"Imitation Of Life" may be the most important movie ever made. It has everything: mother love, musical numbers, backstage intrigue, race relations, gowns by Jean Louis, garish technicolor, irony, Oscar-nominated performances. You name it, it's got it!
Released in 1959 by Universal Studios (it was their biggest moneymaker up to that time), "Imitation Of Life" tells the story of Lora Meredith, an ambitious actress getting a late start on her career; her daughter, Suzie, who's falling for Mama's boyfriend; Lora's longtime housekeeper, Annie Johnson; and Annie's beautiful, tormented daughter, Sarah Jane, who passes for white. (For a more detailed telling of the story complete with pictures check out http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/7037/imitate.html).
The film was directed by Douglas Sirk who had been involved in the German Expressionist theater in the 1930's. He had a subsequently successful career in Hollywood where he became disillusioned by the pigeon-holing on which the industry thrives. His over-the-top melodramas such as "Magnificent Obsession," "All That Heaven Allows," and "There's Always Tomorrow" were all box-office hits, but Sirk was an intellectual who wanted to grow as an artist. Hollywood wasn't interested in artistry, so Sirk went back to Europe. I tried to lure him out of retirement to direct my intimate family drama "Taste The Blood Of Lypsinka" but he wasn't having it. "Imitation Of Life" was his last film.
It's only fitting that Lana Turner and Sandra Dee live in a world and a house that is white-on-white-on-white in the jaw-dropping cinematic masterpiece "Imitation Of Life."
In the 1970s and 80s a new appreciation
of Sirk began to grow and filmmakers and critics began to admit
his influence. Rainer Werner Fassbinder always acknowledged Sirk's
effect on his own work. Fassbinder's "Ali: Fear Eats The
Soul" is an unauthorized remake of "All That Heaven
Allows." John Water's epic "Female Trouble" starring
Divine is modeled after "Imitation Of Life." The structure of Sirk's other masterwork, "Written on the Wind," in which the ending of the movie is shown at the beginning, was borrowed by maverick filmmaker Russ Meyer for his chef d'oeuvre "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." There is a reference to Sirk in the 50s theme restaurant scene in "Pulp Fiction."
Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) says "no" to missing her daughter's graduation by refusing the juiciest role of her career: Raina in Amerigo Felluci's "No More Laughter." Wrong move, say I, the fabulous Lypsinka!
And my theory is that even Hitchcock
was influenced by Sirk. Look at the last scene of "Imitation
Of Life" and the last scene of Hitchcock's "The Birds."
They're practically the same scene. (In Hitchcock's neglected
masterpiece "Marnie" there is an establishing shot of
the facade of a house with a tilted camera so that you can see
a person at
a downstairs window and another person at an upstairs window on the other side of the house. Sirk had already used this shot in "Written On The Wind." Also in "Marnie," in the pretend-psychoanalysis scene with Sean Connery, Tippi Hedren shrieks, "White,
white, WHITE!" Susan Kohner had delivered the same line reading, in a very different context, 5 years earlier in "Imitation Of Life." Sirk and Hitchcock worked at the same studio).
"Imitation Of Life" was on the American Film Institute's controversial 400 Best Movies List. It was shown in the summer of 1998 at the free outdoor movie series in Manhattan's Bryant Park. It is often broadcast on American Movie Classics. Watch it! And keep Kleenex nearby. If you've already seen it--watch it again! There is always something new to find in its brilliance.
Brilliant young actress Susan Kohner poses for Universal Studios' publicity department. Susan's Oscar-nominated performance in "Imitation Of Life" remains contemporary 40 years later! Susan is married to designer and writer John Weitz. They divide their time between Bridgehampton and Manhattan. Susan is also a really nice lady!
To read more about "Imitation Of Life" and Douglas Sirk here are a few suggestions:
Imitation Of Life: Douglas Sirk, Director (Rutgers Films in Print)
published by Rutgers University Press, 1991
edited by Lucy Fischer
published by Twayne Publishers, 1979
written by Michael Stern
Sirk on Sirk
first published by Martin Secker &Warburg (U.K.), 1971
a publication of the B.F.I. Education Department
written by Jon Halliday
This book has been republished recently. Check with www.barnesand noble.com
Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk
published by Indiana University Press, 1994
written by Barbara Klinger
This book is rough going. It is filled with five- and six-syllable words that I don't even want to understand. However, the sections about Rock Hudson (whom Sirk helped make a star), camp, and how our perceptions change as time goes by are fascinating