|Imitation of Life
|Directed by||Douglas Sirk|
|Produced by||Ross Hunter|
|Written by||Fannie Hurst (novel)
|Music by||Frank Skinner
|Editing by||Milton Carruth|
|Distributed by||Universal International Pictures|
|Release date(s)||17 April 1959|
|Running time||125 mins.|
Imitation of Life is a 1959 film directed by Douglas Sirk, adapted from Fannie Hurst's novel Imitation of Life, produced by Ross Hunter and released by Universal Pictures. Starring Lana Turner, it is a remake of the 1934 Imitation of Life, the film also stars John Gavin and features Sandra Dee, Dan O'Herlihy, Susan Kohner, Robert Alda and Juanita Moore as Annie Johnson. Gospel music star Mahalia Jackson appears as a church choir soloist.
This version of Imitation of Life was director Sirk's final major film, and is considered among his best. In the film, Lora Meredith (Turner), a white widowed single mother with dreams of becoming a famous actress, takes in Annie Johnson (Moore), a black widowed single mother who becomes a nanny for Lora's daughter Suzie (Dee). Although Lora eventually becomes a successful stage and screen star, she sacrifices a healthy relationship with her daughter. In addition, Annie's light-complexioned daughter Sarah Jane (Kohner) causes her mother much pain and heartache as she attempts to pass for white and shuns both her heritage and her mother's love.
In 1947, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a struggling white widow with plans to become a famous Broadway actress, loses track of her young daughter Suzie at the beach (portrayed as a child by Terry Burnham), and requests the help of a stranger named Steve Archer (John Gavin) to help her find the girl. Suzie is found and looked after by Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black widow with a daughter, Sarah Jane (portrayed as a child by Karin Dicker), who is about Suzie's age and, unlike her mother, is very light-skinned to the point of appearing to be white. In return for her kindness, Lora takes Annie in temporarily. Despite the fact that Lora cannot afford a nanny, Annie persuades Lora to let her stay and take care of Suzie, so that Lora can pursue an acting career.
With struggles along the way, Meredith becomes a successful star of stage comedies, with Alan Loomis (Robert Alda) as her agent and David Edwards (Dan O'Herlihy) as her chief playwright. Although Lora had begun a romantic relationship with Steve Archer, the stranger she met at the beach, their courtship falls apart because of Lora's ambition to be a star. Lora's tight focus on her career also prevents her from spending time with her daughter, who sees more of Annie than she does her own mother. Annie and Sarah Jane have their own struggles, as the light-skinned Sarah Jane is in a constant state of turmoil over her identity and steadfastly wants to pass for white. Sarah Jane's anger at being black translates into animosity towards her long-suffering mother.
The film progresses to 1958, finding Lora as a highly regarded Broadway star living in a luxurious home in upstate New York. After rejecting David's latest script (and his marriage proposal), Lora takes a role in a dramatic play. At the show's after-party, she meets Steven, whom she hasn't seen in a decade. The two slowly begin rekindling their relationship, and Steve is reintroduced to Annie and the now-teenaged Suzie (Sandra Dee) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). When Lora is signed to star in an Italian motion picture, she leaves Steve to watch after Suzie, and the teenager develops an unrequited crush on her mother's boyfriend.
Adolescence has not stopped Sarah Jane from attempting to pass for white: she begins dating a white boy (Troy Donohue), who severely beats her after learning that she has black blood. Some time later, Sarah Jane passes in order to get a job performing at a seedy nightclub, and lies to Annie and tells her she is working at the library. When Annie learns the truth and appears to claim her daughter, Sarah Jane is fired, and Sarah Jane's subsequent dismissal of her mother's care begins taking a physical toll on Annie. Lora returns from her trip to Italy to find that Sarah Jane has run away from home, and has Steve hire a detective to find her. The detective locates Sarah Jane in California, living as a white woman under an assumed name and working as a chorus girl. Annie, becoming weaker and more depressed by the day, flies out to California to see her daughter one last time and say goodbye.
