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Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)
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Imitation of Life (1959)

 
 

Life Issues for Moore and Turner

I'm someone else. I'm white... white... WHITE - Sarah Jane

Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life

Whilst director Douglas Sirk lived until the age of 89, passing away in 1987 he made his final Hollywood movie back in 1959 with a remake of "Imitation of Life". And it has to be said that if Sirk had planned for "Imitation of Life" to be his last Hollywood movie he couldn't have done a better job because this is a movie which has everything. From Sirk's wonderful eye for a shot, his clever use of mirrors to provide depth, social drama, romance, family issues and tough choices pretty much everything which Sirk had explored in his previous popular melodramas comes together in this one stunning movie. And it is not just what Sirk brings to the movie as the acting throughout be it Lana Turner as career focussed Lora Meredith or Juanita Moore as Annie is just top notch.

Having met at Coney Island whilst searching for her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham), aspiring actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) becomes best friends with Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore - The Kid) as she invites her and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) to stay with her in her apartment. With Lora determined to make it in show business not only does her love life with Steve Archer (John Gavin - Spartacus) constantly face turmoil but so does her relationship with Susie (Sandra Dee) as she grows up with her mum always working or away. And Lora isn't the only one with daughter issues as Annie's daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) doesn't like being black but with skin so pale can pass from white, causing Annie constant heartache as Sarah Jane is ashamed of her.

Lana Turner and Sandra Dee in Imitation of Life

Anyone who has watched one of Douglas Sirk's melodramas will know that whilst providing entertainment he also explored social issues be it of race, age related romance and combined these with tough decisions. And "Imitation of Life" is no different as once again Sirk explores social issues, romance leading to tough decisions but with the storyline built around two mothers you basically have twice as much going on. As such we have the story of Lora who is determined to become a star, so determined that not only does it come between her and her true love Steve Archer but also takes her away from being a mother to her daughter Susie. The knock on effect of this is as Susie grows from a young girl into a young woman not only does she look on Annie as more of a mother but also falls for Steve leading to some expected difficulties.

But then alongside the story of Lora we have the story of Annie, Lora's coloured friend, and her daughter Sarah Jane who thanks to her father having very pale skin has inherited such pale skin that she can pass for being white. This leads to conflict as in an age where racism was still an issue Sarah Jane wants to be known as white and is embarrassed by her own mother. It leads to many troubles from Sarah Jane's life constantly being blighted when people discover the truth to Annie having to make a tough decision over her daughter.

All of which combines brilliantly because right at the start we watch how Lora and Annie meet and end up becoming friends who live together at the same time introducing Steve who they also meet on the beach. It gives a surprising naturalness to the set up and allows all this emotional drama to interweave so whilst Lora discovers that Susie has fallen for Steve we have Annie struggling to deal with Sarah Jane basically denying her own mother. And in typical style all of these issues build to a crescendo with a big ending.

Now anyone who has watched a Douglas Sirk movie will know that alongside exploring various emotional issues he also had a certain style and unsurprisingly his style dominates "Imitation of Life". From use of mirrors and shop windows to add extra depth via reflected images, power plays with drama taking place on staircases and the use of shadows in a vibrant landscape. Basically it feels like "Imitation of Life" is Sirk pouring everything he knew into one movie to create so much atmosphere and it works.

Alongside Sirk's direction "Imitation of Life" also is assisted by some top notch performances with both Lana Turner and Juanita Moore leading the movie nicely. Whilst Lana Turner delivers the glamour of career focused Lora you have Juanita dealing with the emotional battle of making a tough decision out of love for her daughter. And Turner and Moore are not the only good performances as John Gavin, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner also impress and whilst it would be fair to say there are times the likes of Dee and Kohner over act it just adds to the intensity of the drama.

What this all boils down to is that "Imitation of Life" is right up there with Douglas Sirk's other popular melodramas from the 50s and with it being his last Hollywood movie feels like he poured everything into it. As such when you watch "Imitation of Life", and I suggest you do, not only will you have experienced a movie you will never forget but you will have the undying urge to watch it again.

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