Imitation of Life (1959)

Dir. Douglas Sirk. Starring Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, Susan Kohner

(Featured image links here.)

Sarah Jane Johnson (Kohner) can trace her future in two directions. The first path keeps her with her loving, practically perfect mother, Annie (Moore). Annie’s friendship, which borders ungracefully on mistress/maid with a successful actress named Lora Meredith (Turner), will almost certainly guarantee Sarah Jane some level of comfort for the rest of her life. The second road, which would require outright rejection of her mother, will allow her to pass as white in the late ’50s and have opportunities beyond living off whatever scraps Lora leaves her: a boyfriend, a livelihood, more bites at the apple in segregated America. It’s clear from the jump that Sarah Jane will choose the second.

When Annie and Sarah Jane move into Lora and Susie’s little apartment, Susie offers Sarah Jane a black doll to play with, which Sarah Jane rejects vehemently; she wants the white one. Both girls identify as white, and both want to play with the one who looks like she does. No one ever adequately explains to Sarah Jane why she shouldn’t be white if she wants to be. Platitudes like “You can’t change who you are” do not get at the root of who Sarah Jane “is,” and statements from Lora in the vein of “It’s never mattered to us” are the kind of things people still say sixty and seventy years later, with the corollary of “It matters a great deal to other people” and “You’re black because we say you’re black.” Sarah Jane’s choice is enough to rip someone in two, and it turns out to rip more than just herself to shreds. She chooses to be white over and over again, and every time she tries it is eventually blown to bits by her mother, who is not going to pretend not to have a daughter for the sake of the girl’s social life. The first instance comes during elementary school, where Annie comes to Sarah Jane’s class to drop off some outerwear; Sarah Jane tries to hide behind her book and ultimately flees the building when Annie finds her. She’ll be white with a boyfriend, which ends, when he finds out she’s not white enough for his standard, with a savage beating. She’ll be white in jobs that require her to perform with a certain standard of lewdness; the only positions we see she gets are both nightclub jobs where her job is to be sexy, and the first she loses when her mother comes in to get her. Is it better to be Sarah Jane, a white girl on the edges, perhaps beyond the margins, of what qualifies as nice society? Or is it better to be Sarah Jane, a black girl who can claim longstanding friendship with a white family but who will probably never rise past being a maid for them the way that her mother, without anyone asking, became the maid. She knows what her choice is and she’s not shy about saying so. One night, when Lora asks Sarah Jane to bring some hors d’oeuvres out to some guests, Sarah Jane does so and uses a voice straight out of the Gone with the Wind playbook on Lora’s company. She gets scolded for it, though our sympathy is with her. Lora uses Sarah Jane like she’s the only black person she can find to plug this awkward social hole with, and although there’s a speech in there about “Have we ever mistreated you?”, one sure wishes for a “Have you ever taken me seriously?” rejoinder.

The film is like a particularly elegant, anti-supernatural version of “The Monkey’s Paw.” Sarah Jane wishes to be white, a wish she gets at the expense of hurling her devoted mother from her life. Lora wishes to be a great actress, a wish she gets at the expense of her daughter, who wants her single mother to be more involved in her life. Susie (literally Sandra Dee) wants Steve (John Gavin), a man who used to date her mother when Susie was a little girl and who pays attention to her with the consistency Lora fails to have. And Annie wants her daughter to be happy, which, to come full circle, means that she has to let her daughter disappear. Douglas Sirk’s melodramas have a certain genius to them in how movie features characters who might as well be hanging around on a gallows, each of them asking the other, “How am I going to make this turn out right?” What’s apparent in this story is that, as in a hand of poker or an ABBA song, the winner takes it all. At the end of the film, Lora has her career as a theater and film star, a husband, and a daughter who’s opened up to her for the first time in years. It costs her a friend who was a far better person than her, but at least it’s not her fault; Annie, who’s been tiring and slowing down for months, simply gives up the ghost. Susie has to give up the man she wants. (Incidentally, this is the only thing someone doesn’t get that’s sort of a relief; Susie’s interest in Steve is darkly comic as long as we aren’t afraid that she’ll do something she can’t take back. He takes her out to the country club one night, and we learn an awful lot about poor, brainless Steve: if he had a clue he would take her home and move to Nebraska immediately.) Sarah Jane, at the end of the film, throws herself sobbing at the hearse carrying her mother’s corpse. The gallows are not frequently a place for people to escape from, but Lora manages to walk away from the encounter more or less unscathed.

Not for nothing is she our least sympathetic character. It’s not that we resent her choosing a lucrative, fulfilling career; it’s that she’s so superior about it once it happens. It’s incredible that she manages to land any parts at all, given the roundabout way that her acting career comes about. She gets an audition, criticizes the scene she’s auditioning with, and this endears her to the playwright she becomes the long-running muse for. No other character could get so far based more or less on good fortune. Lora and Steve begin their dalliance when she’s poor and looking for work and he’s a photographer trying to get into the Museum of Modern Art. When she becomes an actress and he becomes an executive, she’s particularly critical of him for giving up on his dream as if perfectly decent people aren’t forced to do that all the time. When Annie is on her literal deathbed, some iteration of “Don’t leave me!” comes out of Lora’s mouth as if Annie’s death is somehow a bigger problem for Lora than the person whose functions are failing.

Annie is, unbelievably for a mainstream film in the late ’50s, a normal person. It had been twenty years since Hattie McDaniel was a person – a profoundly stereotyped one, but there was a person under there – and the number of good roles for black people, and black women especially, in that interim in Hollywood were rare. When Lora first invites Annie and her daughter to come live in her apartment, an invitation that Annie manages to insinuate from her own end, Annie quietly makes herself the housewife. She cooks and cleans and watches the girls while Lora is hoofing it from business lunch to audition and home again. When Lora makes her success, Annie will become the woman who runs Lora’s big house. Annie has a life outside of Lora’s world – she is a beloved church member, and her congregation comes out in force for her funeral – and if she’s held within a role most commonly given to black women during this time period, it’s not because she doesn’t have talents which could move her outside that sphere. What Annie’s place in Lora’s home really does is give the spurs to Sarah Jane, who sees her mother make about as much of a success of herself as a black woman could in her time and can’t see the success for the manifested bad. It’s not Annie’s home she lives in. It’s not Annie’s choices which are given the most credit. It’s not Annie’s world outside, either, where she might leave and go get a good job herself. The restrictions on Annie are shown not to be born of her shortcomings, but from the wickedness of the world she lives in. They are, as Mahalia Jackson sings near the end of the film, the troubles of the world.

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