Annie is bedridden upon her return to New York, and Lora and Suzie both look after her. The issue of Suzie's crush on Steve becomes a serious issue when Suzie learns that Steve and Lora are to be married, and Lora learns from Annie of Suzie's crush on her fiancée. After a confrontation with her mother, Suzie decides to go away to school in Denver, Colorado to forget about Steve. Not long after Suzie leaves, however, the now gravely ill Annie passes away, presumably "of a broken heart".
Per her last wishes, Annie is given a lavish funeral in a large church, complete with a gospel choir (and a solo by gospel star Mahalia Jackson) and a parade-like procession with a horse-drawn hearse. Just before the procession begins, however, a remorseful Sarah Jane tears through the crowd of mourners and throws herself upon her mother's casket, begging forgiveness. Lora takes Sarah Jane to their limousine to join her, Suzie, and Steve as the procession slowly travels through the city.
The plot of the 1959 version of Imitation of Life was significantly altered from the original book and the 1934 film version. In the original story, the "Lora" character, Bea Pullman, became famous with the help of her maid Annie's family waffle recipe (the 1934 film version features a family pancake recipe instead of a waffle recipe). As a result, Bea, the white businesswoman, becomes rich, and Annie, her subservient black maid, turns down any and all offers to share any profits. Director Douglas Sirk and screenwriters Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott felt that such a story would not be accepted in the wake of civil rights milestones such as the Brown v. Board of Education case and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and also felt that, by the 1950s, a black woman with a potentially successful food enterprise could make it on her own. As a result, the story was altered so that Lora becomes a Broadway star with her own talents, with Annie assisting her by serving as a nanny for Lora's child. In addition, producer Ross Hunter was cannily aware that these plot changes would enable Lana Turner to model an array of glamorous costumes and real jewels, something that would appeal to the female audience at that time.
Fredi Washington, the actress who plays the African-American daughter Peola in the 1934 film, was an actual light-skinned African American, who was noted for turning down a number of offers by Hollywood agents to pass for white and become a star. Although many African Americans were screen-tested for the corresponding Sarah Jane role in the 1959 remake, Susan Kohner, of Mexican and Czech Jewish descent, won the role. Karin Dicker, of Jewish descent, made her film debut as the young Sarah Jane in this film. Gospel singing star Mahalia Jackson received "presenting" billing for her one scene in the film, performing a soaring version of "Trouble of the World" at Annie's funeral service.
Lana Turner's wardrobe for Imitation of Life cost over $1.078 million, making it one of the most expensive in cinema history at that time.
Sirk's Imitation of Life premiered in New York City on April 17, 1959, and Universal put the film into general release on April 30. Though it was not well-reviewed upon its original release — many critics derided the film as a "soap opera" — Imitation of Life was the ninth most successful motion picture of 1959, grossing $6.4 million dollars. Imitation of Life was Universal-International's top-grossing film that year, and remained Universal's most successful film until the release of Airport in 1970.
Today, Imitation of Life has been re-evaluated by critics and is now held up as a masterpiece of Douglas Sirk's subversive directing style. Sirk provided the Annie–Sarah Jane relationship in his version with more screen time and more intensity than the original versions of the story, and critics later commented that Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner stole the film from Turner. Sirk later admitted that he had deliberately and subversively undercut Turner to draw focus towards the problems of the two black characters. Both Moore and Kohner were nominated for the 1960 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. While neither actress won the Oscar, Kohner won the Golden Globe award. Moore won second place in the category of Top Female Supporting Performance at the 1959 Laurel Awards, and the film itself won Top Drama. Douglas Sirk was nominated for the 1960 Directors Guild of America Award.
Imitation of Life later became a staple of both the American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies cable television networks. Both versions of the film were issued in 2003 on a double-sided DVD from Universal Home Entertainment; a two-disc set of the films was issued by Universal in 2008. Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven (2002) is an homage to Sirk's work, in particular All That Heaven Allows. The 1969 Diana Ross & the Supremes song "I'm Livin' in Shame" and the 2001 R.E.M. song "Imitation of Life" are based upon this film.
Imitation of Life is a 1959 film directed by Douglas Sirk, adapted from Fannie Hurst's novel Imitation of Life, produced by Universal as a vehicle for Lana Turner.