Imitation of Life

Given her personal life, Lana Turner would seem ideally suited for a movie detailing the problematic relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter.  Indeed it was one of her greatest successes as she is excellent.  The plot concerns Lora Meredith, a struggling white widow with a child who befriends Annie Johnson, a single black mother whose husband has likewise passed on.  Driven by ambition to succeed as an aspiring actress, she often makes self-serving concessions in her life.  Lora regularly relies on her new friend’s assistance in raising her daughter, Susie.  But Annie has issues dealing with her own daughter, Sarah Jane, who is so light skinned she appears to be white.  This becomes a source of contention for the little girl, embarrassed to have a mother who is black.  The story touches on everything from strained families and unrequited crushes to the casting couch and racial inequality.  Melodramatic?  Very, but in a tremendously enjoyable way.  It does seem dated, but entertains despite, or perhaps because of it.  Juanita Moore is most engaging as the selfless Annie.  She’s sincere, sweet and dignified.  She rightfully received an Oscar nomination for her part.  Also receiving a nomination was Susan Kohner as the daughter who resents her.  Her performance, however, is much more overwrought.  The script doesn’t present her as fully formed a character in the way that her actions don’t always seem reasonable, especially to a modern audience.

Artificial soap opera dressed up as exquisite drama has all the hallmarks of a Douglas Sirk Hollywood picture.  It’s colorful, glossy and unapologetically old-fashioned.  At first glance it‘s easy to be mesmerized by the well appointed sets, lavish costumes, and cinematography.  But beneath the stylish surface, the action casually unfolds as a harsh critique of contemporary American 1950s society.  It’s (thankfully) a subtle theme, one that slowly creeps up on you well after the film is over.

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6 Responses to “Imitation of Life”

  1. Another awesome classic I’ve fallen in love with. Wish I had seen this sooner.

  2. When the combined efforts of those two ultimate cornballs, Oscar Hammerstein II and Edna Ferber, resulted, in “Showboat” in 1927, having one of the principal characters get into difficulty by “passing for white”, probably seemed like a bold exploration of racial issues; and that audience response MAY have lasted till 1933, when “Imitation of Life” came out as a novel. But by the time Elia Kazan directed “Pinky” in 1949 I’d guess the idea was already starting to seem a bit ripe, and by 1959 real racial conflicts were such a standard part of all sorts of movies that something as tame as “passing” could only be viewed as quaint. Of course nobody ever said you couldn’t put corny stuff into a Lana Turner melodrama, and come to think of it, why should they? SHE always managed to handle whatever they threw at her; and from the audience’s point of view that’s a lot better than being bored.

  3. I’ll never EVER forget Sarah Jane’s crying moan of “Mama, MAMA” when she found out her mother had died. Chills.

    While I agree that Susan Kohner’s performance was a bit much, I really enjoyed her. She really stood out and her excellent acting brought the issues, and the movie, to life.

    Sandra Dee’s performance was sweet, cute and incredibly dull.
    Her crush on John Gavin’s character was unbelievable and seemed to be thrown in to add unnecessary ‘drama’.

    Great review Mark! Hadn’t thought of that movie for a long time.

    • Thanks! Fun Fact: Susan Kohner’s sons are directors Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz who both worked together on American Pie and About a Boy.

      • That’s a GREAT fun fact! Helps to explain why “About A Boy” is one of my favorite movies…kinda breaks my heart every time I see it 💔. From what I’ve come across, Susan retired from acting not long after ‘Imitation’ and although I mourn the performances she may have given had she not retired, it’s so great that her talent lives on in her sons.

        Mark, I’m giving away my age…but YOU TRULY ROCK 🙌🙌

      • Aw thanks. 🙂

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