Douglas Sirk’s great Technicolor melodrama, “Imitation of Life” (1959), rare in so many ways, is likely unique in that it both deals with issues of race/racial identity and a woman’s right to self-determination in post-WWII America, and has credits for “jewels by” and “gowns by” (all glitteringly gorgeous as worn by perfect, platinum-blonde Lana Turner).
Widow Lora Meredith (Turner), newly arrived in New York, frantically searches for her young daughter Susie who has wandered away during their Coney Island outing. She not only finds her frolicking in the sand with Sarah Jane, a slightly older girl, but two other people who will play major roles in her life: Annie Johnson (lovely Juanita Moore), who will become Lora’s gracious housekeeper and irreplaceable friend; and steadfast suitor, suave Steve Archer (John Gavin), a photographer with ambition (MoMA is mentioned).
Lora, with her steely determination to have a great Broadway career, but few material resources, realizes that Annie, African American, is at even looser ends and invites her and Sarah Jane to her cold-water flat for the night. Annie offers to work for her without payment until Lora, who’s registering with modeling agencies and knocking on agents’ doors, finds work.
Lora, refusing to be “cheapened” by the dictates of a powerful agent, tied down by Steve (who thinks his love means he can prohibit her from chasing her dream), or distracted by responsibilities to Susie (whom she loves), achieves super-stardom on the stage. After high school, sultry Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), acutely aware since childhood that she can pass for white (“I want a chance in life”), callously rejects Annie and runs away to pursue a career as a cabaret dancer.
Sirk’s profound weepie traps his characters in their time and denies them an awareness of the importance love or makes them suffer for loving too much. He’s said of his film’s conclusion, “You don’t believe in the happy ending, and you’re really not supposed to.”
“Imitation of Life” opens today at Film Forum for a one-week run.
Although he had had a successful Hollywood career, Douglas Sirk’s ground-breaking films (which he camouflaged as melodramas) were only known (but wildly appreciated) by devoted cineastes in 1979 when I persuaded an editor I’d been writing for at the Village Voice to let me photograph the director (and provide a deep caption).
I went to a midtown hotel, shot one roll of Tri-X 35mm film, and there are two portraits–sometimes three–that I love. The image at the top of this page is being sold, in a special Film Forum edition, 25 8.5″x11″ signed archival ink jet prints, in honor of the presentation of the dazzling new 4K color restoration of “Imitation of Life.” To buy a print or find out more, click here.