Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
A woman, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), has lost her daughter (Susie) while away at Coney Island for a day of leisure. In the meanwhile, a nice woman (Juanita Moore as Annie) took care of her along with her own daughter, Sarah-Jane. When Turner finds her daughter with Annie, she accepts to take the mother and child in their apartment. Annie, a black woman with a white child, becomes in the same time Lora’s maid and helps her raise Susie while she struggles to get into show-business and follow her ambitions. It is a story at first about a woman who’s ambitions leaded her to success but also to neglect her family and potential lover. It is also about how coloured people had to suffer in America in the 1950’s, it is unbelievable to actually witness intolerance and how director Douglas Sirk actually criticizes racism. The film can even be split in two halves because the second half is mostly about Annie and Sarah-Jane and the first half about Lora, Susie, and Steve (John Gavin).
Douglas Sirk’s 1950’s melodramas were sheer crowd pleasing technicolor lavish films. Back in the days it came out it was obviously really poorly reviewed and oftenly categorized as soap operas. With later relectures of his films they got much more recognition and they were followed by cult movie fans that liked its kitsch factor and the subplot angles and its critics of the American society. Sirk was a keen filmmaker and his films might be overacted and surcharged with vivid colors and obvious on set exteriors but their stories have a depth that is rarely equalled from big studios in the 1950’s.
Compared with Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, and A Time to Love and A Time to Die, Imitation of Life might be Sirk’s most heavy handed and serious movie about American culture and society. Well, they all have serious issues of the 20th Century as their central themes but it might be the one that is the most gut wrenching because of how the discrimination pictured isn’t hidden but really in your face showned. It is very bold also to tell a story where a woman gets at the high of her ambitions and how this path leads her to omit her love to her dearest ones. The title, Imitation of Life is well suited for the main character but reveals nothing from the real propos of the story.
Despite being one of Sirk’s mandatory films, it is not as flamboyant as let’s say Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows in my own tastes. For all the reasons listed above, I would recommend this melodrama to anyone who likes films of the 1950’s and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Just like any other of the director’s films, one must have in mind that he was a brilliant filmmaker who managed to make numerous films with few means and great ideas.