18/10/2013

Imitation Of Life (1959)


Douglas Sirk's final feature, after the extraordinary purple patch that brought us Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written On The Wind (1956), was another superlative melodramatic weepie, this time boldly addressing the problem of racial prejudice for the Civil Rights era. A second adaptation of Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel, which had already been filmed as a vehicle for Claudette Colbert in 1934, Sirk's updated version concerns an unlikely alliance between two single mothers, aspiring Broadway actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and unemployed black divorcee Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), after their paths cross at the beach and their daughters become friends. Living together in a rundown New York apartment, Lora and Annie's odd couple relationship proves mutually beneficial, but Annie's daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker), born white, proves increasingly troublesome, angry at her mother for the self-loathing she feels and the alienation she suffers at school. Lora soon meets an influential, if sleazy, agent (Robert Alda) and her career takes off, enabling her to provide her surrogate family with a life of material splendour. However, as both Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) and Lora's own daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) grow up, this peaceful idyll is shattered by adolescent rebellion, hormones and long-suppressed resentments, with tragic consequences for the saintly Annie.


To my taste, Imitation Of Life is a little baggier than some of Sirk's finest work and misses Rock Hudson's soulful presence. Hudson is replaced by John Gavin, an actor who featured in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and would go on to serve as the US Ambassador to Mexico during Ronald Reagan's Hollywood presidency. Gavin is fine as the photographer turned Madison Avenue man who is spurned by Lora for not staying true to his art only to win her back later in life, but he lacks star quality, especially when playing opposite Turner and Dee (later the wife of crooner Bobby Darin). However, this is first and foremost a Woman's Picture in the old-fashioned sense, with the Oscar-nominated Moore and Kohner taking centre stage for the final third. I personally preferred Moore's brand of dignified suffering to Kohner's bratty runaway act (Sarah Jane flees to Vegas to become a burlesque dancer, poisoned by one too many hot jazz records), but it's Turner's tears at Annie's bedside that really win the day. The cathartic closing funeral, in which Sarah Jane throws herself hysterically upon her late mother's casket, is also impressively staged, interestingly shot and something of a reverse-Gatsby: it's so well attended that even Mahalia Jackson is there!

P.S. Legendary comedian Richard Pryor was apparently dishonourably discharged from the US army and briefly imprisoned after repeatedly stabbing a fellow recruit who had presumed to laugh at a screening of Imitation Of Life while both men were stationed in Germany together in 1960. Well played!

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