I know it's April, but this is my March Blind Spot. Thanks for the delayed shipment, Netflix. You ruined my scheme. Or, it's probably my fault for always forgetting to shift my queue and waiting until the end of the month...
Anyway, after years, I have FINALLY watched Douglas Sirk's 1959 supreme "women's weepie," Imitation of Life. My Mom was born in 1959. This is my Mom's favorite movie, or at least one she talks about all the time. She, no doubt, tried to get me to watch this thing many times when I was young. I always rain checked it though, never bought in. I made it a point, this year, to finally do it. I'm proud of myself.
And it was actually a rather easy watch, despite the utter devastation of the final act. Over the past month, I've been familiarizing myself with the melodramatic romances of Douglas Sirk, including, most notably, All That Heaven Allows (1955). While I still like it better than this one, it's really apples and oranges. Imitation of Life is a fine tearjerker, and I so get why my Mom loves it. It's about Mothers. It is much more for her...than me.
My Mom grew up poor, the second of six sisters, near The Big South Fork in Scott County, Tennessee, right on the Kentucky line. Her own Mother, a woman I never met, became stricken with Multiple Sclerosis in the early 1970s, leaving my teenage mother and her one older, mostly younger, sisters to care for each other, their father, and their eventually bed-ridden mother. You can make your own inferences about my Mother's character, but I will be downright honest on these facts: She is tough and strong, a bit crazy, and she loves tearjerkers about Mothers and Daughters.
Other than James L. Brooks' 1983 masterpiece, Terms of Endearment, I can't think of a better film in that vein than Imitation of Life. Two mothers and two daughters, a family built of necessity and societal travesty, embodying a tale embedded in its time period, yet timeless in its sympathy for independent, driven, totally loyal women.
At the heart of the story, though, despite the poster art and star power, is not the struggle of Lora (Lana Turner), an ambitious, initially struggling actress and widowed mother of Susie (Sandra Dee). No. This story belongs to Annie (Juanita Moore) and the trial she, a Black woman, undergoes with her own daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), after giving years of her life in partnership/service of Lora's rising star. Sarah Jane is very light-skinned. She easily passes for White, a problem she can't ignore given that it is so easy for her to hide her lineage. Consider one of many heartbreaking scenes in which Annie rushes to the school house to deliver Sarah Jane her galoshes on a wet, wintry morning. The teacher is shocked to see a "Colored woman" in her classroom. There are no "Colored" students at this school. Sarah Jane has not told her teacher about her Mother. For shame...in more ways than one.
I was struck by the completely sheer nature of this film as a critique of society and a study in what the Black author and activist W.E.B. Dubois coined as the African American "double-consciousness," or the internal conflict ingrained in Black people between satisfying a role in a racist White society, while also grasping at their ancestral roots as descendants of Africa's enslaved peoples. Identity cannot be formed with that condition. It is what causes Annie to secure the only life she could at the time, one of servitude to a White family. It is also what causes Sarah Jane to distance herself from it entirely...because she can. Lora and Susie are good to Annie and Sarah Jane. They are more sisters or cousins than upstairs or downstairs, yet the difference is staggering. At one point, Lora realizes that she didn't even know Annie went to the Baptist Church on Sunday or even has friends. This can't have been an accident on the part of Sirk and his screenwriter, Eleanore Griffin. I read that Sirk's film pays much more attention to this Black side of the quadrangle than the original film version, a 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert. It is a good choice and is ultimately what saves the film, in its second half, after becoming too hokey for its own good in its first.
The opening scenes of Imitation of Life move way too fast, the classic Sirk artifice almost overbearing, the pointedness of the racial divide far too on-the-nose. But we root for Lora. She is a kind woman, knows what she wants, and, at the pleading of would be love interest, Steve Archer (John Gavin), who tells Lora how his "camera could have a love affair with" her, decides to do also as he says and "chase her rainbow." It is wholly charming in that way. When Annie talks her way into Lora's home, it is with genuine affection: "I like taking care of pretty things," Annie says, upon Lora's inquiry into why she ironed her dress. All of this speaks to the chemistry among such a stellar cast. Turner and Moore, specifically, give top-notch performances. We believe these people would find and love each other. We believe they are actual people.
Through her own dealings with the politics of the time, especially the dominance of the sleazy male in show business, Lora, like Annie, also deals with a conflicted identity. Mother? Wife? Girlfriend? Actress? Star of the stage? Of course, until she gets her big break at the hands of the talent manager Allen Loomis (Robert Alda) and playwright David Edwards (Dan O'Herlihy), to whom she will become muse, making her way into stardom and wealth.
Ten years later, with a bigger house and even more opportunity, Lora and Annie's paths remain in convergence, even in terms of their relationships with their now teenage daughters. Yet, the emotional core is still on Annie and Sarah Jane. There are so many moments of pure pain in second half of Imitation of Life it's hard to even recall them all. Most of them have to do with the full-on rebellion of the Sarah Jane character. She has had it. Sneaking off with a White boyfriend, which she confides in Susie (to her shock), railing against everything her mother stands for, ultimately running away, prompting a final act game of cat-and-mouse. The harshness of this is: Sarah Jane is the cat, and Annie is the mouse. Only in this case, we have a terrified cat and one brave mouse (with reinforcements).
In the midst of all that, Sirk straight up brings the pain. He brings it in his perfectly composed color frames, interesting shots that create a perspective for the audience to fully empathize with the audience. Perhaps my favorite scene in the film is when Annie gets word that Sarah Jane has taken a job as a dancer in a sleazy Brooklyn night club. Sirk's camera finds Annie insulted my White men the minute she enters, but she keeps on moving, hiding behind a shutter dividing the room, shadows across her dark face. This is cut with the obtuse angles of Sarah Jane's dance routine, old men's faces in close up, shouting and hollering. It's just...sad.
I whimpered and cried through most of the final 20 minutes or so. It is just such a tender sequence of events that literally cut right through me. This is not a perfect film. The troubles emerging at the same time between Lora and Susie are simply upstaged, which hurts it narratively, makes it feel rushed, yet I like that about this film at the same time. And you simply cannot deny the power of Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner, both nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar.
And I get it, like I said about my Mom. She loves this movie because it is, ultimately, about a rebellious young woman in a strained relationship with her Mother. It is a common but timeless tale through which so many Mothers and Daughters have lived. But I would imagine that, despite the issue not being race, my Mom identifies with Sarah Jane. That she wished she could've had more time, more appreciation, the ability to say what she really meant or how she really felt or even taken the time to understand her Mother's point of view.
Alas, life doesn't always give us that sort of closure. In fact, it never does. Few films are as ballsy to end the way this one does...with just pure pain. In that final shot, we get everything we need to know about the greatest pain of life, pure and simple...and now the title of this film makes perfect sense.