Imitation of Life
May 3, 2018
2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
The German auteur Douglas Sirk infiltrated the Hollywood studio system in the mid-1940s and comfortably stayed there for almost two decades. His résumé, teeming at the height of his career, was chiefly defined by melodramas and musicals that generally did well commercially. During his time as an accommodating director-for-hire, though, talk about Sirk being a filmmaker with an uppercase F like peers Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles was nonexistent: He was more likely to be grouped alongside Richard Thorpe or George Sidney, accomplished, if pretty unvarying, directors who defined themselves as masters of the crowd-pleaser, not singular mavens of the filmmaking craft.
Understandable, if semi-tragic: If you look at Sirk’s best films with the eyes of an unfussy viewer who simply wants to escape for two hours, they really do come across as the cinematic equivalent of earworm-dependent pop music. Time, however, has allowed us to look at Sirk’s movies differently. Now, cinema cognoscenti talk about him with the same affection reserved for those previously mentioned capital F filmmakers, with most considering his late-career melodramas, with their gaudy artifice and prescient themes, to be just smart enough – and darkly mounted enough – to be subversive masterstrokes. (Even though they could reasonably be enjoyed as cinema’s answer to page-turn-pandering romance novels.)
His trajectory, then, has come to be reexamined holistically. But in the six decades since his creative peak, it has been the movies he made from the mid-to-late-’50s that have become the pieces most widely heralded as forward-looking, stylistically divine masterpieces. Of them, four – Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1957), and Imitation of Life (1959) – have been especially reevaluated; many consider this quartet quintessential melodramas, definitive, scintillating products of classic Hollywood. They’ve proven inspirational, too. Guillermo Del Toro, the Spanish filmmaker behind some of the more artistically unprecedented features of the last two decades, thanked Sirk while accepting his Best Director Oscar for 2017’s The Shape of Water, for example. And the directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes have lovingly imitated him on many an occasion.
Much of Sirk’s reappraisal, I think, stems from how much the melodrama mold has changed, and come to be appreciated, in the decades following his apex. Top-rated serials of the 1970s and ‘80s, from Dallas (1978-’91) to Dynasty (1981-’89), reimagined the possibilities of the soap opera. Shows like Twin Peaks (1990-’91) grabbed ahold of Sirk's sensibilities and at once heightened and twisted them, sending up the always-fresh cliché that, buried beneath all-American perfection is a steadied, malodorous rot. Keep in mind what we now know about melodrama and Sirk’s features become effulgent, quietly self-aware treatises on the contradictions of American life. Bettered, of course, by tinselly old Hollywood style and photo-perfect movie stars treating lachrymose material as if it were written by Pirandello.
Sirk’s last feature film, 1959’s Imitation of Life, is the crux of his oeuvre. Arguably, it made for the moment when his sumptuous stylistics and his subversive dealings with story felt substantial rather than ever-so-slightly mocking. It feels as though he’s genuinely invested here. The film was the second adaptation of the Fannie Hurst-penned, 1933 novel of the same name. (The first was released in 1934 and starred Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers.) Much about it differs from its source material, though: it's set in the late-1950s as opposed to the ‘10s of the book, and its racial politics, which are crucial to the story, have been significantly altered, namely to complement the mindset of a nation in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
Like Sirk’s other masterpieces, Imitation of Life is About Things™, in capital letters. While something like, say, Written on the Wind, might be about wealth, homosexuality, incest, and moral uncertainty, Imitation of Life is about fame, race, classism, and motherhood, all the while slyly undercutting the materialism and the hypocrisies of American society. All, in the Sirk style, is presented glossily and breathlessly, artifice immediately indirectly commented on just during the opening credits, which sees gleaming diamonds slowly tumbling into a glass container. It is fitting that it stars the cardinal blonde bombshell of the 1940s, Lana Turner, who could be perceived as a hollow, vaporous Hollywood beauty when provided with one-dimensional roles but could reveal herself a complex, convincing heroine when provided with layered ones.
