IMITATION OF LIFE
(1959, Douglas Sirk)
[5 out of 5 stars]
A handful of movies for the price of one. Sirk packs in several storylines told from the perspective of multiple characters within a decade-long timeline. He achieves this without reducing the impact of each person's narrative.
It begins with a rags-to-riches story of an aspiring Broadway actress, Lora Meredith, struggling to find roles while caring for her daughter Susie on her own. She meets Annie Johnson and her daughter Sarah Jane when she loses Susie at the beach. Annie Johnson is African American and her daughter is too but she, like her deceased father, is light-skinned and is described as being 'practically white'. This chance encounter finds these two single mothers living in the same household where crisis and passion unfold.
The film is about (among many other things) unrequited romances, jealousy, struggles with racial identity, trials of motherhood and the dark flipside of fame. Dismissed as a weepy women's picture at the time of its release by critics allergic to high emotions, the melodrama genre was unfortunately cast aside as being too silly to take seriously. IMITATION OF LIFE makes you weep but through the startling insight of complex inner turmoils.
When Sarah Jane runs away because her dark skinned mother embarrasses her she does so not out of spite but from the desire to live freely during a time when the colour of your skin immediately denies you of certain privileges. But because she looks white she can have those privileges but at the cost of denying her blood.
Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore's portrayals of Sarah Jane and Annie Johnson respectively both earned them an Oscar nod and rightly so. In one scene when Sarah Jane says goodbye to her mother, a white friend walks in and assumes Annie is a maid. The pair play along through tears pretending that Annie was Sarah Jane's nanny and she was just coming along for a visit. Sarah Jane silently mouths the words "goodbye mama".
Every conflict feels urgent and - in the tradition of great melodramas - is conveyed like so. The Technicolor images are beautiful to look at but the vibrant colours barely mask the dense drama unfolding underneath.