed. He taught briefly in the 1970s at Munich’s University of Film and Television. But this was it. When asked about this stint in America making movies, Sirk said in a 1975 interview: “When I went to the United States, I was making films about American society, and it is true that I never felt at home there, except perhaps when my wife and I lived on a farm in the San Fernando Valley. But I always wanted my characters to be more than ciphers for the failings of their world. And I never had to look too hard to find a part of myself in them.” Sirk and his wife, Hilde, would quickly become tired of the Hollywood scene and return to Europe, but never Germany for too long. The memories were too harsh.
Imitation of Life is a stunning film, primarily because of its subject matter. It wasn’t the first time the novel of the same name had been adapted to the screen. It happened in 1939, but Sirk’s take on the material was far different. He chose where to focus the narrative that turned this from your standard melodrama to something ahead of its time. The film begins in 1947 with the meeting of Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a white struggling actress, and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a Black woman without a place to stay in New York City. Both women are single mothers, and this bonds them together. Lora offers a small room in her apartment, but only for one night. However, she quickly sees how nice it is to have Annie around, someone to take care of the girls while she is out looking for acting work.
A crucial moment occurs during Lora & Annie’s first meeting. Lora mistakes Annie as the nanny for Sarah Jane because the little girl is light-skinned. Sarah Jane’s father was a white man who seems to have not even stuck around for his child to have been born. That notion of being “white-passing” becomes the fuel that drives the film’s plot. At first, this seems like a movie about Lora navigating the particularly seedy realm of auditions & getting started in acting. However, around the halfway point, there is a turn where the story focuses on the troubled relationship between Annie & Sarah Jane.
Eleven years have passed. Lora has become a famous Broadway actress and lives in a luxurious mansion outside the city. Annie still lives with her taking on the role of a housekeeper but more of a live-in confidante & friend. There’s an emphasis on Lora telling Annie she doesn’t have to clean up after a party. Lora is reunited with Steve, a photographer she met on the same day Annie came into her life. She’d once toyed with a romantic relationship with him, but life took different routes. Lora is off to shoot a film in Italy and asks Steve if he would keep an eye on the now college-aged Susie (Sandra Dee). Susie begins to develop an intense crush on Steve, mistaking his politeness as flirting and dreaming up a future with him.
Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) has become cold towards her mother. She’s secretly dating a white boy, but he beats her in an alleyway after discovering she’s Black. This drives her to a breaking point, vowing to hide her identity for the rest of her life, even if that means cutting all ties with her mother. Sarah Jane secretly gets a job as a singer/dancer in a nightclub, saving up her money to eventually leave town. Annie finds out and confronts her daughter after a show. When the owner finds out Sarah Jane is Black, she is fired, which only drives the young woman to hate her mother even more. She blames Annie and her blackness for holding her back and runs away. This relationship drives the rest of the film leading to a tragic ending that surely hit audiences with a powerful punch in 1959.
For Sirk to address colorism in a “women’s picture” in the late 1950s is a stunning feat. At the time, the film was quickly overshadowed by a scandal unfolding in the actress Lana Turner’s life. She was involved in a murder trial where her teenage daughter was accused of murdering Turner’s “boyfriend.” In reality, he was a mob thug who terrorized the actress, including getting her drunk & taking nude photos of her to blackmail Turner. An altercation happened one night, and the police were told that Turner’s teen daughter was wielding the knife that ended the scumbag’s life. Some believe Turner’s daughter covered for her because a youth would get a lighter sentence. A jury found the girl innocent on the grounds of justifiable homicide but the trial had already become a media circus by that point. When Imitation of Life was brought up at the time, it was often associated with this event.
The film feels like the end of a particular era of cinema. Sirk wasn’t pulling his punches anymore, framing Lora, our “protagonist,” as a fairly cruel, cold person. She tells Annie to act like they are friends but treats her and Sarah Jane like employees half the time. There’s an incredible scene where Lora makes Sarah Jane bring out food for her party guests and the young woman uses an exaggerated accent to point out how she is being treated like a second-class citizen in her home. Lora knows that Sarah Jane is struggling with her identity and still forces her to do this. Sirk wasn’t here to present an aspirational film where Black and white people lived harmoniously. Instead, he was showing an honest picture of how Black people were treated in post-WWII America, how Jim Crow didn’t just happen in the South.
Sarah Jane is a profoundly observant person and has spent her entire life watching how society has mistreated her mother. As she enters adulthood, she wants to use her ability to pass for white as an advantage. Nothing in her life has taught her to appreciate being Black; it is treated as a punishment. This was before the idea of “Black is beautiful” made its mark on society. Sirk knew a culture roiling with prejudice & violence against the Other. He’d seen it in Germany. He’d had his son taken from him because he deigned to marry a Jewish woman. Jewish refugees who escaped the Holocaust often made the obvious connection between their experience and the ongoing campaign of violence against Black people in America. Jewish professors often couldn’t get work in white-controlled universities when they arrived in the United States, and Black universities welcomed them with open arms.
We would like Imitation of Life to be an artifact of a past that feels alien. However, the anti-Blackness we see on display towards Annie & Sarah Jane is ever-present in American society. It seems to have increased in intensity in the last few years, with white supremacists becoming emboldened and louder in the public square. I never judge Black people for wanting to distance themselves from their color. They shouldn’t have to, and being Black is not a flaw, but their society has made conditions so horrible that I wouldn’t blame them for trying to hide it. Things are better now than then, but a matter of inches is nothing to brag about. As a white public school teacher, I often overheard colleagues making racist remarks about Black children. While they may not have used outright slurs, comments about the student’s inability to learn or behavior almost always seemed to be made more often when the child was Black than white.
Sirk clearly said what he wanted to say and was done with it all. His work has been reevaluated in the following decades, going from ignored melodramas to films that capture the sensibilities of America in the 1950s, a repressive conformist landscape of white domination. Any divergence from the path was met with hostility, and to seek solidarity with your fellow man was a dangerous idea. So little has changed. The outer shell, the fashions, the slang, and the exterior elements have changed, but the rot at the center is still festering. It was pretty daring for Sirk to even bring these ideas up then. I have to think some of those white suburban wives & mothers going to see the newest melodrama at their theater might have had their minds opened in some way by seeing Imitation of Life.