In Imitation of Life, which spans about a decade, Turner stars as Lora, a single mother. We first meet her in 1947, where she is struggling to make a life for herself. Her husband has just died, and, in a spur-of-the-moment attempt to cushion her ailing personal and professional lives, she has taken in Annie (Juanita Moore), a black working woman, and her young daughter, Sarah Jane. She perhaps knows she should take on a realistic job to build her financial status, and she probably understands that now is not the best time to also take on a romance (with Steve, a dashing photographer played by John Gavin). But realism isn’t something Lora’s interested in: she spends her days doing modeling work and auditioning for theatrical parts, and spends her nights on dates with her younger flame. Developing, too, is her friendship with Annie, who looks after their apartment and kids while she attempts to find work.
In keeping with its melodramatic textures, Imitation of Life does not look at this narrative with naturalistic eyes – in a more pragmatic film, Lora would never see her dreams turn into a reality, always angling for something better. After a handful of months, she becomes the definition of an overnight success. She gets noticed, makes an acclaimed Broadway debut, and soon metamorphoses into one of the theatre’s top actresses. Her speciality, ironically in a film so earnest, is comedy.
The film then jumps to 1958, where things are relocated from the city to a ritzy suburban home. The plot puts Lora’s professional ambitions on the back burner, instead shining a light on Sarah Jane (Sarah Kohner, exquisite) and her strained relationship with her mother. Because the former has inherited her deadbeat dad’s fair skin, she has decided to present herself as white when in public, often pretending as though Annie is her nanny. In the meantime, Lora’s daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee), is contending with what she considers to be a lacking of love on her mother’s part — and romantic feelings for Steve, who comes back into the family’s lives after he and Lora amicably broke up just before the time leap came about.
There’s a moment somewhere during the beginning of Imitation of Life where Lora and Steve are wrapped up in an emotional embrace, and Lora can hardly repress her lust for life. “I want everything,” she gasps. “Maybe too much.” Such a statement succinctly summarizes how these characters operate: All are so caught up in their unrealistic expectations, or at least their eventually unfulfilling accomplishments, they are incapable of ever truly being satisfied with what they have. Life is maddeningly ouroboros and exhausting. Moments of happiness are doomed to be fleeting. Lora’s unhealthy wanting of “more” has ruined her. Sarah Jane’s belief that she can completely erase her racial identity will never work in the long run. Susie’s craving for unwavering motherly affection will never come. Steve will never know what it’s like to have Lora completely dedicate herself to him. Only Annie, whose life almost exclusively consists of quiet suffering, seems aware that existence is often disappointing and only temporarily blissful, thus taking what she can get.
The film’s title, then, feels particularly loaded. First it comes across as self-deprecation, a comment on the artificial nature of cinema (and Sirk’s materialist style) in general. But it more prominently feels like an encapsulation of why these characters will never reach self-actualization. They’re so bent on attaining a specific want, or multiple wants, that their lives have come to be the synthetic – comprised of little else besides self-loathing and lies told to oneself, fashioned into something that looks functional from the outside because of money, physical beauty, and professional success. Sirk is critical of his characters. He's critical of the way Lora treats Annie more like a sounding board than a friend. How Sarah Jane can so willingly spit in the face of her mother. How Steve demands that Lora trade her professional desires for domesticity.
But he is also sympathetic toward them. He understands that Lora, a product of the white liberal politics of almost 60 years ago, perhaps doesn’t realize that surface-level kindness is not the same thing as perpetuating equality. That, while Sarah Jane is kind of monstrous for being so willing to cut her mother out of her life, the ability to emancipate herself from a life impacted by oppression and systemic racism is tempting. That Steve just wants a wife who isn’t going to take him for granted. The imperfections and maddening contradictions of these characters, supplemented by a genuinely astute handling of racial themes, make Imitation of Life one of the greatest of melodramas. The cinematography and the colorful, innovative mise en scéne is just the icing atop its layered cake.
Sirk would retire shortly after the feature’s release (which was a massive success) and retreat to his native Germany, spending the rest of his life sporadically working as a film studies professor. One could say this swan song was too early – how interesting it would have been to see how Sirk’d contribute to the cinematic detritus of the ‘60s, which would be ravaged by transition. But if continuing a filmmaking career felt like an unsatisfying pursuit to the artiste, it only makes sense that he’d prefer to live the life he wanted rather than an imitation of one. A+