Movies

Imitation Of Life (1959, Lana Turner, John Gavin)

Imitation Of Life

Either ‘A libel on the negro race’ (according to the Los Angeles Tribune ) or the grandfather of modern soap opera, Douglas Sirk’s textbook weepie Imitation Of Life retains the ability to reward or repel.

It follows widow Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee). Their lives are changed when a black woman, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her child Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) need shelter. Lora invites them to share her home.

A blissful period begins, during which Lora’s acting career takes off, while Annie looks after both children. Susie prospers, but Sarah Jane is slowly torn apart by insecurity.

When her old friend Steve Archer (John Gavin) returns, Lora rekindles a desire for domestic life. But when career wins over emotion, both Lora and Annie find themselves distanced from their daughters, with disastrous results…

Lana Turner knew about troublesome children, having emerged from the 1958 scandal when her hoodlum lover, Johnny Stompanato, was killed by her daughter Cheryl. Bad headlines led to a good job, when Universal signed her for the role that became her swansong.

It’s easy to dismiss Sirk as a shallow hack director hooked on melodrama. It’s also wrong. The German – who grew up translating Shakespearean sonnets and attending Einstein lectures – knew the importance of mise-en-scene long before the term was coined. Lighting, lensing and location work together to create a mood, and he slips in a heavyweight theme of the gap between image and reality, distilled through impeccable use of mirrors, masks and photographs. You don’t get that in Hollyoaks .

This was Sirk’s final American film, but his name and influence persist. A Douglas Sirk steak (“bloody as hell”) is on the menu at Jackrabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction , and Todd Haynes Far from Heaven (2003) is a rich and glorious tribute to the film-maker’s work.

USA / 1959

Director: Douglas Sirk
Writers: Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott (from the novel by Fannie Hurst)

Cast: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Juanita Moore, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner