Monday, August 29, 2011

Imitation of Life

Directed by Douglas Sirk.
1959. Not Rated, 125 minutes.
Lana Turner
Juanita Moore
Susan Kohner
Sandra Dee
John Gavin
Dan O’Herlihy
Robert Alda
Terry Burnham
Karin Dicker

By chance, Lara (Turner) meets Annie (Moore) and the two women strike up a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. Both women are single moms. Lara’s daughter Suzi (Burnham at age 6, Dee at 16) and Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Dicker at age 8, Kohner at 18) are only a couple years apart in age. Lara needs a nanny while Annie offers her services for nothing more than room and board for her and her little girl. It’s a match made in heaven. Of course, there’s still something off-kilter about these fast friends, especially in the era not long before World War II. Lara is white and Annie is black. For those unaware, this is in the days before most people had heard of Martin Luther King Jr. That blacks were second-class citizens in America was not up for debate. It was a blatant reality. On top of this, Annie’s daughter was fathered by a white man. If blacks were second-class citizens, bi-racial children may have been third. Sarah Jane is sensitive to this at an early age. She’s very fair-skinned and desperately puts most of her effort into passing for white even if that means distancing herself from her own mother. Lara and Suzie obviously have very different, but no less relevant issues. Lara dreams of being a Broadway star and works hard to reach that goal. This means many hours, days, weeks and even months away from her daughter. Therefore, Suzie is effectively raised by Annie. We follow these four through the ups and downs of the next decade or so.

The novel Imitation of Life is based on was written in the 1930s by Fannie Hurst. It was originally brought to the big screen in 1934. I have not seen that version, but now I must to satisfy my curiosity of the differences. Made in 1959, this version appears to be a movie ahead of its time. It predates other landmark films dealing with race such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. Half a century after its release there are still elements relevant to our society. How whites and blacks view each other and themselves in relation to one another is still a hotly contested issue.

Within their home, three of the four ladies try to isolate themselves from such topics. However, Sarah Jane continually drags the ugly world with her into the house. Her entire being is troublesome for her and us. Her yearning to be white and the drastic choices she makes to be accepted as such are torturous. She is clearly an example of the archetype known in American literature as “the tragic mulatto.” That means she cannot be happy simply due to the fact she is of mixed blood. Her storyline is prevalent and provides the movie with its climax. She also makes it difficult to gauge. Is her saga a triumph for her black mother or a cautionary tale for those considering procreation with someone of another race?

Speaking of the black mother, Annie is also problematic. She is a 20th century version of another archetype, “the contented slave”. To oversimplify, the contented slave is more than happy, even grateful to live a life of servitude. In the case of female slaves, this usually meant deriving a special joy from raising the children of their masters. These traits are immediately evident in Annie. As I said, she gleefully offers her services as a live-in nanny and is practically offended when Lara offers to pay her. She refuses to take money for her work and dutifully looks after Lara’s daughter out of the goodness of her heart. Annie and Sarah Jane make us question whether IoL is really ahead of its time or just pretending to be.

On the other hand, this is enthralling melodrama. To go along with the aforementioned mother/daughter spats, there’s Lara’s on again/off again romance with Steve (Gavin), her rise to fame and havoc it wreaks on her relationship with Suzie. There’s Suzie’s first crush and always Sarah Jane is sinking to new lows. Hearing her talk to her mother is absolutely gut-wrenching. All four of our principals turn in excellent performances, though the pitch of Sandra Dee’s voice is somewhat annoying. Without knowledge of the archetypes I spoke of above, it’s probably easier to take at face value, easier to believe it is what it says it is. Even then, there is still much to discuss. All eyes may not see it the same way.

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